Free Mail

What do a soldier in Kandahar and a senator in Washington have in common? If you guessed Free Mail, you’re right. For politicians, it’s called franking privileges. The purpose is to let the folks back home know what they’ve been up to. For deployed troops it’s called, “Hey, It’s The Least We Can Do.” Well…that’s just what I call it. The official name may be different.

The best things in life are free

Free Mail from deployed troops

Getting Free Mail is a heartwarming surprise. The overwhelming amount of contact I have with troops is over email. Then there are many times where I don’t hear back (which is okay, I have no expectations.) But to open your mailbox and find something so thoughtful and from so far away? It’s like finding treasure. This past Friday I got a postcard from my Marine and it made my day. Well, since I’m still smiling now, it’s more than a day.

What technology can’t touch

A World War II vet told me how he’d have to wait months for any word from home. Skype beats that hands down. And if I had to handwrite this post to each of you individually, I’d have a carpal tunnel relapse for sure. But with all due respect to the internet, it is nice to hold an actual letter in your hands. When I get one, I’m excited and I wonder, is this a little bit of what mail call is like for our troops?

I’ve saved every letter service members have sent me. Many have told me they save all the mail they receive. Here is a small part of one soldier’s letter that I want to share with you for two reasons.

1. His handwriting is beautiful.

2. This is the only time I’ve EVER had to do research to respond. He wrote deeply and thoughtfully about freedom, American History, and quoted Thomas Paine. So I brushed up on a few things before I wrote back. The last time I covered this material was in junior high school.

This is the full Thomas Paine quote he included in his letter:

“These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives everything its value.”

Thomas Paine quote in soldier's letter

Reading that quote in a letter from a soldier in a combat zone gave those words an emotion and meaning that didn’t occur for me in junior high. I was very moved. Then very grateful that he gave me this moment. Amazing what you can get for free.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

How To Write To A Soldier

Troops say mail call is like, “Christmas morning.” But what do you write if you’re strangers? Many people have asked so I’m sharing a few tips and a simple structure that work for me. If you’ve never written before or just want some ideas, feel free to use anything here.

Tips

Be positive and encouraging. Remember, troops have the stress of being far from home and who knows what else may be going on. This is not the time to vent. That’s what BFFs and the pint-sized ice cream container were invented for.

The polite company rule – avoid religion and politics, is always a good first letter idea. Another is to simply be conversational and genuine. If your spouse, child, or other loved one were deployed, how would you want someone to talk to them? 

And, of course, safety first. That would be OPSEC/PERSEC. It stands for Operational Security and Personal Security. Don’t share their address and other info.

As for specifics, I’ve divided your first letter into four easy pieces: Dear_____, intro paragraph, wonderful middle, and sincere close.

Dear ___________

I follow the lead of whatever’s in the request or information I receive. If troops use their first name, so do I. If they use rank and last name, that’s how I fill in the blank. In some cases, you don’t have a name but a branch of the military. If it’s Army, then I write, Dear Soldier.

All troops are not Soldiers. Army = Soldier, Air Force = Airman, Navy = Sailor (Navy construction battalion, it’s Seabee) Marine Corps = Marine. Coast Guard I have heard referred to as Coast Guardsman and those stationed on ships as Sailors. If you don’t happen to have a name or branch, you can write Dear Servicemember.

Intro Paragraph

I introduce myself and why I’m writing. I also include the name of the charity I got their information from. In some cases, they may not be expecting my letter. That happens when others submit a troop who they feel needs a morale boost.

Example: Hi, my name is Gina, I’m a Soldiers’ Angel from NYC and I’m writing to thank you for your service. I have an awesome little girl named Sofia who says to tell you, “hi.” 

If I know anything about them, such as where they’re from, I’ll talk about it in the next line or two. Then I start setting up whatever story I’m going to share.

The Wonderful Middle

Here I write about home. After all, home and all the wonderful things in it, is what they miss most. In my case, it’s often a funny story involving Sofia. But other great topics include sports you watch or play, something special about your hometown, your amazing pet, a recent movie, concert, an event with friends- even if it’s just sitting around the fire pit under the stars telling jokes, hobbies, …whatever you care about.

I think what’s also helpful is if you can write it visually. A Vietnam Vet told me that when he received letters that they would transport him, even if for a short time, away from the horrible place he was. So whatever story I’m writing, I try to paint a picture to help them take a break from their current locale. For example, you can see how the fire pit sounds more interesting than the other items in the list above because you can “see it.”

I also try to include a question or two to give them something to respond to if they reply. Of course, not everyone has the time or ability (regular internet connection or outgoing mail) to write back. If you’ve just worked eight 16-hr days in a row, you may want to spend your day off getting some rest, trying to connect with family, or just zoning out in your bunk with movies and games.

