Monster Coffee

“Dear Soldier,¬†Today is Halloween so, along with this cup of coffee, I thought I’d send you a scary story. My 8-yr-old daughter decided she wanted to be a Monster High girl for Halloween. On the off-chance that the Dept. of Defense does not issue Monster High Dolls with your combat boots and you are unfamiliar with them, simply imagine fashionable werewolves, vampires, etc who go to a super-cool high school. As far as I can tell, there are 10 girls and 1 boy at this high school.

My daughter put on her costume and suddenly my little 8-year old looked 16. That was frightening. Later today, she will go ask strangers for candy (clearly a Mom did not invent this holiday) and be surrounded by monsters and more, laughing and having a wonderful time. Of course, one reason she can enjoy this holiday without fear is because of you. The hard work you do helps keep us safe. Thank you for helping my daughter have the freedom to scare me ūüôā We appreciate your service today and always. Sincerely, Gina

This is the note I sent to 10 troops this morning through Cup of Joe (COJ.) It’s twice as long as the messages I usually send but, unlike Twitter, COJ doesn’t limit my character count. That means I can do what I want. BWAHAHAAAAAA (I hope you read that with your inner monster voice.)

As always, COJ lets you send any amount of coffee to deployed servicemen and women for only $2 a cup. You can check the pen-pal option or not check it. Either way, most times you’ll receive a thank-you note. It’s a small thing but a terrific way to boost someone’s morale. If you’ve never tried it, I have to tell you it really is a great program.

Darth Vader kicking butt in a wheelchair

Darth Vader Tie Fighter Costume

Darth Vader Tie Fighter Costume (Photo credit: Tostie14)

A while back I happened upon a blog called Military Special Needs Network. Each staff writer is a military family member with a special needs child (or children.) They created this network to share information, inspire, empower, and connect other families in the same situation. They were also kind enough to help me with one of my soldiers who was facing difficulties. I am very grateful for that.

If you think of those you know with a special needs child, you have an idea of the challenges they face. The stress of deployment adds another layer. So does waking up one day after you’ve got a routine down with teachers and therapists your kid is thriving with and surprise…you’re moving across the country. Or to Germany. Possibly next week. Wheeeeee……

Sometimes when I read their blog I learn about things specific to our military families. Sometimes I gain a deeper understanding of the special needs world in general. And there are topics any parent could relate to. Like finding a great Halloween costume.

Until the other day, I never knew there was such a thing as Adaptive Costumes. In their post, Adapting Halloween, one of the links was for a great¬†Pinterest page¬†with adaptive Darth Vader, Batmobile, a little girl who turned her crutches into the front legs of her giraffe costume, and more. The creativity, the joy, the spirit…these kids looked great. And I think they knew it. Their smiles made my smile even bigger.

That’s one of the things we all want. To make the people we love happy. And sometimes, to make strangers happy too…with or without the aid of monsters. Happy Halloween!

MonsterCoffee

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Calming Anger With Sugar

I found out that mail is being stolen where one of my soldiers is deployed. Boxes from Amazon are particularly vulnerable. As someone who puts a lot of thought and heart into making sure a servicemember hears his or her name at mail call, this makes me angry. And that makes me want to do something.

My first thought

My first thought wasn’t a very nice one. I thought about getting an Amazon box, putting in nothing but shredded paper and a sign that said what I thought of thieves. This sign would have words that I’ve told my daughter, “we don’t use in this house.” And by “we” I really mean just her.

However, there are a few flaws in my evil plan.1. What if the box gets through and my soldier opens it? 2. Do I really want to be someone who executes an evil plan? No I don’t. Or, to quote Uncle Si of Duck Dynasty, “Nah!”

My second thought

Plan B was: Write a letter to a government official alerting them to this problem so it can be fixed immediately.

There are several flaws in this plan. 1. Who in the wide world of government bureaucracy, civilian or military, would I write to? 2. Of all the things affecting troops that need to be, “fixed immediately” one immoral mail depot probably ranks pretty low. Is it even a depot? Where in the process is it breaking down? I don’t even know who to be upset with! 3. In the era of sequestration, who has the extra manpower to look into this?

