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:

“These 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.”

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

How To Write To A Soldier

Troops say mail call is like, “Christmas morning.” But what do you write if you’re strangers? Many people have asked so I’m sharing a few tips and a simple structure that work for me. If you’ve never written before or just want some ideas, feel free to use anything here.

Tips

Be positive and encouraging. Remember, troops have the stress of being far from home and who knows what else may be going on. This is not the time to vent. That’s what BFFs and the pint-sized ice cream container were invented for.

The polite company rule – avoid religion and politics, is always a good first letter idea. Another is to simply be conversational and genuine. If your spouse, child, or other loved one were deployed, how would you want someone to talk to them? 

And, of course, safety first. That would be OPSEC/PERSEC. It stands for Operational Security and Personal Security. Don’t share their address and other info.

As for specifics, I’ve divided your first letter into four easy pieces: Dear_____, intro paragraph, wonderful middle, and sincere close.

Dear ___________

I follow the lead of whatever’s in the request or information I receive. If troops use their first name, so do I. If they use rank and last name, that’s how I fill in the blank. In some cases, you don’t have a name but a branch of the military. If it’s Army, then I write, Dear Soldier.

All troops are not Soldiers. Army = Soldier, Air Force = Airman, Navy = Sailor (Navy construction battalion, it’s Seabee) Marine Corps = Marine. Coast Guard I have heard referred to as Coast Guardsman and those stationed on ships as Sailors. If you don’t happen to have a name or branch, you can write Dear Servicemember.

Intro Paragraph

I introduce myself and why I’m writing. I also include the name of the charity I got their information from. In some cases, they may not be expecting my letter. That happens when others submit a troop who they feel needs a morale boost.

Example: Hi, my name is Gina, I’m a Soldiers’ Angel from NYC and I’m writing to thank you for your service. I have an awesome little girl named Sofia who says to tell you, “hi.” 

If I know anything about them, such as where they’re from, I’ll talk about it in the next line or two. Then I start setting up whatever story I’m going to share.

The Wonderful Middle

Here I write about home. After all, home and all the wonderful things in it, is what they miss most. In my case, it’s often a funny story involving Sofia. But other great topics include sports you watch or play, something special about your hometown, your amazing pet, a recent movie, concert, an event with friends- even if it’s just sitting around the fire pit under the stars telling jokes, hobbies, …whatever you care about.

I think what’s also helpful is if you can write it visually. A Vietnam Vet told me that when he received letters that they would transport him, even if for a short time, away from the horrible place he was. So whatever story I’m writing, I try to paint a picture to help them take a break from their current locale. For example, you can see how the fire pit sounds more interesting than the other items in the list above because you can “see it.”

I also try to include a question or two to give them something to respond to if they reply. Of course, not everyone has the time or ability (regular internet connection or outgoing mail) to write back. If you’ve just worked eight 16-hr days in a row, you may want to spend your day off getting some rest, trying to connect with family, or just zoning out in your bunk with movies and games.

Sincere Close

I wrap up by acknowledging this servicemember’s role in the wonderful things we get to enjoy. Example: I know the reason Sofia has the freedom to ______(whatever I just shared) in peace and safety is because of the hard work you and your fellow troops do every day. Thank you for all you do. 

Sometimes I’ll ask them to thank their family on my family’s behalf. Because I know they are sacrificing too. If I know there’s been a specific morale issue, I may assure them they are not forgotten. If I know there’s been loss of life or injuries, I’ll want them to know we are keeping them in our prayers. Then I include my email address to make replying easier.

Write right

There’s more than one right way to do this. I think if you let courtesy and kindness be your guide, you’ll do great. Our deployed troops really do appreciate any little thing. Including a stranger taking the time to remember those who fight to defend their freedoms.

Update on a note Sofia sent that follows none of these tips…lol (although, this wasn’t her first letter to our Marine.) He deployed again and took her advice! Two of his Marines did a very good job and he told Sofia to imagine them in a combat zone with smiley face stickers on their uniforms. He said, “that should bring a smile to your face.” It most certainly did!

