Beauty Is Who You Are

I had never heard of Aaron Mankin when they handed him the microphone. He only spoke for a few minutes, but I was inspired to learn more. I found out he was a wounded Marine, his opinion on beauty, and the amazing story behind it.

Aaron Mankin

Cpl. Aaron Mankin addressing IAVA marchers before the NYC Veterans Day Parade 11.11.13

What I heard him say

I was standing with IAVA (Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America) marchers this past Veterans Day in NYC as they waited to join the parade on 5th Avenue. Aaron Mankin was introduced as a leading voice of this generation of veterans. Since November 11th is about expressing gratitude, he spoke of that.

He said that when people would come up and thank him, he always felt awkward and uncomfortable. “What do I say? Hey…you’re welcome!” The semi-cheesy way he delivered the line “you’re welcome” made everyone laugh. He said that after a while he realized what his response should be. “What do I say now? Thank you for your support. Because all this…right here with each other, in our hometowns…all across the country, if we have this, we have all we need.”

As I stood in the cold, I found the warmth of his words uplifting and comforting. I loved his sense of humor. And I feel strongly that supporting each other, even with the smallest kindness, has tremendous power. So I was looking forward to finding out who he is and why he was a “leading voice.”

Marine Corporal Aaron P. Mankin

“On May 11th, 2005, Cpl. Mankin was wounded when the 26-ton amphibious assault vehicle he was traveling in rolled over an improvised explosive device and was propelled 10 feet in the air.

Four Marines died in the attack and 11 others were injured. In addition to the damage sustained to his throat and lungs from smoke inhalation, Cpl. Mankin suffered intense burns on over 25 percent of his body. His ears, nose and mouth were essentially gone and he lost two fingers on his right hand.”

This is the information about Cpl. Mankin at Operation Mend. He was their first patient two years after the attack. Operation Mend is a program at UCLA Medical Center where top plastic surgeons and reconstructive surgeons donate the their time and talents to vets with severe facial injuries and other medical issues.

After almost nine years, he’s had over 60 surgeries. When I found images of when he first got hurt, I was absolutely shocked. I did not recognize the man I saw speaking that day. I have to admit that looking at them made my eyes fill with tears. I’m not sure what surgery # the photos below are, but even the “before” photos are incredible progress. I am so grateful for Operation Mend and the work they do.

Part of the journey for Cpl. Mankin. (photo credit: UCLA Health and UCLA Operation Mend)

Part of the journey. for Cpl. Mankin. (photo credit: UCLA Health and UCLA Operation Mend)

Through it all Cpl. Mankin has continued to serve by helping other injured veterans to heal, to be a voice for them, and to inspire everyone around him to find their own ways to serve. He also helps spread the word about Operation Mend.

If you know of a veteran that could be helped by Operation Mend, please tell them about this organization. If you live in the LA area, you have the opportunity to be a Buddy Family. This program helps patients and their families spend some time beyond the hospital and hotel walls by joining host families for a home-cooked meal or an activity. If you wish to make a donation, you can do so at their site as well.

A beautiful truth

Cpl. Mankin actively avoided the mirror in this hospital room. When he finally did look, he didn’t recognize the man staring back and he says plainly, “I cried for a long time.” But then he made a choice. He said he didn’t want a stranger who dug a hole and planted a bomb to dictate who he was. He was still the same man inside. And that man chose to continue giving and serving with courage, kindness, and humor. He doesn’t avoid the mirror now. Because, “beauty is who you are, not how you look.”

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Finding My Place In The Healing Process

Jessica Allen was at her desk working when she got the call. It was January 22, 2011 and the voice on the other end was telling her what happened to her husband Chaz. While on a dismounted patrol in the Zhari district of Afghanistan, he stepped on an IED, instantly lost both legs and broke his elbow. Nothing would be the same.

The Allen Family at Ground Zero.

The Allen Family at Ground Zero. (photo credit, Team Allen)

When I hear about something like this, my heart aches and then I hope and pray the family does well in their recovery. That’s generally the extent of it. I mean, I’ve never met them in person. I don’t live in their town. I’m not a doctor. I can’t build them a wheelchair-friendly house. I don’t have a place in the healing process. Or do I?

