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

Because I Asked

It was hard to understand this soldier. Slurring his words, he told me “check your email.” It turns out that answering my question about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) dredged things up for him. So he increased his meds and had a few drinks. I felt terrible. He told me not to worry because “it’s always there.” Yeah, that didn’t make me feel any better.

The question

On Veterans Day I had asked a few vets what they wanted civilians to know. Their answers helped increase understanding. I figured maybe I could do the same with PTSD. So I asked this solider who has PTSD If he could tell me what he and other combat veterans would want us to know. That is, if it wasn’t too much trouble and if he didn’t mind. Notice the amount of “ifs” in there. But soldiers are very mission-oriented, and he was going to make sure he completed the task.

It hurt to read his email. So now what? Because just hurting isn’t good enough. I want to DO something. Then I thought the holidays are coming and that can be a difficult time. Maybe knowing what some troops are going through will be helpful to them or those around them. Maybe at this moment, that’s what I can do. So, because I asked and because he answered, here’s what I now know:

Dear Gina,

I have been giving this a lot of thought. It is a much harder question than I think you realize. I went around work today and asked a bunch of the guys. The response was overwhelming silence. What is the number one thing we want people to know about PTSD? Nothing. We know way too much about it to wish that kind of knowledge/torture on our own people. True combat-related PTSD controls your life. It focuses all of its evil on making you wish you weren’t here anymore. It truly ruins the rest of your life, until you get to a point that you are able to control, or tame it a little. However, it is never gone… I can’t watch certain kinds of movies, news segments, enjoy fireworks displays, play paintball with my kids… Even certain smells bring me back. Those are some of the worst days.  Holidays, forget about ’em, I’m useless. All I can do is put on a fake smile, over take my meds, and drink enough to stumble through the day.

So what can I honestly tell you that I would want people to know about PTSD?  I wouldn’t want anyone to know what I know.  What do I think people need to understand about it? To understand about us?

POSITIVE
1) One thing is this, we are incredibly loyal!!  A grunt that has been knee deep in his buddy’s intestines, is a man that will stay by you no matter what the cost!!

2) Hard working. Our suffering is a sign that we know how to give everything we have, day in and day out for very very long periods of time! You wont find a career civilian with half the drive for success that we have.

3) Along with these things will come the need for perfection, correctness, reliability, and attention to detail. Because PTSD is partially the result of these things keeping us alive!!!

NOT SO POSITIVE
1) I have spent my entire adult life training to fight, learning to survive by going from zero to infinity in a split second with little to no provocation or warning. PTSD sometimes makes this an impossible thing to turn off.

2) When we look like we might be having a moment, we probably are.  However, don’t run and hide, let us know you care. One time, we cared, and now we suffer, but we have never stopped loving what we fought for.

3) When veterans holidays (and possibly a few others that we individually tell you are days that give us fits every year) roll around- we might appreciate a special pat on the back, shake of the hand, or even (especially me) just a look. This look lets us know that you may not understand why I have tears in my eyes and want to just sit in a corner for a few minutes, but it tells us that we can take that moment for our own reflection. Remember, when you were 19 you were trying to figure out how to sneak beer into the theater. I was writing a letter to a mother, a wife, a sister, a father, or a brother telling them that I held their loved one in my arms as he passed away in combat. That I carried him as long as we needed in order to try to save him, and listened as he said his final goodbyes and I love you’s.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

It sounds funny to say “thank you” for…

the hugs un-hugged and bedtime stories unread,

for the school plays you didn’t attend,

for not changing the oil,

for skipping date night and taco night,

for not playing with the dog,

for every single everyday moment you’ve missed with your family and every single moment they’ve missed you right back.

Troops stand in harm’s way on holidays and all days to protect those they love as well as the millions of us they will never meet. They raised their hands to serve and this is their job. But the families sacrifice as well. They’re in this together.  And when we understand and appreciate what they endure, we’re in it together too.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Beating The Odds

I didn’t meet SSgt. RD at a biker rally, elk hunt, gun club or Hooters restaurant. Mostly because I don’t ride, hunt, shoot or want that kind of burger combo. He didn’t meet me in any of my worlds either. Our paths crossed through Cup of Joe, where a civilian can buy a deployed troop a cup of coffee.

I appreciated his service. It meant something to him that I cared. Other than that, we had nothing in common. What are the chances we’d became good friends? Well, I learned that beating the odds was his theme. I learned other things too from “fun” animal facts to something very important. It’s knowledge that may make you want to take action at the end of this post.