What I wound up doing

I sent a postcard because the message can be read by anyone along the way. This is what I wrote:

I heard your mail service was the worst and that I had no chance to get a card or letter through. Hope to prove that ugly rumor false. 

I think, “proving someone wrong” has a certain appeal. Maybe it will appeal to the rogue mail handler(s.) I have no idea because this is hard for me to understand. I mean, if you know the impact mail has on morale, why would you want to deny someone this? For material gain? What they are really stealing is a touch of home, of comfort, and of love.

After I sent the postcard, I still felt bad. So I decided to do something about that as well. Since I was feeling so negative, I would try to do something positive. I was never good at math, but somehow this made sense to me. Now instead of angry boxes, I want to share with you something infinitely sweeter. It made me come up with another idea of how to deal with my shipping challenge.

Meet Wendy

The holidays are coming and homemade cookies are a special kind of love. So to spread that love, I want to tell you about Wendy. I’ve mentioned her once or twice before but never made a formal introduction. Wendy is a mom who loves to bake and sends cookies to her son at college. She called her care packages The Monday Box. Eventually she started a blog of the same name where she shares her recipes and stories about her family. I was thrilled to learn that after reading this blog, Wendy started including recipes that could withstand the rigors of shipping to deployed areas.

If you go on The Monday Box and put the word “desert” in the search box, you’ll get every recipe that she made desert-friendly for our troops. Below are a few samples.

Chocolate Peppermint Shortbread Cookies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Chocolate Peppermint Shortbread Cookies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Orange Creamsicle Bar (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Orange Creamsicle Bar (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Hugs & Kisses Brownies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

Hugs & Kisses Brownies (photo credit, The Monday Box)

As I read through Wendy’s blog for these samples, I felt the warmth she sends with every batch. As I calmed down, I knew…I don’t want to be in some long-distance fight with a mailroom. I’m just going to do the best I can and hope for the best.

Then I thought, maybe if those folks had felt more of the love that Wendy or I try to send, maybe they wouldn‚Äôt resort to what they‚Äôre doing. If I ever did send a box with a sign, maybe it should be information where they could sign up for support. With cookies, a note could say, “I baked this for my soldier, but if you need it so badly to steal it, then take it. Enjoy it and give it to your friends. But support my soldier because after all that he’s done and all that he’s been through, he deserves nothing less. Send him a dessert yourself to make up for the one you’re enjoying right now. That would be great.”

What if the desert were flooded with sugar? Enough ‚Äúhome-baked love‚ÄĚ to have, to share, maybe even enough to warm a heart that needs it. That would be sweet.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

A Patient Reminder

I no longer take for granted the little luxuries like hot showers or color. Our troops have helped me to appreciate these things in my own life even more. After all, when you don’t see grass or trees for a year, the green of nature is like gold. I’d like to say that I remember this every single day. I’d like to, but I can’t. Some days I will in fact, “sweat the small stuff.” Luckily, it’s never long before something comes along to remind me to do otherwise.

The waiting game

I have to admit that I do not excel at waiting. In fact,¬†I have been known to “abandon line” in stores if the checking-out process is too long. Once I accompanied my friend Linda shopping for clothes at a department store. An hour later, she had an armful of items and we made our way to the register. However, there was a long line AND multiple returns. For some reason, my friend refused to leave. So I scoured the place for the most “interesting” outfit (this was the 80s so….lots of choices) then I held it aloft and called out, “Linda! They DO have it in your size!” At first, people stared. But after I kept bringing Linda fashion-forward combinations to consider, they were laughing. Yes, Linda was laughing too. Eventually.