The movie and more

When I found out about the documentary Comedy Warriors, (famous comics teach wounded warriors how to do stand-up to help them heal) I thought that was something special. I wrote about it. Jessica saw the post and emailed me. She said in part, “I wish you could meet all the Heroes I have been blessed to meet. They are so inspiring…. Rob Jones, the double amputee featured in the film, was at Walter Reed when my husband was. We were able to see him run for the first time.” Jessica also shared the links below about her family:

www.facebook.com/GoTeamAllen

AdventuresOfTeamAllen

I’ve been following along since July and I’ve learned a few things. I’ve seen Jessica and crew cheering Chaz and others on. I’ve seen an, “off-road” wheelchair that looks pretty amazing. I’ve read some of the hard parts too in her blog. Then there’s a whole separate category of stuff I just never thought of, like body temperature. You lose both your legs, that’s a lot of biological real estate. Your body is used to maintaining 98.7 for a bigger area. It takes years to adjust. In the meantime, Chaz feels like he’s burning up.

I found it inspiring that Jessica did more than just try to heal her own husband and family. She tries to help as many families as she can through her work at Yellow Ribbon Fund (YRF.) So after reading, learning, and cheering them on, I wanted to know more.

My questions

ME: What 3 things do you wish people knew or understood?

JESSICA:

-Just because someone is missing limbs, they are still quiet capable of living a great life. Do not pity them for what they’ve lost. Instead celebrate them for what they have overcome.

-Caregivers are the silent heroes of our war. They sacrifice so much and so often go unnoticed.

-There is so much left to be done. It takes a nation to heal a hero. We must find our place in the healing process and help them heal.

ME: What is your biggest challenge now?

JESSICA: Balancing everything. I work full-time for YRF. YRF alone is a lot. We help so many people. As soon as one project is complete we are hopping to the next one. In addition, I still run my tax business. We homeschool our girls. I am a Girl Scout leader. And I still try to volunteer where ever I can. It’s a lot to juggle.

ME: What is the best thing to come out of this?

JESSICA: We are finally a family. Chaz missed our oldest daughter being born. Then he was gone for over half of her life. She never really had a chance to get to know him and threw up walls every time he came around. Our youngest daughter accepted him from the beginning. But the oldest was just a little different. Now we are together all the time. We have truly been able to get to know each other. We have had more fun that I ever knew you could have. We’ve gone on so many adventures together. The gift of time together has just been amazing!

Chaz playing with the girls in the park.

Chaz playing with the girls in the park. (photo credit, Team Allen)

Team Allen reaching the top

Reaching the top! (photo credit, Team Allen)

My place

Jessica’s response about all of us healing a hero struck me. I never thought of having a place in this process. So I tried to imagine what that could be.

I believe strongly that awareness and empathy matter. No one wants to feel misunderstood or alone. For our wounded warriors and families, this is especially true. So maybe I could try to help increase that kind of healing by sharing their story. Maybe this is the place I could serve.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Tell My Soldier

I have a friend whose fiancé was deploying to somewhere near Syria. Then his orders were put on hold. Then they told him he was leaving in a few weeks. The other day that got changed to 24 hours and now he’s gone. I am trying to imagine putting my heart through the emotional gymnastics my friend just had to. Uncertainty is part of life for our military families.

Two months ago I told you about my “snail-tweeting” project for my very first soldier, Sergeant K, who was deploying again. I planned to mail him one tweet a day on a postcard, every single day for the duration of his deployment. His expected departure date has changed a few times. Luckily, his uncertainty led to more time at home. However, the latest update looks firm and I am ramping up now so I’m ready.

Sgt. K’s wife told me that mail delivery is supposed to be terrible where he is headed. I replied, “Challenge accepted!” I think one of the upsides to the snail-tweet project is the quantity. I figure the more mail I send, the more chances I have of getting through.