Sincere Close

I wrap up by acknowledging this servicemember’s role in the wonderful things we get to enjoy. Example: I know the reason Sofia has the freedom to ______(whatever I just shared) in peace and safety is because of the hard work you and your fellow troops do every day. Thank you for all you do. 

Sometimes I’ll ask them to thank their family on my family’s behalf. Because I know they are sacrificing too. If I know there’s been a specific morale issue, I may assure them they are not forgotten. If I know there’s been loss of life or injuries, I’ll want them to know we are keeping them in our prayers. Then I include my email address to make replying easier.

Write right

There’s more than one right way to do this. I think if you let courtesy and kindness be your guide, you’ll do great. Our deployed troops really do appreciate any little thing. Including a stranger taking the time to remember those who fight to defend their freedoms.

Update on a note Sofia sent that follows none of these tips…lol (although, this wasn’t her first letter to our Marine.) He deployed again and took her advice! Two of his Marines did a very good job and he told Sofia to imagine them in a combat zone with smiley face stickers on their uniforms. He said, “that should bring a smile to your face.” It most certainly did!

(name blurred for privacy)

© Gina left the mall, 2013

How To Stretch $16.46 Across The World

I believe every kind act has a ripple effect, the power to resonate. So last week I spent $16.46 to try use my “power” to help nine strangers in some far-off places. I’m not sure what will happen, but I have learned that anything’s possible.

When it’s not just “coffee”

If you’ve been here before, you know I send coffee and notes to the troops through Cup of Joe (COJ). I’ve had troops write me back and say, “I read this to my guys and we all had a good laugh. Thank you!” I love when I get those emails because knowing I made a few people smile in a combat zone, makes me smile.

I’ve stayed in touch with some of the COJ troops I’ve “met” this way. One ripple effect is that they’ve helped increase my understanding, which I’ve then shared here. The post about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is one of many examples. Anyone who has read them and learned something or been inspired only further increases the “ripple.”

I’ve had family members tell me how much it means to them that strangers took a little time out of their day to think of their deployed loved one. As a mom, I try to imagine how I’d feel if my child were far away and I couldn’t do anything to protect them. Granted, my kid is in elementary school, and I am a total mush to begin with. But I think seeing that someone else cares and knowing that your child is not forgotten, has power.

Some people ask me what I write to the troops. Well, anything that pops in my head at the moment. A lot of times, I “steal” ideas from my daughter. This time I wrote:

Dear Soldier,

Yesterday someone asked my daughter what she wanted to be when she grows up. She said, “world-famous swimmer.” They asked, “Olympics?”  She said, “No. Mermaid.”  Her back-up plans are, “world-famous rock climber,” or “fashion designer.”  I’m not sure what will happen in the future, but I do know that I’m grateful she has the freedom to follow her dreams. Thank you for helping to safeguard that freedom. Thank you for all you do. Sincerely, Gina

Below is the first reply I received back.

COJ reply. Name blurred for privacy.

COJ reply. Name blurred for privacy.

I bought 8 troops coffee @ $2 each so that’s $16.00.

Helping an “Angel”

I read a posting from a Soldiers’ Angel that the soldier she adopted was going through a stressful time. She wanted to send him a box with as many encouraging or light-hearted letters as possible. I said I’d be happy to help.

While I’ve become very good friends with a few troops, many times I don’t hear back. And that’s fine. I don’t do this expecting anything in return. But after I write a letter, I like to imagine its journey. In this case, I saw my fellow “angel” heading to her mailbox, getting letters from all over the country. I saw her being delighted with the support and happily filling that box. Then I imagined a soldier hearing his name at mail call and opening letter after letter….different postmarks….different stories…with my voice one among many and all with the same purpose: to make him feel cared for. My part in this cost 46¢ for a stamp.

Use your power

If you haven’t already done so this week, I invite you to use your power of kindness to help a stranger. There are a lot of little opportunities all around us. Of course, if you need ideas, I’ve got a few suggestions including those in this post. But no matter what kind act you do, be prepared for it to ripple back. It seems doing things for others has a way of touching our own hearts. What would the world be like with more kindness on a regular basis? Be nice to find out.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Aloha Kandahar

I had a soldier in Kandahar whose job was to clear roads of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices.) I decided that soldier needed a luau.

His base in Kandahar

His base in Kandahar

They already have sand…

When it comes to care packages, troops appreciate anything. While there are staples and standard items, doing themes is fun for both the sender and sendee. I figured since this soldier already had plenty of sand, I would give him a “luau” in a box.

LUAU care package

Luau care package part 2

It’s hard to tell from the picture but, those are TROPICAL flavored Tums and the small brown bag is Kona coffee. I got some cigars and made a cigar box out of a small USPS flat-rate box so they wouldn’t get smushed.

A real luau is a large feast not a hearty snack. However, it is where you gather with friends, wear bright colors and relax. I was hoping my version might make him smile after a long day. Since troops often share what they receive with their buddies, I knew the cigar break would be appreciated and help reduce stress a little.  With or without wearing leis.