Fast forward to yesterday. I had waits and delays at every turn. If I were not already stressed, I probably wouldn’t have found it so irritating. Later, after I got home, I came across some old pictures one of my solders had sent me. The note on this one said, “waiting.” I couldn’t remember the rest of the story so I called him.

soldiers waiting in a bunker in Iraq

DYLAN: Well, that was Christmas morning in Iraq, 2009. Our base was being mortared. It started before sunrise. I think we had to stay in that bunker 7 or 8 hours. The good news was that they had shut down the chow hall earlier. I say that because we took a direct hit there. Luckily no one was inside. 

Suddenly, my delays didn’t seem quite so horrible. Instead, I felt lucky that I had the freedom to go run whatever errands I wanted. I had two uninjured legs to stand on in those lines. My reset button had been hit. So I jokingly said to Dylan, “Oh yeah? Well¬†let me tell you about MY day¬†and the waiting I endured.”¬†As I feigned outrage, we both started laughing.

Dylan told me that he doesn’t like waiting either. Then he shared a checkout challenge that involved Walmart, two open registers, and what appeared to be the entire town shopping there at once. His quest for milk and lightbulbs took one bad turn after another and we laughed some more. As we talked, he never said, “don’t lose sight of what really matters.” He didn’t have to.

© 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 fianc√©¬†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

7 Tips From Packing To Package

133¬į at 1300 hours (1:00 p.m. for us civilians) is precisely why you don’t send chocolate to Iraq and Afghanistan in the summer. It is one of seven tips that by themselves, would not be a very exciting post. However together, they comprise this absolutely thrilling list.

1. Chocolate Season is November to April

Early afternoon temperature in Iraq

A soldier sent me this picture from Iraq one summer afternoon.

2. Getting to know the Customs

The United States Postal Service Customs Form PS 2976-A comes with two pages of instructions (front and back.) Here are my highlights:

a. Most of its obvious, like your name.

b. Military addresses are mostly acronyms and numbers that identify division, unit, etc, and make little sense in English. I fill out the form the exact same way the address looks when I receive it. The areas I left empty don’t apply to me and probably won’t apply to you either. Some areas are for the Post Office to fill in.

USPS Customs Form example for shipping to APO/FPO

Form # can be found on bottom left.

c. There are only four lines to describe contents. If you need more lines, you have to fill out another form. FYI- The USPS does not want vague entries like: food.

d. I never fill out the weight and no one has asked me to. Maybe it’s because I always use flat-rate boxes. (It’s one price no matter how heavy it is.) The postal clerk fills it in.

e. If the box can’t be delivered for some reason, you have options for it to be returned, abandoned, or given to someone else. I check the last box and write in: Chaplain. This way at least someone who needs a morale boost will be sure to get it.

You get these forms at the Post Office. Or you can order them online at the USPS site. They also have online shipping options that I’ve never done. If you have, let me know if you like it.

3. Flat-out crazy with flat-rate boxes 

Besides putting the address on the outside of the box, I fully address the envelope with my letter on the inside as well. This way, if the top panel gets damaged, I have a second chance for it to get to the servicemember. Of course, since I trust nothing, I also put a piece of my clear packing tape over the address. This is to foil rain or a rogue coffee spill from smearing the address. I also tape up every box edge when I send to the desert so no sand gets in.

Again, with these boxes, you pay one shipping price no matter how much it weighs. You can get them for free at the post office or have them delivered to you.

4. Bubble-trouble

When I buy bubble-wrap I hide it. My daughter Sofia finds it and pops it. This reduces its effectiveness. So to save money (and aggravation) I recycle packing material from other things or that friends give me. I also use tissue paper from gifts we get. And I try pack items in a way that protect others. For example, if I’m shipping socks, I’ll strategically place them around things that need cushioning. Most things I ship are not fragile but I still don’t want the contents shifting around.

5. Bleach-flavored potato chips

If you pack food and hygiene items in the same box, you risk the food absorbing the strong cleaning scents and tasting like soap or perhaps a pine forest.

6. T is for Thank You

Holidays and seasons easily inspire care package ideas. Random days on the calendar can be big blank spaces that lay there inspiring nothing. Of course, you don’t need a theme at all. But it’s fun and can add a few extra smiles. So I figured I’d share my current random day idea.

