Coffee That Stays Warm for Four Years

He wrote, “I have no idea how we met.” Turns out that Alex* was looking through old emails and found some of ours. So he wanted to wish me a Happy Thanksgiving. I admit, I wasn’t sure either. So I did some digging and found out that I had sent him a cup of coffee when he was deployed through Cup of Joe in November. That would be November 2011.

I’ve “met” a lot of wonderful people through this program and even become good friends with a few. In fact, one of them has helped me tremendously and generously with this blog. He’s one of my go-to people for understanding and writing about PTSD. There are others I have bothered for help in different areas. All of them have been very giving with their time because they know I want to make sure what I share rings true.

So I thought that serving more of this special coffee would be a great way to pre-game today’s holiday meal.

What I wrote

Dear Servicemember,

Today is Thanksgiving and you are definitely on the list of people my family is grateful for. Thank you for all you do! Today is also my daughter Sofia’s 11th birthday. Because it always falls near or on the holiday, there’s always birthday cake. So when she was little she’d get confused and wish anyone she met a, “Happy Thanksgiving Day To You” to the tune of the Birthday song. When she was 3, we took her to the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. She asked if it was all for her birthday. Her Grandpa said, “Yes!” Lol, I said “Great. Now her parties are all downhill from here.” Well, I hope this coffee and note helps make your day a bit brighter. That, and knowing you are never forgotten.

Sincerely, Gina

How to serve

If you’d like to serve some of this amazing coffee yourself, go to Cup of Joe. I’ve spoken of them often, but the short version is: for $2 you can send a cup of coffee with a personal note to a deployed servicemember and there’s an option to be pen pals if you both want to. You can send as many as you want, or simply one.

Deployed troops enjoying Cup of Joe

Deployed troops enjoying Cup of Joe (photo credit: Green Beans Coffee, COJ)

And from my family to yours, we wish you a very Happy Thanksgiving!

*name changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2015

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

Long-Distance Rescue

Jack was 4 and did not want to speak to his deployed dad on the phone. No matter how hard his mom tried. His dad, Andrew* (*name changed for privacy) was one of the troops I was writing to in Afghanistan. His son’s silence was breaking his heart. I tried to help. First with words, then with action. Action worked better.

Steal a helicopter

I’m not a child psychologist, but I am a mom. I shared my mom-guess that Jack’s reaction was normal. “Rejecting” a phone call is a way to have control in a situation where he was otherwise powerless. Especially since Jack had clearly told his dad to, “steal a helicopter and come home now!” When his dad did not comply, what else was there to say? I told Andrew, “it’s not that your son doesn’t love you… his anger is because he loves you so much.”

Also, this little boy did not live in a military community so, there weren’t other kids in the same boat. Everyone else had their dads. Where was his? You can’t hug National Security. That whole idea doesn’t mean much to a preschooler. My pen pal thought this all made sense but it didn’t help his mood.

Closer to home

I thought Andrew would feel better as he got closer to going home. I was wrong. It’s almost like time slowed down for him. Me brightly saying, “hey, you’re one day closer!” did not lift his spirits.

I wanted to have some positive effect on this Serviceman. But how? Nothing short of being with his boy was going to cut it. Or maybe… I could do something that would make his son smile. If I could do that, I knew Andrew would be thrilled. Whether that thrill lasted a day or just a few minutes, it would be time spent less stressed.

Action

Okay, so what could I do for Jack, a child that I do not know at all?  Wait, that’s not exactly true…I knew his Halloween costume was Ironman. His favorite blanket is blue, named “Blue.” His favorite stuffed animal is “Kitty.” Kitty has been repaired so many times that Jack’s mom feared that one day, there would be nothing left to sew. And I knew that Jack absolutely L-O-V-E-S fire trucks and firefighters.

I was also well aware that I live in the same city as one of the most amazing Fire Departments on the planet, the FDNY. Who better to help me rescue Andrew’s sinking morale? So I reached out to Engine Company 8, Ladder 2 in Midtown Manhattan. Could they help this troop connect with his son? Hold some signs? Surprise a little boy that these real official firefighters in NYC “knew” him and cared about him? The FDNY Lieutenant I spoke to said they would be more than happy to.

When I got to the firehouse, they were out on a call but a firefighter in the office asked me to please stay close by. When I came back again, the Lieutenant gathered his men and asked me to tell them about Andrew and Jack. This family they didn’t know mattered to them. They extended an invitation to Jack to visit any time. I was only there a few minutes but I was very touched by their genuine kindness. I had tears in my eyes when I took this picture.

