Coffee Can’t Cure Everything

When someone asks me about sending troops coffee, care packages, or letters, I share ideas that have worked or went horribly awry and should be avoided at all costs. Either way, I’m helping. When I’m asked to support troops in areas I’m not so familiar with, I do my best to refer the person to organizations, blogs, or anyone I think may help with forward motion. However, sometimes I get a question that’s just beyond my caffeinated or handwritten powers.

Catch-22

A young woman reached out to me. Her friend is in the reserves and their unit is being treated unfairly. Note that I do not identify the branch of service. Also note that “treated unfairly” is an incredible understatement and purposefully vague. Why? Because revealing details would be the opposite of help. (A) The troops love their unit and don’t want to publicly trash it (B) higher-ups would not take kindly to this and (C) “repercussions” are a reality on some level and why go there and make things worse?

So my first suggestion of, “write to a congressman” went out the window once the ABC’s were explained to me. Undaunted, I asked her, “who speaks for the reserves?” I wondered if there were some high-level person that was an advocate for these men and women. Maybe we could write to this person privately. She could not find anyone. Next thought: maybe fellow troops could advise. Let’s write a letter to Stars & Stripes describing the problem (without identifying the unit) and ask how current reservists or vets would handle the issue.

But describing details would help identify the unit plus make the young woman feel that she was betraying her friend’s confidences. I pointed out the conundrum:

How can anyone help if you don’t tell them what’s wrong? Even if we assume good faith, like it’s a bureaucratic red tape issue and not something purposefully or willfully wrong, there’s no way to find a solution without stating the problem. You can’t reach out to the Dept of Defense and say, “Something, somewhere, is amiss. Please look into it. That is all.” With no information, you’re not even giving someone the chance to resolve the issue.

A smaller cure

When I initially spoke to the young woman her voice was trembling because she was so upset. As I came to understand the situation, I became hurt and angry on behalf of these troops as well. So when I ran out of ideas, I apologized. I felt bad that I could not think of one viable way to fix things.

She surprised me by saying I did help. Because I tried, I cared, and I gave her the opportunity to vent, she felt a little better. I’m sure in a much bigger way, she gave the same kind of help to her friend.

So while coffee or the other small gestures are not a cure, they can do one thing—assure someone in a tough spot that they are not alone. Sometimes all you can do is help someone get through one moment to the next. Sometimes, that’s everything.

coffee cup with bandaid

© Gina left the mall, 2014

Do You Know Peyton Manning?

I got that question and these pictures from Jenn, an Air Force wife, trying to help her friends who lost everything in the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. I asked her to explain.

Peyton Manning autograph in post-tornado rubble

A favorite picture found in the rubble of the Brown home.

The Brown Family home. Mom, Dad and son were here during the tornado.

The Brown Family home. Mom, Dad and son were here during the tornado.

The Brown Family

Jenn met the Browns when they were all stationed in Alaska. Robin Brown and Jenn were both teachers’ aids in the same school. Jenn’s husband and Steve Brown were both Airmen and the kids were friends too. In every branch of service, there’s a lot of moving. People come in and out of your life all the time. But because military life is so all-encompassing, the friends you make become family and stay that way despite time or distance. In civilian life, you may or may not feel this way about former co-workers and neighbors.

When the tornado hit, Steve, Robin and their son Caleb were in a shelter below their home. Their daughter Megan was a few blocks away and took shelter there. Other family members were horrified as they watched weather updates and saw the tornado heading towards the Brown’s street. With raging winds ripping apart their home beam from beam above them, Robin had doubts that they would survive. Steve did his best to be reassuring. They all prayed.

After the tornado passed, they realized they were trapped in the shelter. They smelled gas and it became more and more difficult to breathe. Caleb was able to get a text out that they were alive and needed help. Megan ran past block after decimated block to find her own home reduced to rubble, but at least she knew her family was alive. It took 45 minutes to dig the Browns out. Those minutes felt longer. But the entire family felt lucky and grateful to still have each other.

“I feel helpless”

If Jenn lived nearby, she and her family would help clear rubble. And cook food. And take them in. And do anything they needed. The fact that she can’t do these things makes her feel helpless. “I know they’re strong people, but they’ve already been through so much with Robin’s stroke and all. I wish I could do something for them.”

Then Jenn found out about the, “buried treasure.” Amazingly, as the Browns searched through the rubble, Steve found that a few precious items had survived. He found a bible that his grandmother had given him. He found his Air Force shadow box, a gift he had received when he retired after 20 years of service. And he found something else that meant a great deal to him, an autographed picture of Peyton Manning that he had bought at charity event at an OKC Thunder game. The picture was beat up, but at least it wasn’t completely gone. To Jenn, she had found something that she could DO. She could try to get that one special thing, “back to normal.”

When you have nothing left, recovering a special item touches and strengthens your heart in a tremendous way. It’s something to hold onto as you begin the long process of rebuilding your life.