I have a soldier named Thomas and I used his first initial to choose the contents. Every snack and toy begins with the letter “T.” Sofia signed the note, “love Sofia and Mommy (Gina).” I guess she added my name so he doesn’t mistakenly think it’s from his mom.

Initial-theme care package

There’s also a table-top football game (maybe the trophy will go to the winner.) The only things I had to pack carefully were the taxi cookie and the T lollipop.

If his name began with another letter, I’d just rewrite the line to reflect that. Even the thank-you line can be written differently. Examples: A¬†–All our good wishes,¬†B- Blessings,¬†J-¬†Just to say thank-you. For significant others of a K, you could add Kisses and hugs.

7. Never and Always

Some items that seem safe in everyday life can become dangerous if shaken or subjected to extreme temperature and pressure changes. The US Postal Service says never to send these items internationally:

  • Aerosols
  • Air bags
  • Alcoholic Beverages
  • Ammunition
  • Cigarettes
  • Dry Ice
  • Explosives
  • Fresh Fruits & Vegetables
  • Gasoline
  • Lithium batteries
  • Nail Polish
  • Perfumes containing alcohol
  • Poison
  • Pool Chemicals

I’m pretty sure most people don’t have a burning desire to ship air bags but, better safe than sorry. Also, for our troops in the Middle East you can add pork products to that list.¬†However, no matter what items you put in the box, there is something you always send with every package. The care part. That’s what’s needed most and matters most. With or without chocolate.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

When Uncle Sam Breaks Up With You

A while back I told you about my soldier who was fighting to stay in the Army despite his many injuries. The post was called Beating The Odds. I shared our unlikely friendship (we don’t have much in common) and how our paths would never cross except in a cafe in Iraq over a $2 donated cup of coffee (Cup of Joe.) I also asked¬†for some supportive comments he could share with the Medical Evaluation Board. Readers responded and he and his family were very touched. This post is the update to that story.

It worked before

Staff Sergeant RD had been injured before and forced to medically retire before. He fought his way back by getting stronger and getting waivers. That was a good thing because when it came to being a civilian, his transition was like something out of a movie. Specifically, the second act of a movie where the hero is in trouble and the zombies are winning. It was a nightmare.

This is especially true when he took a few sleeping pills to deal with his insomnia. His mother didn’t know this and struggled to wake her groggy son. She grabbed his shoulders roughly. In that moment, he thought he was being attacked. He flipped her to the ground and it wasn’t until he had a knife to her throat that he realized that she was not the Taliban. He was so devastated by this event that he left. He disappeared for a year. It took him a few more years to get healthier from that point. But he did it. And Uncle Sam took him back.

10 years later

Since then, RD has done a lot. Most soldiers don’t like to talk about medals, but I found out that his include:¬†2 Purple Hearts, 2 Bronze Stars, and 2 Army Commendations. But along the way his injuries have gotten more serious, numerous, and include the bonus thrill of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) He was hoping to teach. To train soldiers and share the benefit of his knowledge. But the Medical Evaluation Board turned him down. He will be retiring in the coming weeks.

Most of the troops I know are active duty. A few have retired but that was their choice. I asked RD how he felt about all this.

RD: Borderline failure. The mission’s not complete.

ME: You wanted to go for 20 years? 

RD: I wanted to go till my grave.

ME: How do you feel about returning to civilian life?

RD: It changes. Sometimes it scares the shit out of me. I remember the first time, which was horrible. Then I think, well…I’m 10 years older, more life experiences… I’ll handle things better. Plus maybe doing it once before gives me insight.

ME: You also have a strong marriage and other connections you didn’t have before. And a job lined up.

RD: That’s true. And all that matters. It does. But it’s hard to lose the sense of brotherhood. I can’t talk to my wife or my mom about the things I’ve done and seen. I don’t want them to know. I don’t want my wife to roll over and look at me and think: What the “F” did I marry? And all the people I can talk to are dead or won’t be around me. Plus it’s hard to watch the news. To know I can’t do anything. To know that my brothers are there. I feel like I let them down.