(name blurred for privacy)

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Snail-Tweeting My Soldier

The first soldier I ever wrote to is headed back to Afghanistan soon. So I’ve been thinking about doing something special for him. Technically, this is not necessary because he’d appreciate anything. And technically, this may not be easy. During his last deployment I got creative a few times (like the golf ball episode) and occasionally lucky (help from a hockey team.) After a while I jokingly told him, “It’s all downhill from here.” But I also know this:

1. Little things mean a lot when you’re far from home. Even the smallest kindness.

2. Continuity helps. Contact throughout the entire deployment has a greater morale impact than sporadic contact. Sporadic has a greater morale boost than no contact.

3. Do what you can. I learned this lesson the hard way after taking on projects for him that were too big and/or not asking for help when I needed it.

Obviously, these three things add up to the invention of Snail-Tweets. Or my version of it.

Snail-Tweeting

What if I could send him a tiny bit of support for every day that he is deployed? Hearing your name at mail call is a powerful thing. However, if I sent letters every day I’d run out of things to say pretty quickly. But what if I kept it to 140 characters or less? What if, instead of tweeting online, I did it on postcards?

As I started thinking about stockpiling interesting and fun postcards, point #3 -Do what you can, popped into my head. So this is where I ended up:

1. I will try to send him a snail-tweet every day. “Try” being the operative word in that sentence.

2. If I need help coming up with snail-tweets, I will ask for it. My daughter often has memorable lines. I bet my wonderful readers do too. It may even be more interesting if they’re not all from me. If I ask strangers, I could make their “handle” something descriptive like GuyAtHotDogStand.

3. I’ll number the cards so they’re easier to track. I’ve mailed things on the same day before and one will get there in two weeks and the other arrives months later or not at all. I know anything topical becomes historical when I put in a mailbox, but to me they’re moments. Being deployed, our troops miss so many everyday moments. It may be nice to get a few back.

Urban Dictionary has Snail-Tweet defined as, “a conventional postcard.” I think my version of it is less conventional.

The plan

So that’s my plan right now. Of course, like all plans related to the military, it is subject to change. Plus, you never know, there could be an outbreak of world peace. And those last 64 characters would be well worth giving up snail-tweeting for.

postcards

postcards (Photo credit: petit zozio)

© Gina left the mall, 2013

What are the chances?

What are the chances of reading an article online and then randomly “meeting” the writer in Iraq a few months later? Apparently, 100% because it happened to me with a deployed troop.

6 out of millions

I had just adopted a soldier and realized…I don’t know anything about soldiers. So I thought it might be a good idea to read some stories or articles written by troops. A quick search got me millions of results and I randomly chose six. Clearly, this was not exhaustive research. I just wanted to get a sense of what deployment was like for our troops. To understand a little how they felt when going through it.

A few months later, I started doing Cup of Joe (COJ) a wonderful program where you send a cup of coffee with a message to deployed troops. COJ distributes them randomly to any troop that signs up. It costs $2, many of them email back a “thank you,” and there’s a pen pal option.  I met Jim when I sent out a few COJs that Christmas.

ME:  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

JIM:  That was about the sweetest sentiment I have ever received. I will copy this and save it for Christmas’s in the future. I truly appreciate your gesture and message. May Christmas find you with happiness, love and always security. Warmest of regards Jim Martin

I am using Jim’s name with his permission. Normally I don’t use full names because of privacy and/or security. He was a Senior Medical NCO for a Heavy Brigade Combat Team. When I told him I was a writer, he mentioned that had always been a dream of his. In fact, he had even gotten something published online once. I asked for the link. When I got it, I realized it was one of the six that I had read!!  Six articles out of millions…. thousands of deployed troops and my coffee finds him??  I smiled and laughed at this wonderful surprise. I had loved the emotional honesty in his words. “Meeting” the man who wrote them made it even more special. This is the article: Honor Our Sacrifice

$2

Along with a very nice “small world moment,” I got the pleasure of getting to know Jim. What our troops do, endure and brave is pretty amazing.  What are the chances we can do something meaningful in return with a $2 investment?  I’m happy to say the odds on that are also 100%.

chance

© Gina left the mall, 2013

When My Adopted Soldier And I Decided To Meet

They tell you contact usually ends when deployment ends. But I already had a few unusual things happen with my adopted soldier “K” so…why should this be any different? We started making plans for him, his wife and infant child to visit me in NYC. Both their friends and family and mine said, “What???” After all, we were strangers.