Never ask about elk hunting

This should be number two on your list right after, “never cut the blue wire.” Apparently, procuring fresh elk-meat is more hands-on than my online grocery order. As RD described in detail the prepping and dividing of elk amongst the group of men gathered under a large tree, I had visions of an Amish hit squad.

“Gina, you eat hamburgers. Where do you think they come from?”

“My hamburgers are magically formed from cows who die a sudden, natural, painless death in a lush meadow while baby bunnies frolic nearby.”  

Why soldiers fight

When Osama bin Laden was killed, RD made a list of his fallen brothers and put a bottle of Jim Beam on the table. He wanted to do one shot for each buddy. He drained the bottle and passed out before he got halfway down the list.

Whenever RD walks through airport security he lights up like a Christmas tree from the four bullets that couldn’t be removed, the confetti of shrapnel plus the metal rods in his shoulder and spine.

This is a picture of the interior of a vehicle he was riding in. That hole was made by an enemy sniper. RD felt the air around the bullet as it flew just in front of his face.

Interior of MRAP vehicle my soldier was riding in when an enemy sniper's bullet hole.  It just missed him.

He also has PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Once, after a difficult period, he begged his wife to leave him because he thought she could have a better life without him.  She refused.

One day I asked him why he puts his body, heart and mind through all this. Why does he fight?

“You have to understand….we don’t love war, we fight because we love what we left behind…  We do it for our wives and kids, for our friends and family and for their kids, we do it for the guys next to us and their wives and kids… we do it for you Gina.  It’s what’s behind us… is why we fight so hard.

The battle now

No troop I’ve met ever wants to talk about his medals. But I asked RD to please tell me. Among his awards are 2 Purple Hearts, 2 Bronze Stars, and 2 Army Commendations. Now this decorated and dedicated soldier is facing what may be his last battle. He may be forced to retire on medical grounds.

RD loves the Army. With passion and resilience he wants to use his hard-earned knowledge any way he can to benefit his brothers and sisters-in-arms. I don’t know what the odds are once you get to a medical review board. I know he’s doing all he can to continue to be allowed to make a difference as a soldier.

This post is my way of fighting for him. I know the chances are small that one civilian and some blog readers can sway the United States Army. If you would like to fight for RD too, if you want to keep brave soldiers with passion and resilience in our Army, please say so in the comments. As a taxpayer, if you don’t want all that hard-earned knowledge just walking out the door, leave a comment. This way he can share it with the review board. And maybe, just maybe, we can beat the odds together.

*UPDATE- Click here for the update to this story:  When Uncle Sam Breaks Up With You. I  posted on September 18, 2013. Yes, it took that long.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

“We had a rough week….”

Bad things happen in a combat zone. In my head, I knew that. But after adopting my soldier, I felt it more. My connection to him made the evening news feel personal. Or as my buddy Andy said, “now you have skin in the game.”

His Email

In the first 9 days after adopting my soldier, I learned:

He couldn’t wait to meet his baby boy, Kyle.

He is a sniper currently doing a Personal Security Detail.

He is in charge of 23 soldiers. He cares about them a lot.

He is a huge hockey fan.

He loves canned ravioli.

Day 10:

“……. this last week has been really tough here. Another platoon in our unit lost a guy when their truck was hit by a roadside bomb. The…….other guys in the truck were sent back to the states because of injuries. We have been here since mid June and this is the third person we have lost. It has been hard for most of my platoon since this is their first deployment and they have never been through anything like this before. “

His concern was for the fallen, the families and his fellow soldiers. My concern was for him as well.

This I Can Do

I can’t make world peace happen. I’m all for it, but I can’t make it just happen. However, I could do this- I could make sure he hears his name at every mail call. Give him 5 minutes where he’s reminded of his real world a world away. Where he knows that the sacrifice he and his family is making is appreciated. So I stepped up the letter writing and started sending a few more care packages.

Communication Blackout

sniper rifle on roof in combat zone

Six weeks later, I turn on the news and there’s been an attack. It sounded like the area my soldier was in. His emails stop. The e-silence in my inbox was profound. I found out that when someone is KIA, there is a communications blackout until the next of kin are notified. In this attack, eight U.S. troops were killed and 22 wounded. Here I am not knowing if my soldier is okay or not. I was worried. Then I thought, “I’m a stranger. What must his wife be feeling?”

I found out the attack occurred at a base about 15 minutes away from him. I said a prayer for those soldiers and their families. And I felt relief that my soldier was alright. There would be more days to get to know him.

© Gina left the mall, 2012