Your chance

If there’s anything you wish you could say to one of our troops, here’s your chance to tell my soldier. Leave your “snail-tweet” in the comments or email me and I’ll write it on a postcard with your name and mail it to him. It should be:

1. Short. Think one sentence or two short ones. Or even just a few words.

2. No politics please. I’d add, “be nice” but, if you’re doing this, you’re already pretty nice.

3. Include how I should sign your name. Something like, “Linda from California.” Or whatever fabulous alias you have.

If you’d rather email me, the address is: gina@ginaleftthemall.com

Meet Sgt. K

It’s not always easy to write to a stranger. So here are a few things about Sgt. K to help you get to know him.

-His favorite sport is hockey. His favorite team is the Phoenix Coyotes. Any attempt to make him a New York Ranger fan is futile (trust me on this.)

-He loves dogs.

-He missed the birth of his first child by two weeks because he was deployed. He was there when his second child was born. He and his wife are expecting again and he hopes to come home on leave for this birth.

-He’s funny.

-His wife is awesome.

-They’re one of those couples that are great to be around because they love and like one another. They were high school sweethearts and have been together ever since.

-After reading this blog, his mother-in-law was inspired to adopt a soldier.

-He loves cigars and canned ravioli. Not necessarily together.

-This soldier and his wife are the reason I was inspired to do more after I adopted him. Doing more led to everything I learned in the Ways To Make A Difference page and eventually starting this blog.

Beyond me

Below are the postcards I’ve picked up so far to send. I originally planned to do this myself and maybe ask for help once in a while. But then I thought about what it would feel like for him. What if he could see that the care went beyond me? I think that would be very special. In fact, I’m certain of it.

Postcards to "snail-tweet" my soldier

Ready to “snail-tweet.”

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Today Is One Year

Happy 1st AnniversaryI couldn’t help but notice. Whenever I shared stories about “my” troops, people would suddenly feel connected to them too. Some would ask how about ways they could get involved. If I was talking to someone in the military, the stories touched their heart. So I decided to start blogging to see if I could help these good things happen more often.

It’s now one year later and I’m humbled and honored by the response of my amazing readers. I’m thrilled that many have been inspired to take action. Here are just a few examples:

-Thanks to readers, an Air Force family got help from Peyton Manning in a special way after the tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma. Folks reached out, shared their story, sent supportive messages…the family felt comforted even before they knew Peyton would get involved.

-Wendy from the blog The Monday Box (care packages of home-baked love) was inspired to create some “desert-safe” recipes specially taste-tested to survive the rigors of shipping to a combat zone. Now she’s a valued resource for those wanting to send “home baked love” to the troops (or any bakers wanting travel-friendly recipes.)

-Dayna is a Veteran who is spending her civilian life having as many travel adventures as possible (35 countries and counting) She shares them on her blog Where In The World Is Dayna. Reading a post here made Dayna remember how much letters and care packages meant to her when she was deployed. So she adopted two soldiers.

-Another reader is a caregiver to a family member. Her situation is isolating and challenging. This reader was inspired to adopt some soldiers and use her love of writing to lift others up. She wound up lifting her own spirits as well.

-Natalie from the blog Mother Goose, was inspired to “do more.” So she turned her volunteer work, hand-making Blue Star Family banners, into a charity. She hopes to help more of these families connect and feel supported in their communities. She knows how important this is because she has two sons in the Navy.

-Many readers have told me they were sending coffee through Cup of Joe or adopting troops through Soldiers’ Angels or Adopt A U.S. Soldier or participating with the other charities listed in the Ways To Make A Difference page.

Then there are the comments and emails. I appreciate every note and the emails have been especially moving. Civilians have shared what volunteering has meant to them. Troops and families have said they feel like they have a voice here and how much it means to know that they are not alone. I should know by now to have tissues ready when I open my blog inbox.

Thanks and…

Thank you for coming here. For caring and for every kindness shared. Thank you for all you do. I’m also grateful for my “advisors,” both civilian and military who I bug with questions, bounce ideas, and receive invaluable feedback from (often on very short notice.) And thanks to all the wonderful and experienced bloggers who have encouraged and taught me along the way.