(At this point, I would like to suggest a detour for my readers with a loved one who is currently deployed. Perhaps the post where golf balls helped increase safety or how this all started. Why? Because parts of the following sections may be hard to read. And I’m a big fan of reducing stress.)

Most of the time

Most of the time our correspondence was light. I sent him a lot of funny stories about my daughter Sofia. But the events unfolding around him were anything but light. K was the first troop I ever got to know and he had one of the more difficult deployments of all the troops I’ve come to know. 10 days after I adopted him, they had a casualty. His unit had only been there a few weeks and this was not the first one. Then a nearby base was overrun and many lives lost. And so on. He would state these events simply, never going into detail.

At home, when I mentioned an attack, most people hadn’t heard of it. That felt very isolating. I felt like I was caring about somebody in a parallel universe. But I understood that people weren’t aware because I used to be one of them.

The worse things got, the more I wanted to do something to help protect him. I know that sounds crazy because he is a highly trained, very capable soldier and I am afraid of spiders. But I’m also a Mom so that protect-gene is hard to turn off.

Maybe I could do this

K told me that getting mail was like Christmas morning for them. I know that mail = better morale. Better morale can reduce stress, depression and anxiety. I thought, hey…If I could keep his morale up, maybe I could help him get home in better shape. Then I found out the Army has a soldier’s creed. So I made a “volunteer creed.”  I never told K because I wrote it for myself. I feel a little vulnerable sharing it but, I think it captures how I had come to feel.

I am my soldier’s soldier. My mission is to make sure he hears his name at every mail call for the duration of his deployment. To make him feel that the hard, dangerous job he does, the long stressful hours for days on end…is appreciated. To brighten his day if only for a few moments with a taste of home. To pray for his safe return. And to do this with no effort, thanks or consideration required on his part.  And no complaints or wavering on my part. I am my soldier’s soldier.  And I will never fail him.

He was in a remote base and mail arrived by convoy every two weeks. When you adopt, you send one care package a month and one letter a week. I doubled that to increase my chances of hitting both deliveries. Once he got a box much quicker than I expected. He explained that the convoys kept getting attacked so they started doing helicopter drops. Now mail came every 2-3 days.

ME:  That’s great!

ME ON THE INSIDE:  Uh oh.

How the heck was I going to make all those mail calls? Of course, it’s not like anyone knew that was my goal. A more sane person might just say forget it. Clearly, I am not that person. I decided to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Enlisting strangers

I started carrying around postcards. Especially when I travelled for work. If I were delayed at an airport I’d sit at the bar. After chatting with the bartender for a few minutes, I’d ask if he could do me a favor and say “hi” to my adopted soldier. Or if I were getting my nails done, I ask the girls around me.  After the initial surprise (you can adopt a soldier?) the answer was always yes. They felt good doing it. After they wrote a message, I’d address it (you keep addresses private) and drop in whatever mailbox in whatever town I was in.

His wife

Usually contact is with your soldier. But the Taliban kept shooting out their internet. So for the second half of his deployment, I had much more contact with his wife. That’s how I came to see the everyday impact on the family. She would share a “first” that baby Kyle did and I would realize, wow…another thing he missed and that she did solo.

One day she wrote that I might not hear from K for a while. And she wanted to let me know what was going on. His best friend, a fellow soldier deployed with him, had shot himself. The military calls this a Non-Combat Death. I don’t think this is an accurate description because I believe combat has a great deal to do with Army suicides.

I found out this soldier left behind a 3-yr-old son. I wrote a letter to the family.

K

I didn’t hear from him for a while but I got updates from his wife. Then he went on a mission for a few weeks where he had zero contact home. By the time he returned, he found a pile of mail on his bunk. There were packages from his wife and my daughter, plus a stack of mail from me and my army of strangers. Including a copy of the letter I sent his friend’s family. He appreciated it all. But the letter meant so very much to him. Maybe it’s why that day, we decided to meet in real life.

Visiting a total stranger sounded unusual to others. But the truth was, by that point, we didn’t feel like strangers at all.