ME: What could a family member or civilian do to help with your transition?

RD: I honestly don’t know. If I did know the answer to that, I wouldn’t be worried about transitioning.

ME: Are you okay if I share this?

RD: G, if it helps one person, it’s worth it. In fact, I participated in a study about PTSD at the college nearby. They hooked me up then showed me images of dead bodies. Friendlies, enemies, children…all sorts of horrible things. They measured how my brain reacted. MRIs etc. Then they made me talk about my worst stories. It tore me up. But I did it. Because if me being torn up for one week helps even one guy not suffer like this, it’s worth it.

ME: How does your wife feel about you retiring?

RD: She’s excited. And worried. You know, because she knows it was rough last time. It’s also something new…having me around. Me not leaving for 12-15 months at a time. It’s a new part to our relationship.

ME: Will you always feel like a soldier? Is that your identity?

RD: The day I turn in this uniform, is the day I’ll stop being a soldier. But I will always be a patriot. I will always care.

Second chances

I told RD that I was feeling hopeful. I readily admit that I am no psychologist. But looking from the outside, I see a man with a self-awareness that he didn’t have 10 years ago. RD knows his strengths and weaknesses. And he voluntarily put himself through personal hell to be part of that study. He chose to take his pain and try to make some good come out of it. I also think his strong family connections are vitally important. As is the job he lined up.

Maybe I’m being naive, but I believe in his resilience, passion, and determination. I believe in him. And I like his chances of moving on from Uncle Sam.

soldier's boots

© Gina left the mall, 2013

He Said, “Send Anything”

My first thought for Sergeant J’s care package was: PIRATES! This is because I learned that¬†Talk Like A Pirate Day is coming. I figured eye patches, Pirate Booty popcorn, pirate cups, plates, and whatever else a deployed pirate might need. Then I checked the date and it’s on September 19th. Damn. My box wouldn’t make it to Afghanistan by then because mail delivery¬†takes at least two weeks. My pirate idea was scuttled. Instead, I could¬†do a theme I’ve done before or simply no theme. “Anything” is pretty open. Almost too open. So I kept thinking.

I looked up other strange holidays for inspiration and learned of National Bacon Day. Sounds fun, but it’s not an option because you never send pork products to the Middle East. I would also never send related items like bacon-scented soap and bacon-flavored dental floss (real products.) While they are technically not bacon, why walk around smelling like contraband? Toss in whiskey shampoo (also real) and you’ve got a recipe for trouble. Sadly, Bacon Day didn’t get me any closer to a care package idea.

It’s A Girl!

Then I found out that Sergeant J’s wife just gave birth to a baby girl! Wonderfully, they now have two little girls. Conveniently, it also made my job easier.¬†I decided to send him a box of every pink candy I could find to celebrate the arrival of his sweet baby girl. I thought it would be fun for him to share with his buddies.

I put my daughter Sofia in charge of selection. She was literally “kid in a candy store” happy about this and went¬†off-mission only slightly. When she discovered non-pink gummies shaped like Mario, fighter jets, and dinosaurs,¬†she insisted that he had to have them. Then she continued her treasure hunt. We avoided anything chocolate because “chocolate season” is between November and April (other times of the year are too hot and it would melt.)

Doing this with Sofia was very special to me. I used to have her help me a lot. But one day she was writing a letter to a soldier and I looked over her shoulder. It said, “I wish I could trade places with you.” With tears in her eyes, she told me she was afraid he would get hurt and worried about all of them. I took the pen from her hand. Then I let her decide if and when she wanted to help. After a long break, she got involved again. Each time, it touches my heart.

After all the candy she picked out for Sergeant J, she found one small lollipop she wanted for herself. Of course I said yes.

Pink candy care package for soldier. It's a girl!

I put a list of contents. But good luck matching them all up.