After my initial “hello” post, I wrote about the random event that started this journey. It’s called A Sailor Wrecks My Indifference. One year later, the last line in that post has taken on even more meaning.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

 

Don’t Forget Snowballs For Memorial Day

Burgers, beer, sunscreen…on Memorial Day Weekend there’s shopping to do, beaches to umbrella and pools to cannonball. Even so, I’d like to suggest one more thing to the list: snowballs. Specifically, Snowball Express, a charity that serves the children of men and women who died serving our country. Since Memorial Day is meant to honor these men and women, doing something for their loved ones seems like a fine idea.

A Snowball’s chance

Snowball Express, “creates hope and new memories” for children of the fallen by organizing special events for them. It’s a chance for these kids to have fun and be with other kids in the same situation. Also, the families get to see that they are not forgotten or alone. Past events include baseball games, magic shows, and concerts.

Now you know

The number of people in active duty is small, about 1% of the population. So not everyone in the other 99% knows someone in the military. Sometimes, the meaning of Memorial Day can feel far away, like a history lesson instead of both our collective past and present. If that’s the case, I’d like you to know someone this day is for, Pfc Jesse Givens. I found his last letter to his family on the Snowball Express site. It inspired them even further in their work. It brought me to tears. (Reader note- if you have a loved one who is deployed right now, I’d skip to the next section.)

22-April-03

My family:

I never thought I would be writing a letter like this, I really don’t know where to start. I’ve been getting bad feelings though and well if you are reading this….

I am forever in debt to you, Dakota, and the bean. I searched all my life for a dream and I found it in you. I would like to think that I made a positive difference in your lives. I will never be able to make up for the bad. I am so sorry. The happiest moments in my life all deal with my little family. I will always have with me the small moments we all shared. The moments when you quit taking life so serious and smiled. The sounds of a beautiful boy’s laughter or the simple nudge of a baby unborn. You will never know how complete you have made me. Each and every one of you. You saved me from lonliness and taught me how to think beyond myself. You taught me how to live and to love. You opened my eyes to a world I never dreamed existed. I am proud of you. Stay on the path you chose. Never lose sight of what is important, you and our babies.

Dakota you are more son then I could ever ask for. I can only hope I was half the dad. I use to be your “danny” but no matter what it makes me proud that you chose me. You taught me how to care until it hurts, you taught me how to smile again. You taught me that life isn’t so serious and sometimes you have to play. You have a big beautiful heart. Through life you need to keep it open and follow it. Never be afraid to be yourself. I will always be there in our park when you dream so we can still play. I hope someday you will have a son like mine. Make them smile and shine just like you. I love you Toad I hope someday you will understand why I didn’t come home. Please be proud of me. Please don’t stop loving life. Take in every breath like it’s your first. I love you toad I will always be there with you. I’ll be in the sun, shadows, dreams, and joys of your life.

Bean, I never got to see you but I know in my heart you are beautiful. I know you will be strong and big hearted just like your mom and brother. I will always have with me the feel of the soft nudges on your moms belly, and the joy I felt when we found out you were on your way. I dream of you every night, I always will. Don’t ever think that since I wasn’t around that I didn’t love you. You were conceived of love and I came to this terrible place for love. I love you as I do your mom and brother with all my heart and soul. Please understand that I had to be gone so that I could take care of my family. I love you Bean.

I have never been so blessed as the day I met Melissa. You are my angel, soulmate, wife, lover, and best friend. I am sorry. I did not want to have to write this letter. There is so much more I need to say, so much more I need to share. A lifetime’s worth. I married you for a million lifetimes. That’s how long I will be with you. Please keep our babies safe. Please find it in your heart to forgive me for leaving you alone. Take care of yourself, believe in yourself, you are a strong, big hearted woman. Teach our babies to live life to its fullest tell yourself to do the same. Don’t forget to take Toad to Disney World. I will be there with you. Melissa I will always want you need you and love you in my heart, mind, and soul. Do me a favor, after you tuck Toad and Bean in, give them hugs and kisses from me. Go outside look at the stars and count them. Don’t forget to smile.

Love Always
Your husband
Jess

A Memorable Weekend

Here’s to making wonderful new memories this weekend and honoring some old ones. And I don’t know about you, but I’ll be having a Snowball with my burger.