New York City skyline

Where we planned to meet.

© 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

All He Wanted Was A Little Dress

This deployed soldier in Afghanistan didn’t ask for anything for himself. However, “J” had a special request for the Soldiers’ Angel who had adopted him. His Angel was a lovely woman who shared it through the Soldiers’ Angels forum. I’m a member so that’s how it got on my radar.

His request

I need some help. The local kids are dirt poor (and when I say dirt poor, I mean these girls have 3 sets of clothing and NO shoes at all.) They live in a mud hut. They have to beg for water. They eat fruit stolen from the local orchards and bread that the mother makes somehow. The older girl smiles when I ask her name and I told her I would like to get some shoes and clothes for her.  Her name is _____ and her little sister is _____. They are 6 and 2 1/2.  Figure if we can help the kids, maybe the parents will be more receptive to US soldiers helping the community with building wells for clean water, improving streets, getting trash and pollution out of here. I hope that through the children’s smiles, they will melt the hearts of the adults and there, we will win the war through peace and charity.

My daughter Sofia was 6 then and this request melted my heart. I said I’d be happy to help and was told the dresses should be modest, conservative and ideally long-sleeved because it was getting cold.

Sparkle City

I went immediately to Sofia’s closet to pull out “hand-me-downs” that were in great shape. The only problem was her style at that time was Opposite of Plain. She loved sparkles, sequins, “jewels,” any form of bedazzlement. And her favorite color? Rainbow. That’s what she would say. She loved all colors… often on the same exciting garment which could then be paired with an equally exciting garment of unrelated pattern. It was slim pickin’s in Sparkle City but I did find a few things including the dress below. Then I went out and got a few new ones.

Little girl dress

The mission

I’m sure when J deployed that nowhere in any of his mission briefings was there a section on “fighting” war with toddler and size 6 dresses. Nor are these items standard issue Army equipment. But many times I’ve seen requests or heard stories of troops trying to make things better for the people around them and in ways that go beyond their training. I think it’s because the men and women who raise their hand to serve, are often the first to volunteer at home when help is needed. From food drives and clothing drives to disaster aid. It’s part of who they are. I love that J took action this way. He was doing what he could in his little corner of Afghanistan. And from random corners across the U.S. he was getting help from an army of Angels, each of us doing what we could too.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Coffee And A Serving Of Perspective

What can you get for one $2 cup of coffee? How about a new perspective? This happened when I bought a soldier a cup of coffee through Cup of Joe. In a post about the program, I included my message that went with the coffee and his reply. It was this soldier that gave me a new outlook.

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 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, ____

I’ll call this soldier “Gibbs” for reasons that will soon become clear.

The question

Gibbs and I became pen pals. It’s not always easy to think of things to write to a stranger. So I’d ask questions. Most people love animals so I’d ask about pets. Or, “did you ever break a bone?” Often, there is some funny childhood mishap involved. One time I asked Gibbs what his most incredible experience in the Army was. What was his favorite memory?

My stealth motive for asking that was to boost his morale. I figured recalling some positive experiences would be…..positive. I didn’t expect the stunning answer I received in return. It was emotionally powerful and the imagery he used… well, I felt like I was there. After I told him how amazing it was, I suggested he print out what he wrote and save it for his kids.

GIBBS:  No. I don’t want to share it. In fact, I’ve never shared that with anyone before.

ME:  Why?

GIBBS: No one ever asked me that question before. Besides, I don’t want to glamorize war. I went to war so my kids and your Sofia won’t have to. No war for them.

ME:  Understood. Big fan of peace. But what about when your kids are grown so they can know you better? You told me your dad was a Vietnam Vet. Is this story the kind of thing you wish you knew about him?

GIBBS:  Yeah. I wish I would’ve known.

ME:  So you’ll save it for them.

GIBBS:  No.

ME:  Well, what about the Library of Congress? I think you can do it anonymously. They are collecting soldier stories.

GIBBS:  Gina, you have to understand, in my real world I don’t talk a lot. With you…you’re not going run into anyone I know so, it’s okay. Nothing is going to bite me in the ass.  But in real life, I’m like Gibbs (from the TV show NCIS.)