Do you know…

I do not know Peyton Manning. I asked a friend in advertising who used to work on a major beer account (I figured beer…NFL.) but he didn’t have a connection. Linked In says Manning is out of my network (no surprise.) Another friend of Jenn’s had already sent a message to Manning’s website and thus far, there has been no response. So I figured I’d write this post and ask my readers.

If you know Peyton Manning or you know someone who knows him, please forward this post or email me so I may reach out. Of course, if you’re reading this and you are Peyton Manning, that works even better. In that case, I would add:

“Mr. Manning, as you can see, the Browns are going through a tough time. I’m hoping you can help Jenn do this kind thing for them. I’m hoping you can replace your photo and sign it again. With all that the Browns need, it may seem strange to request this. But I know having something they loved restored to them would lift their spirits. And that may be one of the most important things of all right now. If you would like their contact info, you can reach me here: gina@ginaleftthemall.com. Thank you for your consideration.”

Some help and little things

If anyone would like to help out in other ways, some friends of the Browns started a giving page to help them rebuild and the Red Cross is in Oklahoma trying to help all of these families who lost so much. Simply click the links to learn more or take action.

In many posts, I talk about how much the little things mean to our deployed troops. How a cup of coffee or postcard sent with a few kind and encouraging words is an incredible morale boost. But you don’t have to be deployed for little things to have this effect. I think it applies to any tough situation. There is a long to-do list for the Browns before they get even close to, “replacing treasured autograph.” But if we can make this happen, I think it will make that long list feel just a little bit lighter.

*********  UPDATE 05-29-13, 5:51p.m. EST: OMG! WE DID IT!!  *************

Sports Anchor Lionel Bienvenu at ABC News Channel 7 KMGH in Denver, was able to reach out to Peyton and they will get another signed photo to the family!!

JENN:  I am truly at a loss for words! My husband says for the first time ever (laughter) THANK YOU to Channel 7 and THANK YOU TO EVERYONE who made my friend and her family feel cared about and loved and so touched in the midst of these nightmare days for them.

There have been a flurry of emails, messages, and people going out of their way for this project over the last 1.5  days. I will have more details and thank you’s on the next post, but please know that I am incredibly grateful for all of your efforts!  xoxo, G

© 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

Even The Storms Are Beige

sandstorm

sandstorm (Photo credit: bzo)

my marineMy Marine in the desert was tired of beige. The sand was beige. The tents, trucks, uniforms, even the storms, while tremendous to witness, were beige. When I asked him what he was missing, he said: color. Especially the green of nature. For a minute I thought about sending him a handful of grass and some fall leaves. Instead, I sent him 25 postcards of Central Park all at once (15 arrived on one day. The rest over the next year) He hung them up in his tent so they would be the first thing he saw every morning. I laughed at how excited he was to get them. He reminded me not to take the little things for granted. In fact, he asked me to notice and appreciate them for him. I promised I would. But every day is busy and after a while I noticed that I kept forgetting to notice. I felt bad about this unkept promise to a man I never met.

We “met” over coffee

My Marine, Gunnery Sergeant MZ, had signed up with Soldiers’ Angels to be adopted and was on the wait-list. Volunteers like me would send a letter or one-time care package to hold them over. I had sent him coffee and a mug and we wound up becoming pen pals. He was what some at Soldiers’ Angels would call my “unofficial.” That’s someone you support but not at the same commitment level of adoption which is one letter a week and one care package a month for the duration of deployment.

Little Is Big Day

To make up for my delay, I decided to appreciate as many little things as I could for a whole day. Here’s just the first two:

1. Hot shower

I usually turn on the water without thinking. But this morning as I paused to appreciate this act, a certain troop I helped came to mind:

“We spend most of our time in a very remote outpost living and working with the Afghan National Army, living a very meager existence.  We don’t have showers or running water. We live out of the back of our armored vehicles or from our rucksacks. We are very far from home. Anything you could provide my soldiers would be greatly appreciated.  Some of my men do not have families in the States who can support them.  Our communication back home is infrequent and unreliable. Letters and packages are our lifeline and the only way we know we are not out here alone.”

2. Waking my daughter up

This is usually a difficult task as my daughter is the U.S. Sleep Champion. And she only trains on schooldays. But this morning I thought of all my troops who were separated from their children. I remembered a female combat medic I wrote to with three kids. Her youngest was a little girl the same age as mine. They were both starting 1st grade. This combat medic would miss every wake-up struggle for the whole year and more. Then suddenly this difficult task felt like a gift. I get to do this in freedom and safety because other men and women are not doing it. This is part of what they sacrifice when they raise their hands to serve.

A promise kept

Little Is Big Day turned out to be very meaningful and sometimes emotional. But it helped me hit the reset button. So now even on busy days, I’ll take a moment to find a little something special around me. If you try Little Is Big Day, please let me know how it turned out. As for mine, I’ll tell you somewhere in an arid sea of beige, I made one Marine very happy.

© Gina left the mall, 2012