The Sock Hunt

“Remember those socks you sent me four years ago?” This was the answer I got when I asked John, my deployed Marine, if he needed anything. It seems the ones I sent him last deployment had finally started wearing out and well, he loved them. Unfortunately, my memory of those socks is both good and bad at the same time.

What I DO remember:

I remember the ones he had were taking a beating. I remember me wandering into a random store and staring up at an entire wall of socks. When the salesman asked me what I was looking for, I told him the most comfortable and toughest socks he had for my Marine in the desert.

It turns out the salesman was ex-Israeli Army and had very strong opinions about this. Keeping your feet comfortable, dry, and healthy matters. He also served on a joint forces mission with some American troops. Since he knew Americans so well, he felt confident that what he selected was the best choice. He rang me up at the register in the back and gave me his employee discount as a way to thank John for his service. He had dark hair, dark eyes, and was wearing a gray sweater.

What I DON’T remember:

The brand or style of sock, the name of the store, or even what part of town the store was in. And by “town” I mean, “the island of Manhattan.”

I had asked John to send a picture but he hadn’t. Then I wrote again asking for a brand name and description.  I went online and didn’t see it.  Could it be that over the past (almost) half-decade, they changed their products?

Maybe if I could find the store, I could find the guy and he could find the sock or make another great recommendation. I tried to think of the places I went four years ago. I narrowed it down to: the East Side. If you divide Manhattan in half, that would be the piece on the right.

Manhattan Neighborhoods

Manhattan Neighborhoods (Photo credit: estimmel)

I picked different neighborhoods and googled the clothing stores. Then I went on google street maps to see if I could recognize the storefront. Nothing. But I wasn’t giving up. A friend once told me, “you know, sometimes you’re like a dog with a bone.” I can only assume that meant, “gee, you can be determined and I find that trait delightful.”

Go West!

I decided to expand my search to the West Side. The third store I street-mapped looked familiar. Very familiar. I ran there after work, excitedly burst into the store and….they’ve reduced their magical sock wall into a small area with four offerings. Apparently they’ve also made a few changes in the past (almost) half-decade.

So I decided to make a change too. I found what I thought were good options someplace else and got those. Will it be the exactly the same? No. But without change, how would we find new things to love?

© 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

Back To The Desert

A Marine I met two years ago is deploying for the fourth time. But this is his first time doing so as a dad. Before, one of the things he missed most was color. Like the green of grass and trees. Of course, this time, he is already pre-missing his baby girl. So I tried to take that into account as I thought about what to send him. This is what I came up with:

Essential gear

1. I LOVE NY coffee mug- Nothing says, “I’m a friendly guy, please sit down and chat a while” like something that screams New York. I am laughing on the inside because I know this Marine can be a bit difficult when he wants to be. After he shared a few work-related stories, I jokingly asked, “You’re kind of a pain in the a**  aren’t you?” He replied, “Only to people who try to mess with my Marines.

2. 1lb of coffee and assorted snacks. This is essential gear.

Dad factor

1. Notes from dad- I included a box of cute cards for him to send to his daughter. Sure, she can’t read yet, but I thought it would be nice for his wife to receive them. Maybe she’ll put them in a scrapbook or maybe just save them for later. Either way, I think it would be sweet for his daughter to have them.

2. Simple durable frame for super-adorable photo.

3. Motivation tip from my daughter Sofia. To help him at work.

Name blurred for privacy. Smiley-faces blurred so I don't get in trouble with some Sticker Cartel for copyright infringement.

Name blurred for privacy. Smiley-faces blurred so I don’t get in trouble with some Sticker Cartel for copyright infringement.

4. More help from Sofia: groovy, multi-patterned pencils for sharing. You know, in case the other Marines forget to bring theirs.

I thought about sending him a parents’ magazine and labeling it, “INTEL” but I didn’t know if seeing those other kid pics would bum him out or not. Plus, I wasn’t sure how interested he’d be in the articles.

Welcome back?

I don’t really expect smiley-face sparkle stickers to become part of his official routine. I think it would be hilarious, but I don’t expect it. However, this Marine may as well learn now that he’s got all kinds of sparkle ahead of him. But as he arrives in the desert, we’ll “welcome” him back with the certainty that many people care. Even strangers. I’ve never met this Marine in person, we became pen pals through Soldiers’ Angels. Like my fellow volunteers, we hope to send a few extra smiles until we can say, “welcome home” again.

Update: He loved the box and followed Sofia’s advice! Two of his Marines did a very good job and he told her 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!

© Gina left the mall, 2013

The 24,600-Mile Coffee Break

What would a coffee mug from a total stranger mean to you? Well, when you’re deployed to Iraq, little things can mean a lot. That, plus 24,600 miles, led to one of my best coffee breaks ever.

While you wait

A Marine named Adam signed up to be adopted at Soldiers’ Angels (they help every branch of the military.) I volunteered to send a care package while he was on the waiting list. I sent over an I LOVE NY mug, some coffee and snacks.

My care package was the first he received in Iraq. That made the mug special to him. I found out just how special at the end of his tour. When he packed his gear there wasn’t an inch to spare, let alone room to LOVE NY. But Adam couldn’t throw the mug out or leave it behind so, he decided to carry it home by hand.

Germany joe

Imagining this Marine walking around in uniform with a duffle bag and an I LOVE NY mug, made me laugh. I asked him if any of the other guys gave him a hard time.

ADAM:  I got a lot of flak from my guys, but in Leipzig Germany, we were sitting in a hangar and they had a coffee machine. Shortly after we were there they ran out of little styrofoam cups, I pulled my mug out. BAM! Just like that, I had coffee still! And of course some of the guys were jealous, but as Marines always do, we adapt, adjust and overcome. Some of them were cutting Gatorade bottles in half for some joe.

Since he brought it all the way back, I tried to guess the mug-milage. I was not even close. For one thing, I didn’t know his mail gets routed through San Francisco. Adam did the math for me:

Ok. So let’s take the fact that the mug was Made in China out of the equation.

From Manhattan to San Fran is about 2800 miles, and crosses 12 states. (According to Google’s fastest route).

From San Fran to Iraq, as the crow flies, 9800 miles, passes 9 states and 9 countries on 3 continents.

From Iraq to Camp Pendleton we’ll say another 9800 miles.

Cp Pendleton to Cincinnati, 2200 miles and 9 states.

So this mug traveled 24,600 miles, give or take a couple hundred, 39 state crossings, 18 countries crossed, and 5 continents crossed.

That’s enough to cross the world at the equator once.

Cincinnati joe

About a year later, I found out we’d both be in Cincinnati at the same time. Adam said he would like to buy me a cup of coffee as a thank you. I’ve only met a few of my troops in person so this was something special. I got to the cafe first. As I waited, I thought it’s funny how you never know what ripple effect a random act of kindness will have. I never thought that little care package would mean so much or that I’d gain a friendship.

Adam walked towards me and at first, I didn’t realize it was him. He looked so much younger than the pictures I had seen of him deployed. I think what I was really seeing was the effect of home and peace (that’s a good look on anyone.) Seeing Adam healthy, happy and safe was a wonderful feeling. My smile was big and my eyes filled with tears. Then I saw what he was carrying and I laughed. The server came over to take our order and Adam said, “Ma’am, I’ve brought my own mug. If you don’t mind, I’d like you to use it for my coffee, please.”

I LOVE NY mug© 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