ME:  Okay, so the one person you shared this incredibly moving story with is a total stranger you will never meet in real life?

GIBBS: Yes.

As a woman, a mom, and a writer (I’m in a communications field!) this made me crazy. But it’s not about me, is it? This is about letting him chat or vent and just being supportive. So I dropped it. Knowing how much his privacy meant, I deleted the email. And I’ve never repeated what he told me. But his story is an indelible memory that I have the honor of carrying. In my heart, I hope he did share it with someone in his real world. Because I think he is worth knowing and I’m rooting for him in every way.

Payback

Along with the coffee and emails, I sent him a few care packages. One was “dinner and a show.” That consisted of 1 can of soup, some candy for dessert and a DVD of his favorite TV show, NCIS. I admit the DVD was more money than I normally spend on a care package. But they had some bad days and I knew he’d really like it so, I sent it. As his deployment drew to a close, he told me he wanted to pay me back for the DVD. I told him if he sent me money I would hunt him down and “put the hurt on him.”

GIBBS:  Lol…Okay, if you won’t take money, what about this? What about my Unit patch that I’ve worn this whole deployment? It’s been through a lot and I’d like you to have it.

ME:  Don’t you want to save that for someone in your real world?

GIBBS:  I would like you to have it because you were the one who was here with me.

ME:  Tell you what, I will accept it and hold it for you. If you ever change your mind you can have it back.

When it arrived I held it and thought, of all the places this patch has been, the most unlikely is probably the palm of my hand in my little corner of Manhattan. I decided to carry it in my wallet and use it as a “perspective check.” When I have one of those days where I get caught up by the small annoyances, a bad commute, someone rude in the checkout line…what have you, I can look at it and remember. I remember there are worse things and places. I remember to be grateful for the good in my life. And when I face the big challenges, I can look at it then too. I look at it and remember to have courage. Because I am holding proof right there in my hand that difficult times can be overcome. And I got all that with one $2 cup of coffee.

Unit Patch  "Big Red 1"

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Deploying Puppy Power

A puppy helped me lift morale for my adopted soldier “K.” It started with an email. Afghanistan is 9.5 hours ahead of New York so I was usually asleep when his messages came. But this one arrived while I rode the train to Long Island to visit my cousin Laura. In it, K talked about how much he missed his puppy. This “puppy” was a 100-pound Italian Mastiff named Angus.  It was clear from the way he wrote that K was Dog People.

Dog People

You know them. You might even be one. I think dogs are awesome but Dog People have a special connection. And now that I knew K did, what kind of care package could I come up with? Sometimes I liked to go beyond beef jerky and canned ravioli. I was still wondering exactly what and how when Laura picked me up at the train station.

LAURA:  I’m thinking of drawing again. I haven’t sketched anything in ten years but I’m thinking of doing portraits of dogs.

ME:  What????

Laura is Dog People too. I informed her that her first portrait would be my adopted soldier’s dog.

LAURA: What????  You adopted someone? How old is he? How does that work? How did you meet him?

ME: He signed up. I signed up. I send one letter a week and one care package a month. It impacts morale. Mail call is like Christmas morning for them. No, we never met. But he’s awesome. I’ll get pictures from his wife. It’ll be great.

Laura did not think it would be great. Only because she didn’t think her drawing would be good enough. I explained that the thought, time and effort would meet that threshold and then some. He was in a remote base with limited internet access and few entertainment options. It would be a really nice surprise to “bring” Angus to him this way, to bring some warm fuzzy puppy love here:

Combat Outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan

K’s Combat Outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan

Picture this

K’s wife sent me a bunch of pictures and Laura chose one where K and Angus were connecting. Laura’s teenaged children had never seen her draw before and said, “Wow Mom!” I was excited too. For privacy/security, I had to blur part of the image. But I hope you can still get a sense of it.

My adopted soldier and his 100-pound "puppy"

Angus and K

Sketch of my soldier and his 100-pound "puppy"

Angus and K. Again.

I put it in a glass frame because it’s not like there’s a store nearby where he can pick one up. Then I worried, what if it shatters? Mail goes through a lot to get to his base. I didn’t want to be the volunteer that actually harms troop strength! So I bought a large roll of bubble wrap and used all of it. You could bounce this thing when I was done.

