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

When Should You Tell A Missing Limb Joke?

How about when you’re a wounded warrior doing stand-up “therapy” with comics like Lewis Black, Zach Galifianakis, B.J. Novak, and Bob Saget? When I’ve written to wounded warriors in hospitals, I’ve secretly worried and wondered what was next for them. Would they have all they need to face the challenges ahead? Feel forgotten? Have a VA-delay nightmare? What about their families? I never thought to ask if trauma could be treated with laughter, even though every troop I’ve met has had a great (and often dark) sense of humor.

But I found out that an amazing group of comics did ask. They wondered about “healing through humor” and the result is a project and documentary called Comedy Warriors. It features five vets like Bobby Henline, the sole survivor of a roadside bomb who was burned over 38% of his body and lost his left hand. This man will make you laugh. And touch your heart. Meet him and the other incredible vets in this trailer:

Comedy Warriors

A slight divide

1% of the population serves in active duty. If you add all vets, the number goes up to around 6%. With that kind of math, many of us don’t know what our troops and their families endure. The military experience is unique. For the wounded, that becomes even more true when they get back to the civilian world. Wounded Warrior Project, a group that “honors and empowers wounded warriors,” has these recent battlefield figures: 6,717 deaths, 50,897 wounded, 320,000 estimated TBIs (Traumatic Brain Injury) and 400,000 estimated with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.) For perspective, the current U.S. population is about 322 million.

So if you’ve been wounded, how do you explain, express or connect with those around you who may have little understanding of what you’ve been through? If you hold everything in, how do you heal? I once asked a soldier I know who has PTSD and other combat injuries, to help me understand PTSD better. I didn’t realize how hard it would be for him to respond. But in the end, sharing eased his pain a little. When I tried to picture him doing a project like this, I laughed out loud. He’s a piece of work without a microphone. I bet he’d excel at comedy therapy.

Sharing (and healing) through humor is both disarming and empowering. Fear and pain are pushed aside to create a space where military and civilian can come together. And when we’re in something together, we are all strengthened. These wounded warriors are resilient, inspiring and yeah, pretty damn funny. I would love to see the whole documentary. But I have to ask. Actually, a lot of us have to ask. In order for the film to get wider distribution, our local PBS, cable providers, and movie houses need to hear that we’re interested. I’m going to send a few emails. I hope you do too.

Did you hear the one about the wounded warrior who got the last laugh?

Imagine if we could all say, “yes!”

*Update: Bernadette Luckett, a Co-Producer on the film, told me that this was a labor of love for all involved. She also told me how they’re trying to bring Comedy Warriors to a larger audience by entering film festivals to get attention and secure a distribution deal. They’ve won top prizes in the ones they’ve been able to enter. If anyone would like to support their participation at major film festivals through a tax-deductible donation, this is their help page. 

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Finding The Beautiful Parts

C-130 in Afghanistan, snow-capped mountains

A soldier wrote to me about the snow-capped mountains in Afghanistan, “it’s too bad we don’t get along, I would love to snowboard there.” Another spoke of a local shopkeeper who served him tea while hand-carving a box he was buying. Yet another told me about a warm encounter in a bread factory in Kabul. These sound like very little things but they made me happy. I was glad that even in a combat zone, these troops still noticed the beautiful parts, whether in nature or simple human connections with strangers.

With all that we know about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the real threat strangers can pose, I think retaining the ability to find the beauty around you is important.

Hand-carved box made in Afghanistan

Hand-carved box made in Afghanistan.

Kabul bread factory

This is a story Col. Mike, one of my Cup of Joe soldiers, shared with me:

We inspected a bread factory in Kabul where they make all the bread for the police in the city. The bread factory is in a huge building that was built by the Russians over 35 years ago. They have 5 giant ovens and machinery that mixes the dough. Machinery inside a bread factory in KabulWhen I walked into the bread factory, there were the usual flies and there are birds that fly in through the broken windows pecking at the fresh baked bread! The women who were working there told me about how they wrap their hair with a scarf so their hair doesn’t get in the dough. I told them that I didn’t have that problem and they had a good laugh over that!

The workers shape the bread into different forms, some is flat, others are in loaves and they also make a sweet bread that is my favorite! All the bread tastes great and is a main part of every meal. Most of the workers are women and were very friendly. They were really proud of their work and kept asking me to sample the different types of bread. After every bite, I’d say “Xhoob as!” (That’s good!) and they would just get the biggest smiles on their faces!  When I tried the sweet bread, I said “Beeseyahr xhoob as!!” (That’s very good!)  I think they were just happy to get visitors. Unfortunately, the place was pretty run down and showed the years of use, and the strains of the turmoil over the last 30 years. But in spite of all that, they still made some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted!

Fresh baked bread in a  Kabul bread factory

In spite of all that…

In spite of all that, there are still moments of warmth to be shared and natural wonders to be appreciated. These things may be a small defense against disconnecting and feeling numb from the bigger and more dangerous moments. But as long as these troops are still noticing and connecting, that makes me feel like they’re going to be okay. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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

Don’t Forget Snowballs For Memorial Day

Burgers, beer, sunscreen…on Memorial Day Weekend there’s shopping to do, beaches to umbrella and pools to cannonball. Even so, I’d like to suggest one more thing to the list: snowballs. Specifically, Snowball Express, a charity that serves the children of men and women who died serving our country. Since Memorial Day is meant to honor these men and women, doing something for their loved ones seems like a fine idea.