FDNY helps deployed troop by saying hi to his little boy

FDNY Engine Co. 8, Ladder 2

Sending a lifeline

Andrew was so excited when he received this picture!! He immediately sent it to Jack’s mom, and to the grandparents and other family members and a thank you note to the firemen and, and, and… I could feel his energy when he wrote me about all of this. More importantly, I could feel his happiness when he told me that Jack thought the picture was “awesome.” They had spoken about it on the phone.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

When The Troops Supported Me Right Back

I never thought troops would send me a care package. Or letters and emails just when I needed a morale boost most. But they did. It really took me by surprise. It meant a lot to have people I’ve never met care enough to think of me. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a small taste of what mail call feels like for our troops.

No-Vent Zone

Everyone has bad days. But unless it ends with a happy twist like the time a mariachi band boarded my crowded subway car and burst into song, I don’t mention it. I keep things light. Luckily, my daughter Sofia provides plenty of humorous mishaps and mild public humiliations for me to share. You don’t think it’s possible for your 5-yr-old to accidentally “pimp you out” in an elevator but, you’d be wrong.

I had gotten to know a few troops well and they knew I was getting divorced and looking for an apartment to rent. I didn’t vent about this. Just a statement of fact. But you don’t need details to figure out that this is not fun. The apartment search had the bonus of coinciding with Thanksgiving which made getting approvals harder since everyone was on vacation. I needed to move the first week of December. That month was filled with change and challenge.  And, as it turned out, some very special mail deliveries.

The gift

My adopted soldier and his wife sent me a box. Inside were birthday and Christmas presents for Sofia. (Her birthday is at the end of November.) What a delightful and touching surprise! But what really got to me was the house-warming gift for our new home. A little cactus plant. It was sweet and hopeful and I loved it. It was also the first and only object in the apartment after I signed the lease.

What I didn’t know then was that my furniture delivery would be weeks late and this cactus would become a continuing source of sunshine through dark winter days.

What my adopted soldier and his wife didn’t know was that my birthday is near Sofia’s and that’s when the box arrived. This unexpected kindness was the best birthday gift I could have gotten.

A little house-warming gift from my soldier and his wife.

A little house-warming gift from my soldier and his wife.

It would be weeks before the furniture would arrive.

It would be weeks before the furniture arrived.

The letter

The furniture was late so we had mattresses on the floor and stacks of boxes. With no table, we ate our meals “picnic” style. And no Christmas decorations were up yet. I unpacked Sofia’s toys first so I could sorta set up her room.  Everything felt undone and overwhelming.

Then came the first time I had to take Sofia to her Dad’s place. After I dropped her off, I walked into the cold night with my heart feeling gutted without her. I went to my new lobby filled with strangers to check my mail. I had just done my change of address so I was surprised to find a card. Upstairs, in my undone apartment, I sat in her room and the emptiness was crushing. Then I glanced at the envelope in my hand and thought, “Who the heck is this?”

I didn’t recognize the name and in my achy blur, I didn’t notice the return address was Afghanistan. It was a Christmas card with one of those long letters that details the past year. It was from a combat medic that I had sent a few magazines and a letter to back in August while she was waiting to be adopted. Because of that small kindness, she had included me on her Christmas list.

As I read on, I discovered that she was mother of three. Her youngest was Sofia’s age. All of sudden I started crying. This woman would not see her children for a year. I would see Sofia in 30 hours. This woman lived in a combat zone. I lived semi-unpacked. Suddenly I thought: maybe I could suck it up for the next 30 hours. This mom I didn’t know helped me feel grateful for the blessings I had. With my spirits lifted, I went out that very minute and bought a Christmas tree and some lights.

In the coming days, cards from family and friends filled my mailbox. More troops surprised me as well. I loved them all, but I will always be especially thankful for the timing of that first card.

The email

It was New Year’s Eve and Jim, one of my soldiers in Iraq, asked about my plans. I told him it was going to be low-key. I really just wanted to be home with Sofia. Then I wished him and his family well.

That year, Sofia was determined to stay up till midnight and watch the ball drop. But she was struggling to stay awake. The countdown began and she said, “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, Zzzzzzzz”  And she was out. I hugged her tight and just after midnight my email pinged. It was Jim.

“I hope your evening with Miss Sofia is one you cherish as one of your best New Years yet”

I broke out into a big smile. Grateful for the kindness of being remembered. Appreciating all the ways my troops made me feel special when I was having a tough time.  And more determined than ever to do the same right back for them.

New Year's Eve

New Year’s Eve

© 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

The Strongest Coffee In The World

I found a coffee that can reduce stress and anxiety, mentally transport you and even make a grown man teary.  Are these magic beans?  Close.  It’s Green Beans Cup of Joe for a Joe.  This is a cup of coffee you buy for a soldier who is deployed. You send a personal message with it and it’s like eight ounces of ‘liquid home” for the troop receiving it.  Oh, and it’s easy to do and costs $2.