Baby on the way, civilians on the case

Soldiers’ Angels has a group of volunteers that love to help deployed families celebrate their bundles of joy.¬†It’s called Top Knot. I pulled the info below from the Soldiers’ Angels¬†site¬†and Top Knot also has a facebook page.¬†I shared this with Sergeant J in case he and his family would like to sign up.

Top Knot is a nationwide network of service clubs and Angel individuals who sew, knit and shop to create gift baskets for infants and expectant mothers in military families. Deployments are difficult on the entire family unit, but even more so when that family is expecting or has an infant child. Our mission is to commend the women and children at home for their strength, to let them know we are proud of¬†their sacrifices as well as their husbands’ and fathers’, and most importantly, to do what we can to support them¬†during the emotionally challenging times of deployment.

Our dedicated volunteers knit, crochet, sew, quilt, and design blankets, booties, hats, onesies, bibs, and many more homemade gifts. We also assemble and deliver gift baskets full of goodies such as bottles, diapers, onesies, pacifiers, washcloths, grooming kits, and more. Additionally, we make sure to remember Dad by sending “It’s a Boy!” or “It’s a Girl!” bubblegum cigars to wherever he is stationed.

Anything goes

According to my holiday research, National Punctuation Day and Hug A Vegetarian Day are both right around the corner. If I knew that Sergeant J felt strongly about either commas or broccoli lovers, I would try to find a way to make those themes work. In the absence of such knowledge, I’m feeling good about the pink candy idea. Although,¬†I know this soldier would appreciate anything.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Vets Capture War In Six Words

What if I asked you to tell me about a major experience in your life with just six words? Good, bad, ugly, funny, whatever, but you only get six words to do it. That challenge is what two vets,¬†Mike Nemeth and Shaun Wheelwright, asked of their brothers and sisters in arms who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. They asked them to describe what they’ve been through in six-word essays. The finished result will be the first crowd-sourced memoir about these conflicts called¬†Six Word War.

Nemeth and Wheelwright did not invent the six-word essay. A famous example is¬†attributed to Hemingway,¬†“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.” But Six Word War expands on this idea by collecting the voices and viewpoints of many. Together, they tell a story that no single one could capture on their own. Some vets sign their essays. Some are anonymous. Here are some examples:

I am tired of the goodbyes. 

Mom, can’t chat now. Rockets incoming.¬†

Deployed three years, but for what?

Boredom, Boredom, Sheer Terror, Boredom, Boredom. 

Where did I leave my pants?

Air so bad. Filter cigarette’s healthy.

Sometimes I wish I was back.

Stories untold

When I came across Six Word War, I couldn’t help but think of some of the stories troops have told me. Especially the one I couldn’t convince a soldier to share¬†in his real world. Maybe six words would be big enough for him to have a voice and small enough to not make him feel exposed.

I also think about the soldier who helped me understand¬†PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) None of his buddies wanted to talk about the subject. So he described his own PTSD and it was a painful experience for him. But afterwards, I’m happy to say that he found it helpful to open up a little. I wonder if other vets who struggle with their story would find it healing to share it in six words. The brevity forces you to focus. And again, maybe it’s small enough to not feel completely vulnerable or raw.

Submissions and possibilities

The Six Word War Kickstarter campaign has been funded (I participated) but they are still taking essay submissions for the next few weeks at the Six Word War site. If you know a vet, please share this with them. Give them a chance to be part of it. If you are vet, please consider doing this. Be heard.

Six Word War

I hope the book becomes wildly successful. Because one possible result would be greater understanding between civilians and military. At some point, all of these thousands of men and woman who have been through this unique experience return to civilian life. How much better will we all be with a little shared knowledge and empathy?

I also wonder about a possible “companion book” from the family’s point of view. What six words would a military spouse have? How about a ten-year-old boy who’s Dad has deployed for half his life? Military parents? Or any loved one who has held their breath when the evening news came on.

Imagine the conversations that could begin with just six words.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

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:

‚ÄúThese 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.‚ÄĚ

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