Blue Sky

photo courtesy of Tinyspitcracker

© Gina left the mall, 2013

A Few Good Moms

There are more amazing moms out there than you can shake a stick at (but don’t run with that stick or you’ll poke an eye out!) With Mother’s Day coming up, I wanted to introduce just a few of the incredible military moms and spouses that have touched my life. Also, I hope you don’t mind, but I wanted your help surprising my mom.

Surprise

A few weeks ago, I was asked to participate in a project about moms. You had to make a self-recorded video talking about a mom who inspired you and one attribute from a list. I chose my mom and “strength.” She doesn’t know I did this. Or that it was shown at an event. Or that I’m sharing it here. Regular readers of this blog know that I don’t usually focus on me. And that I’m a little camera-shy. So this is sure to be a surprise.

Military Moms

About 1% of the country is active duty and if you add all vets, that number gets up to around 6%. With such a small population, you may not know a military mom or spouse. So allow me to introduce some of the incredible women I’ve met:

Mrs. K– Her first child was born after her husband deployed and she handled that whole first year solo. Now she has two kids and soon must prepare them for his upcoming deployment. When I first met her is when I realized that families serve too. I wrote a post about her.

Dee– Her husband was a Marine that served in Vietnam and 3 of her 3 sons have served in the military: Marines, Navy, Air Force, and one is still serving. She never sleeps soundly when they’re gone. She prays daily for all in harm’s way, not just her own.

Ginger– Both of her daughters wound up marrying soldiers. She didn’t raise her hand to serve but you can bet she’s done her share of worrying and making care packages. Oh, and flying to wherever in the world she had to in order to meet new grandchildren.

Jenn– Her huband has PTSD. He told me that after a rough period, he begged her to leave him, just take the kids and go have a better life without him. She said no. That she loved him and couldn’t imagine being without him. He also said, “no offense to anyone else…lol, but I think I have the most wonderful wife in the world.”

Other Jenn–  I was delayed at the airport for hours along with Jenn and her daughter. We started as strangers and left as friends. Jenn has a lightness about her and an awesome sense of humor. I think her ability to laugh at what is absurd or even herself is helpful in all kinds of stressful situations, such as her husband’s many deployments.

“Mrs. Noba”– Like a few people on this list, we’ve never met in person. She’s a fellow blogger that writes about many topics including having a child with autism and, at times, her life as a military spouse. What I love is her fearless spirit, sometimes dark humor and honesty.

Abigail– Combat Medic and mother of 3, she is one of thousands of moms who serve in the military. When I was missing my daughter for a few days, I got a “perspective check” when I received her letter. She would not see her children for a year.

Denise– An Air Force Mom who volunteers at the USO and cares for all troops the way she hopes someone would treat her own son…counting on the sisterhood of motherhood. I wrote a post about her.

Gold Star Moms– I met one at the USO when I was with Denise. The name refers to a mom who has lost a child in service to our country. I’m not sure what the right words are when a mom’s worst fear has come true. I remember one year at a Veterans parade when the Gold Star Moms went by, one of them said back to the crowd, “No, thank YOU for not forgetting.” My way of not forgetting this Mother’s Day was to donate to their organization.

Snowball express– This charity helps “create hope and new memories for children of our fallen military heroes.” They do special things for these kids and their surviving parent. So I sent them something too. Giving to charity is not part of my normal Mother’s Day “shopping,” but maybe it should be.

Sandra Beck and Robin Boyd– two moms and hosts of Military Mom Talk Radio. They devote their time to finding programs and sharing ideas that help military families. I met them when they interviewed me. I love how they support anyone who has a good idea that can help. If you know of something that makes a difference, please reach out to them.

Thanks Moms

To all the women who can make another human being feel loved and give them the certainty that they are worthy of being loved…and all our military moms and spouses who do this during difficult times and long seperations, I give you my heartfelt thanks. On Mother’s Day and every day.

flower's for Mother's Day

Photo courtesy of Tinyspitcracker

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Air Force Mom. Mission Of Love.

When my son went in, it was before 9/11. All this wasn’t going on. Back then it was almost like he had an everyday job. There wasn’t this heightened sense….like I had to do something. That changed.

Denise is an Air Force Mom and USO volunteer at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. With all the love in her heart, she helps troops and families. She helped me too when what I saw at the USO that day drove me to tears.