I want to share some of the ones I’ve done and a few troop responses.  I also want to warn you about my Christmis-hap (that’s short for my mishap over Christmas).

But first, how it works…

Green Beans Company has cafes in many of the bases where our deployed troops are. Servicemen and women sign up for Cup of Joe (COJ).  Then strangers (you and me) go to the COJ site where we can buy our troops a cup of coffee.  Each cup is $2 and you can even buy just one.  You send a personal message with it.  Most of the time they write back a thank-you note.  There’s also the option to be pen pals if both sides wish to.

Dear soldier

They’re not all soldiers but “Dear Soldier, Marine, Sailor or Airman” sounds a little impersonal.  I write “Dear Soldier” and if they’re not, they’ll let me know.  Also, the Army is the largest branch so the math is on my side. The note you send goes out to however many troops you bought coffee for.  If you become pen pals, that’s one-on-one.

You can write something short.  Don’t be thrown that I sometimes go long. I also vary the tone and subject.  I think all that counts here is sincerity.   Even saying hello and wishing someone well has great value.  Imagine coming off a 14-hour day in a combat zone.  The closest thing to home is this café.  You stop to have a break and someone you don’t even know cared enough to say a few encouraging words and “PS- coffee’s on me.”  These are the kinds of things that impact morale and reduce stress.  And we have the power to make that impact from our living room.

I said/ they said – dinosaurs

Dear Soldier,  My little girl Sofia taught me something you may find useful in your work. It’s the reason why dinosaurs are extinct.  SOFIA:  A giant astronaut fell from space and made a big crater in the earth and made the dinosaurs extinct.  ME:  Do you think maybe that was a giant asteroid and not a giant astronaut?  SOFIA:  No. —-There you have it.  At any moment an exceptionally large NASA employee could come barreling out of the sky butt-first.  So be sure to look up now and then…Also, I want to thank you for all you do. Thank you for letting me have dino stories and more in safety and freedom. Take care, Gina

-Ms. Gina, Thanks so very much for the coffee.. and for sharing Sofia’s story about the falling astronaut!!  Both brightened my day and brought a smile to my face. The story made me think of my young daughter and of the unpredictable things that come from the mouths of babes.  And by the way– I’m an Air Traffic Controller here in Iraq, so if we pick up any falling NASA employees on the radar scope, I’ll be sure to let you know! With sincere thanks, __________ SSgt, USAF

-Gina; Thanks for making me smile 🙂 Sofia sounds a lot like my little girl from a few years ago; she turns 9 in two weeks and this is the first time in her life I will miss her birthday. Don’t ever think that it doesn’t mean a lot to have people you don’t know thank you for what you are doing … it means the world. Regards, LTC _______________

I said/ they said – Christmas

Dear Soldier,  A cup of coffee is pretty small to be a present.  So what I really want to give you for Christmas is the certainty that you are not forgotten.  And to know how grateful I am for your service. I’m from NYC and whether my day is crazy good or bad, I get to live it in peace. Your hard work and sacrifice gives me that gift.  Thank you for all you do. I wish you a merry, happy and safe holiday. Gina

-Thank you Gina. I received your coffee on Christmas Eve.  We were all having a pretty tough day here but finding your note with the coffee was sweet.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  Thank you, _______

-Thank you so much Gina. It is Christmas Eve and guess what?  You are the first person to give me a present 🙂  And a cup of coffee is NOT too small to be a present.  It is just fine. My name is SFC _____ and I’ve been in Afghanistan for almost 7 months. I have seen some things I hope to forget but I have some things I hope I never forget.  As it is Christmas Eve I am just trying to be thankful to have a place like the U.S. to go back to with nice people like you who care enough to give me a cup of coffee. 🙂 Thanks again, _______

Christmis-hap

Between sending care packages to my adopted soldier and handling presents at home, I was having some holiday mailing stress.  That’s when I found COJ.  No boxes, no post office…just a few clicks.  It was so easy that I bought a lot of coffee that day.  When I got to the part about pen pals, I checked “yes.” I figured what are the chances that all these troops are going to want to be pen pals?  I learned that at Christmas, when everyone is missing home very much, those chances are 98%.  The rest of the time, it’s only a few troops that want to write.  But after Christmis-hap, I don’t put a giant order in all at once.  I spread it out.

With some troops, you just exchange a few emails.  Some write the entire time they’re deployed.  There are a few I’ve kept in touch with after they’ve gotten home.  One is a solider who taught me one of the most important things I learned in this journey.  That story is for next time.  But for right now, may I suggest a cup of coffee?   I know where you can get some powerful stuff.

© Gina left the mall, 2012