A Snowball’s chance

Snowball Express, “creates hope and new memories” for children of the fallen by organizing special events for them. It’s a chance for these kids to have fun and be with other kids in the same situation. Also, the families get to see that they are not forgotten or alone. Past events include baseball games, magic shows, and concerts.

Now you know

The number of people in active duty is small, about 1% of the population. So not everyone in the other 99% knows someone in the military. Sometimes, the meaning of Memorial Day can feel far away, like a history lesson instead of both our collective past and present. If that’s the case, I’d like you to know someone this day is for, Pfc Jesse Givens. I found his last letter to his family on the Snowball Express site. It inspired them even further in their work. It brought me to tears. (Reader note- if you have a loved one who is deployed right now, I’d skip to the next section.)

22-April-03

My family:

I never thought I would be writing a letter like this, I really don’t know where to start. I’ve been getting bad feelings though and well if you are reading this….

I am forever in debt to you, Dakota, and the bean. I searched all my life for a dream and I found it in you. I would like to think that I made a positive difference in your lives. I will never be able to make up for the bad. I am so sorry. The happiest moments in my life all deal with my little family. I will always have with me the small moments we all shared. The moments when you quit taking life so serious and smiled. The sounds of a beautiful boy’s laughter or the simple nudge of a baby unborn. You will never know how complete you have made me. Each and every one of you. You saved me from lonliness and taught me how to think beyond myself. You taught me how to live and to love. You opened my eyes to a world I never dreamed existed. I am proud of you. Stay on the path you chose. Never lose sight of what is important, you and our babies.

Dakota you are more son then I could ever ask for. I can only hope I was half the dad. I use to be your “danny” but no matter what it makes me proud that you chose me. You taught me how to care until it hurts, you taught me how to smile again. You taught me that life isn’t so serious and sometimes you have to play. You have a big beautiful heart. Through life you need to keep it open and follow it. Never be afraid to be yourself. I will always be there in our park when you dream so we can still play. I hope someday you will have a son like mine. Make them smile and shine just like you. I love you Toad I hope someday you will understand why I didn’t come home. Please be proud of me. Please don’t stop loving life. Take in every breath like it’s your first. I love you toad I will always be there with you. I’ll be in the sun, shadows, dreams, and joys of your life.

Bean, I never got to see you but I know in my heart you are beautiful. I know you will be strong and big hearted just like your mom and brother. I will always have with me the feel of the soft nudges on your moms belly, and the joy I felt when we found out you were on your way. I dream of you every night, I always will. Don’t ever think that since I wasn’t around that I didn’t love you. You were conceived of love and I came to this terrible place for love. I love you as I do your mom and brother with all my heart and soul. Please understand that I had to be gone so that I could take care of my family. I love you Bean.

I have never been so blessed as the day I met Melissa. You are my angel, soulmate, wife, lover, and best friend. I am sorry. I did not want to have to write this letter. There is so much more I need to say, so much more I need to share. A lifetime’s worth. I married you for a million lifetimes. That’s how long I will be with you. Please keep our babies safe. Please find it in your heart to forgive me for leaving you alone. Take care of yourself, believe in yourself, you are a strong, big hearted woman. Teach our babies to live life to its fullest tell yourself to do the same. Don’t forget to take Toad to Disney World. I will be there with you. Melissa I will always want you need you and love you in my heart, mind, and soul. Do me a favor, after you tuck Toad and Bean in, give them hugs and kisses from me. Go outside look at the stars and count them. Don’t forget to smile.

Love Always
Your husband
Jess

A Memorable Weekend

Here’s to making wonderful new memories this weekend and honoring some old ones. And I don’t know about you, but I’ll be having a Snowball with my burger.

Blue Sky

photo courtesy of Tinyspitcracker

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Look For The Helpers

Boston Marathon bombing (NBC Evening News)

Boston Marathon bombing (NBC Evening News)

Soldiers complete Boston Marathon, then rush to help

Soldiers complete Boston Marathon, then rush to help (Yahoo News)

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” –Fred Rogers. As the news unfolded in Boston, I thought, Mr. Rogers was onto something.

In my last post I spoke of worrying about my family in Guam (thank you North Korea) and how, like many military families I have met, I didn’t want to watch the news.  I clearly requested, “an outbreak of world peace.” The bombs in Boston are the opposite of this. Clearly, I am not in charge.

Living in NYC, it’s not hard to imagine what the folks in Boston may be feeling right now. But rather than focus on heartache, I am going to follow Mr. Rogers’ advice and look for the helpers. Be inspired by the kindness of strangers. By the first responders who rush in and the everyday people who reach out, whether carrying victims or the thousands who offered their homes to those who were stranded. And, as always, by our troops who help us face every danger near and far. (Update- In the news, we could see many troops or vets simply leaping into action. The yahoo news article captures a few of the ways how.)

I’m going to “fight” this moment by trying to increase the kindness quotient. I especially would like to do something for the family of the 8-yr-old boy, Martin Richard. As I dropped off my 8-yr-old daughter at school this morning, surrounding by the entire 3rd grade, the loss really hit home. I found out a fund has been set up for families and other ways to help here.

Invincible

At the end of the day, there will always be some things that cannot be destroyed. The strength we give, the love we share, and our ability to help one another through anything are among that which is ever invincible.

© Gina left the mall, 2013