Real power

K loved it and couldn’t believe someone would take the time and trouble to do this for him. Especially someone he had never met. His wife loved it. Her parents loved that my family (well, really just Laura) did this for him. K’s battle buddies got to see that strangers care. Laura got to re-debut her artistic side in a meaningful way.

This was not the first or last mail call I asked for help with. At times I would simply ask someone to fill out a postcard. But no matter what, the results were always the same. K was moved and it helped him during a very difficult time. Those helping me were moved too. It feels good to do good. To know that you’ve made a difference for someone. That’s a real power we all have. One that we can “deploy” at any time.

Dog treat

Love is a powerful thing. On fours legs as well as two. Here are a few dogs welcoming soldiers home. Enjoy!

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Somebody Called Me A Patriot

The word stood out because no one had ever called me that before. Which was fine because I had always associated it with politics and I don’t like politics. I vote, but I don’t discuss it (except with those closest to me.) There’s so much animosity between sides, I just want to cry like that little girl in a battleground state who apparently had enough of the battle.

The only time I really heard the word used was when politicians were trying to out-patriot one another with photo ops. Or accuse someone else of not being patriotic enough if they disagreed with them. Which gave this word some negative baggage for me. And then this happened:

I said/ He Said

It was around Christmas and I bought some deployed troops coffee through Cup of Joe. Below is what I wrote and one of the responses I received.

Dear Soldier,  A cup of coffee is kinda small to be a present. So what I really want to give you 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.

Ms Gina, you are the reason we as service men and women, “Do what we Do.” It is close to the holiday season and home is soo far away. I work and live every day helping the Iraqi’s police and security become better. This effort is providing a safe and secure Iraq for the people. But living with the Iraqi’s as advisors comes with great risk. I am truly thankful for my fellow Patriots (you) who support the hard work we all are doing everyday. You are the reason I get up and Soldier on everyday! God Bless You and I hope you have a happy and safe holiday! Keep all of us in your thoughts and prayers. Army Strong! J___ , Captain, U.S. Army P.S. Your cup of coffee means more than you will ever know!

I told my buddy Andy that a soldier called me a patriot and my feelings about the word. He was surprised because he has very positive feelings about it. He got quiet for a moment and then explained that “patriot” doesn’t belong to any political party. He said, “It means you care about this country. You do. And you are.”

The talk

I don’t care if the troops I support vote the same as me or not. I care that they are away from their families and in harm’s way. I care that my daughter and I get to skip down the street without looking over our shoulders because of their service and sacrifice. That’s precious. I was in NYC on 9/11 and I will never forget what it felt like to walk down the streets that day.

That said, I was in a bar with a friend and found myself in a conversation I didn’t want to be in. I think liquor bottles should add that to their warning labels: consumption may cause birth defects and political debates.

He felt I was supporting war and that there should be no military. Well first of all, I am all for world peace. I would be thrilled if our troops only deployed for natural disasters. But under any scenario, I don’t see why you wouldn’t support the troops. Even if you disagree with a political action, there’s a difference between the war and the warrior. Our troops don’t decide where they go. We do. They have a civilian commander chosen by mostly civilians (active military = 1% of the population.) They go and do what this country says at tremendous personal risk and sacrifice to them and their families. If you don’t like what they’re doing, work to change it. But these are our sons and daughters. We have a duty to care. Also, I disagree with the thought that we don’t need a military.

Finally I said, “We both have a lot of passion for our respective beliefs. I’ve helped hundreds of people with my passion, what have you done with yours? Have you written one letter to your congressman? Shown that you care where our servicemen and women are? Done anything to promote world peace…ever?” There was silence. Some hurt feelings too. But we agreed that taking action was good and that we weren’t going to agree on most everything else.

Political Action

Tomorrow is Election Day. My political action will be to vote. Then I’m going to send a few cups of coffee to the troops. Because one reason I have the freedom to vote, a right so many people in the world are denied, is because our troops safeguard it. So I do this small kindness to honor that. And if that makes me a patriot, then that’s what I’m proud to be.

© Gina left the mall, 2012