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

Spiders And Everyday Battles

A deployed soldier sent me an email with the subject line, “look what I killed in my bunk this morning.” Knowing his sense of humor, I didn’t know what to expect. Turns out, it was this lovely baby camel spider.

baby camel spider

Photo courtesy of R.O., Soldier

When I saw it I thought, if National Security rested on my small shoulders we’d be doomed. I can just imagine the phone call…

THE PRESIDENT:  Gina, we need you to go on dangerous mission. The fate of the world is at stake.

ME:  Will there be spiders? Because that’s a deal-breaker.

Along with stealthy insects

I know troops must have courage, stamina and skills for their particular job. But I also learned about the everyday battles when they deploy. Along with stealthy insects, here are a few others:

1. Keeping clean and dry

This impacts health in a lot of ways. It’s easier to do if you’re on a base with running water versus living out of the back of a truck in the sweltering heat in some remote area.  But even on bases I’ve had troops whose tents and surrounding roads would flood for long periods. Then keeping their feet dry would be a challenge.

2. Breathing clean air

There’s a reason that living next door to an open burning trash pit is recommended by no one. Yet some troops endured this.

3. Keeping weight on

My adopted soldier K lost 50 lbs. during his deployment. Hiking with 100 lbs. of gear in 120 degree heat will do this for you.

4.  Ground Hog Day

This refers to the movie where Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day over and over.  Many troops have told me they feel this way.

 5. Company 24/7

Yes, there is special bond amongst the troops. But imagine never being alone. After a while you want a break. Many troops hang blankets on their bunks for privacy. One amazing Air Force Mom made this awesome curtain. I love the phone holder and other interior pockets. I think this is a “luxury suite” compared to the usual.

bunk curtain

Photo courtesy of Kathy, Air Force Mom

bunk curtain- interior

Note the pockets. As for the pillow, it was given to this Airman by his daughter when she was little. It then became a deployment tradition.  Photo courtesy of Kathy, Air Force Mom.

bunk curtain interior with lights

Photo courtesy of Kathy, Air Force Mom.

6. Morale

This is one of the most important everyday battles because it influences so much. It can affect focus and performance as well as stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder.)

A real break

A Vietnam Vet told me this:

When you’re a soldier, you’re always too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry. Maybe you’re sleeping in the dirt. Maybe you have a cot. But it hurts. It physically hurts to be uncomfortable for so long. Then mail call happens. And it’s like a break from your reality.  A letter lets you go someplace else. You read it and you’re transported to a whole other world. And a package…wow… and for those moments, you feel better in so many ways. You forget how much you hurt.

I think it’s amazing that a simple letter could have a positive impact both emotionally and physically. There are no bad side effects and each dose costs 46 cents. This may not stop spiders or keep boots dry, but it does help with battle #6, Morale. It seems that’s one we can fight together.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

When My Adopted Soldier And I Decided To Meet

They tell you contact usually ends when deployment ends. But I already had a few unusual things happen with my adopted soldier “K” so…why should this be any different? We started making plans for him, his wife and infant child to visit me in NYC. Both their friends and family and mine said, “What???” After all, we were strangers.

(At this point, I would like to suggest a detour for my readers with a loved one who is currently deployed. Perhaps the post where golf balls helped increase safety or how this all started. Why? Because parts of the following sections may be hard to read. And I’m a big fan of reducing stress.)

Most of the time

Most of the time our correspondence was light. I sent him a lot of funny stories about my daughter Sofia. But the events unfolding around him were anything but light. K was the first troop I ever got to know and he had one of the more difficult deployments of all the troops I’ve come to know. 10 days after I adopted him, they had a casualty. His unit had only been there a few weeks and this was not the first one. Then a nearby base was overrun and many lives lost. And so on. He would state these events simply, never going into detail.

At home, when I mentioned an attack, most people hadn’t heard of it. That felt very isolating. I felt like I was caring about somebody in a parallel universe. But I understood that people weren’t aware because I used to be one of them.

The worse things got, the more I wanted to do something to help protect him. I know that sounds crazy because he is a highly trained, very capable soldier and I am afraid of spiders. But I’m also a Mom so that protect-gene is hard to turn off.

Maybe I could do this

K told me that getting mail was like Christmas morning for them. I know that mail = better morale. Better morale can reduce stress, depression and anxiety. I thought, hey…If I could keep his morale up, maybe I could help him get home in better shape. Then I found out the Army has a soldier’s creed. So I made a “volunteer creed.”  I never told K because I wrote it for myself. I feel a little vulnerable sharing it but, I think it captures how I had come to feel.

I am my soldier’s soldier. My mission is to make sure he hears his name at every mail call for the duration of his deployment. To make him feel that the hard, dangerous job he does, the long stressful hours for days on end…is appreciated. To brighten his day if only for a few moments with a taste of home. To pray for his safe return. And to do this with no effort, thanks or consideration required on his part.  And no complaints or wavering on my part. I am my soldier’s soldier.  And I will never fail him.

He was in a remote base and mail arrived by convoy every two weeks. When you adopt, you send one care package a month and one letter a week. I doubled that to increase my chances of hitting both deliveries. Once he got a box much quicker than I expected. He explained that the convoys kept getting attacked so they started doing helicopter drops. Now mail came every 2-3 days.

ME:  That’s great!

ME ON THE INSIDE:  Uh oh.

How the heck was I going to make all those mail calls? Of course, it’s not like anyone knew that was my goal. A more sane person might just say forget it. Clearly, I am not that person. I decided to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Enlisting strangers

I started carrying around postcards. Especially when I travelled for work. If I were delayed at an airport I’d sit at the bar. After chatting with the bartender for a few minutes, I’d ask if he could do me a favor and say “hi” to my adopted soldier. Or if I were getting my nails done, I ask the girls around me.  After the initial surprise (you can adopt a soldier?) the answer was always yes. They felt good doing it. After they wrote a message, I’d address it (you keep addresses private) and drop in whatever mailbox in whatever town I was in.

His wife

Usually contact is with your soldier. But the Taliban kept shooting out their internet. So for the second half of his deployment, I had much more contact with his wife. That’s how I came to see the everyday impact on the family. She would share a “first” that baby Kyle did and I would realize, wow…another thing he missed and that she did solo.

One day she wrote that I might not hear from K for a while. And she wanted to let me know what was going on. His best friend, a fellow soldier deployed with him, had shot himself. The military calls this a Non-Combat Death. I don’t think this is an accurate description because I believe combat has a great deal to do with Army suicides.

I found out this soldier left behind a 3-yr-old son. I wrote a letter to the family.

K

I didn’t hear from him for a while but I got updates from his wife. Then he went on a mission for a few weeks where he had zero contact home. By the time he returned, he found a pile of mail on his bunk. There were packages from his wife and my daughter, plus a stack of mail from me and my army of strangers. Including a copy of the letter I sent his friend’s family. He appreciated it all. But the letter meant so very much to him. Maybe it’s why that day, we decided to meet in real life.

Visiting a total stranger sounded unusual to others. But the truth was, by that point, we didn’t feel like strangers at all.

New York City skyline

Where we planned to meet.

© Gina left the mall, 2013