He grew up right before my eyes

I asked Denise to tell me a little about her son.

We were together on 9/11 in London. He was there on leave. His friends met us and we were deciding where to go next. Maybe Buckingham Palace…they were just kids being tourists. We sat down at a restaurant and when the waiter heard our accents he mentioned a plane hit the tower. We assumed it was an accident. The TV was on. When the second plane hit, we knew. 

I looked at my son and right before my eyes, he changed from my baby to that Airman, that highly trained person. You don’t see your child as that person. Before my eyes, he grew into a man 10 feet tall and strong and very protective. The phones started ringing like crazy and they had to get back to base. The media were waiting when we got off the train near the base. They wanted to talk to Americans. He walked in front of me to protect me, got me to my hotel and said, ‘Mom I’ll see you later.”

"This is what everyone else sees when they look at my son."

“This is what everyone else sees when they look at my son.”

"This is what I see when I look at my son."

“This is what I see when I look at my son.”

Banking love

I look at these troops and think, this is another woman’s child. So I treat them like my own. I say, “you tell your mom there was a mom here who made you fill up your pockets with sandwiches and snacks and took care of you.”

I tell my son I put something in the bank for him to withdraw when he needs it. Because when my son is somewhere in the world, maybe at a USO, I hope that there’ll be a mom there with a smile or sandwich or whatever he needs at that moment. Someone to give him the same kind of love that I give to those that I meet here. 

Three of many

I asked about some of the people she’s met. Here are three of many.

1.The young wife who was travelling overseas with pets. She had all kinds of crates that didn’t meet airline standards and was crying because if she missed the flight, she might not see her husband before he left for training.

What I did was reassure her that she was part of a big family. If she couldn’t get to him in time, someone would be there to meet her…another wife, another soldier …someone would be there for her. You’re part of a big family now. No matter what branch. No matter where.

2. Around the holidays, the USO is very busy. A soldier Denise was talking to was amazed that they all volunteered to be there, at how much they were doing and that they were open 24/7.

Finally I asked him, didn’t you volunteer for the Army? He looked me in my eyes, and said, ‘yes I did.’  I said, me volunteering here is my way of thanking you and those that serve with you. 

3. A family of six came through. The mom was pregnant and had a toddler in a stroller. Just the mom and toddler were headed to Phoenix to visit her sick mother.

We fed them and made them comfortable. Then I said, “let’s get you juice boxes and some snacks for the flight.” The mom started crying. She said she only had $5. That’s all she had in her wallet and there was a layover too. When we heard that, we really packed it in. Gave her all she could take.

The gold star

The were a few other people at the USO the day I spoke with Denise. The women at the table behind me looked exhausted. I assumed they had some terrible travel delays. Nearby was a volunteer named Julie. We started chatting. “I’m a Gold Star Mother, do you know what that means?” My heart dropped. I knew it meant her son or daughter died while serving this country. Julie said she was there to help the family behind me. To help them get through the airport and whatever else they needed as they “brought him home.” My heart dropped even further.

A few minutes later it was time for me to catch my flight. I had made small talk earlier with one of the women behind me. Now that I knew what this family was going through, I didn’t want to just leave. I wanted to tell them how very sorry I was for their loss. I got as far as “I’m so…” before I choked up and started to cry. Trembling, I couldn’t get the words out. Their eyes filled with tears and they nodded. I nodded back and walked away, afraid I was going to just lose it. I felt Denise’s hand on my shoulder. I had to keep walking. When I got home, there was an email from Denise.

Just wanted to check in with you…I know how you feel. My first two shifts at the USO involved families receiving the body of their loved ones KIA. It leaves a mark deep within. As volunteers we fill many roles, by far comforting a family in this situation is the most challenging…I’m here if you need to talk.

One thing

I asked Denise what was the one thing she wished everyone knew.

When they look into the face of our service people, that they would just remember, that’s somebody child or husband or wife. That every day they sacrifice something, a big portion of their lives…time with their family… so you can be free to do the things you want. 

I wish they could remember this about our service people.  And to just give them the respect and support and love that they deserve. 

© Gina left the mall, 2013