Other essential items

Even when I send hygiene items, I’ll still toss in something fun. You never know when a game of dodgeball may break out. It’s good to be prepared.

care package- toys

When my friend Abby found out about the fun-factor she wanted to help think of ideas. I was about to send something to my solider based in the mountains and hadn’t come up with anything yet, so I accepted her help.

ABBY EXCITEDLY:  I know! I know!  How about a kite?

ME:  So… a bright, red, diamond-shape in the sky that can be seen for miles attached to a string that leads directly to his position on the ground?

ABBY:  Oh, that wouldn’t be good. What about a canteen?

ME: I have a feeling the Army gives them canteens. The Army may have even invented canteens.

Abby and I had a good laugh as we decided she should help in other ways. Imagine a kite in these mountains near his base.

Mountains near my adopted soldier's base in Afghanistan

Afghanistan

A different box

Of course, there’s more than one kind of box you can fill that makes a difference. That would be a mailbox because a simple letter or postcard can mean a great deal.

One thing I like about Soldiers’ Angels is the opportunity to help other members with their projects. Last week, an “angel” put the word out that her adopted soldier, a female combat medic, and her entire unit (50 soldiers) were having some tough days. The angel wanted to send them a care package filled with encouraging letters and postcards from all across the country. It only took a few minutes to write a letter and postcard. It only cost two stamps and the price of the postcard.

letters to the troops

While the luau box was fun, I love that I can make an impact by doing something small too. Because if there’s one place in the world where little things mean a lot, it’s wherever our troops are far from home.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Fort Hood & Angels Armed With Pens

I never heard of Fort Hood until the day of the shooting. My friend Andy called and said, “My nephew is there.” I had recently started doing volunteer work for troops and I thought maybe I could do…something. Anything.

What happened at Fort Hood?

On November 5, 2009, a lone gunman went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, an Army base in Texas. He killed 13 people and wounded 32 others. The accused is U.S. Army Major Nidal Hassan. His legal issues have been in the news recently.

Before their first deployment

My friend’s nephew “TM” was in a unit that was about to deploy for the first time. Their mission would be to find and clear roadside bombs in Kandahar. But his unit hadn’t even left Texas yet and they had casualties. One of TM’s buddies worked closely with some of the soldiers killed and felt the loss even more.

Maybe I could get a little support going for that one soldier, a few caring letters. TM thought that was a good idea. I’d said I’d try.

Just a few months earlier I had adopted a soldier. When I saw I was really making a difference for him, I wanted to do more. Two adoptions would be too much for me. But I found that Soldiers’ Angels (SA) had all kinds of programs (as well as adoption.) I started doing Wounded Warrior TLC – letters to the wounded in hospitals so they know they are not forgotten. I asked the TLC team leader if we could get a few people to write to TM’s buddy. She said she would do it and ask some of her most experienced Angels to join her.

Hung up 

At first, TM’s buddy was surprised to hear from strangers. But then he was moved and hung up the letters for others to see. I was asked if SA could help the entire battalion.

SA is almost all volunteers. They get lots of worthy requests so I wasn’t sure if I could make this one happen too. They were already doing projects at Fort Hood for the victims’ families and the wounded. And I was new at this and a little shy to ask for more help. But I did ask. SA put my request out and the letters starting pouring in from all over the country.

Barb has a heart as big as Texas

One Angel that responded, Barb, got large groups of people to write. She also wanted to help this battalion when they deployed. She wrote to TM about being a Point Of Contact.   Neither of us knew what that meant exactly. Barb explained:

“His job as a POC is to take up everyone on their offers, open the boxes, share with everyone and send an e-mail to the person sending the box to let them know it arrived. Just a very short message is okay. He will also need to inform us if anyone needs a morale boost. Things that might be in short supply and I need to know what his favorite junk food is! Inform us or you if someone is not getting mail. He really should put the whole unit up for adoption through SA as soon as he has addresses for the unit.  Wing tip to wing tip we will get er done!”

Wow. So this went from a few letters for one soldier, to a battalion, to caring about a battalion for their upcoming deployment. This is more than me or TM ever expected. POC is also more than TM could do in his particular job.  Luckily another soldier could take that on. Meanwhile, as the mail continued to arrive in Texas, TM wrote:

“The letters have been coming in fast and numerous. I actually just picked up a box filled with letters from Barb. The support is absolutely amazing!! The (unit name) greatly appreciates all the love you and Soldiers’ Angels have shown!”

Armed with a pen

Do I think a simple letter can make everything okay? No. But I think it can connect two people, even if just for a few moments. With absolute certainty, care is given and received. I think both hearts are just a little better for it. It’s also something I can do. If I had superhero skills or if I could bake (yes those are on the same level for me) I might take action in those ways. But doing something…anything, feels better than not. Whatever your skill or interest is.  Of course it also helps to have a few Angels on your side.

© Gina left the mall, 2012