Beyond the Holiday

I was at church recently and the priest said a community kitchen was looking for volunteers to serve, “not at the holidays.” Apparently they had ALL the volunteers they needed around Thanksgiving and Christmas. In fact, they had to turn people away. But the problem was that people were hungry all year round.

That “year round” idea was on my mind as I thought about Veterans Day. There are some great celebrations, big and small, to honor those that have served and are serving now. That’s a good thing. But when the music fades and the sun sets, they still need our support. Especially when they are far from home.

What to do?

I always say, “do what you can.” No matter how you show kindness or give of yourself, sincere effort in any measure is always appreciated. For me, this year brought some challenges to people I love so… I’ve done smaller things. A cup of coffee here, a postcard there. Nothing wrong with that. However, after a while, I took it for granted that I couldn’t do more. But then I remembered that terrific friends and amazing readers have offered to help. Why is it so hard for me to say yes? If you ask my mom she will tell you— with love—that I can be thick. Hmmm…

So I’ve decided it’s time to adopt a deployed servicemember again. That’s a commitment of one letter a week and one care package a month for the duration of the deployment. And I’ve decided that if I need help, I will ask. When you adopt, you can choose male or female and the branch of service (Army, Air Force etc). But I have my own special system for choosing. It’s whoever is next. Whoever has been waiting the longest is the person I want. I will let you know next time if it’s a boy or a girl :).

So while I’m starting this up again on Veterans Day, I’ll be doing it long after the holiday. And speaking of post-holiday, I’ll also take my daughter down to that community kitchen on some random weekend to lend a hand. After all, kindness is never out of season.

letters to the troops

© Gina left the mall, 2015

He Said, “Send Anything”

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

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

It’s A Girl!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Baby on the way, civilians on the case

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

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

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

Anything goes

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

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Pillow Talk

Andrew* is trying to get pillows and sheets for the 90 soldiers in his platoon because they have none. I said I’d help. That led to some interesting “pillow talks” with a soldier, a child, and a passionate “debater.”

The soldier is Dylan* and we’ve been friends for a while. I know that when it comes to deployment, accommodations vary. So I asked him about his personal worst and best. (*Names changed for privacy.)

No mint on your pillow here

DYLAN: The worst was either Columbia or Afghanistan in ’01. Iraq in ’03 was bad too. There were NO accommodations. Sleep where you fall and dig. Eat what you can kill, catch, or carry. Latrines??? Nothing. The best you could hope for (I deleted the rest of this sentence. I wish I could also delete Dylan’s colorful “no latrine” description from my brain.)  Ammo and other supplies, had to have air dropped. This caused a whole new set of problems…we weren’t the only ones that could see the plane or chopper coming. Had some hellacious firefights over resupplies!!

Best… Iraq 09-10 (OIF7) when you and I met!! We had living quarters, chow hall, internet and phone shacks, a small PX, and a gym. Still got rocketed and mortared a lot, but still nice to not have to (another colorful description that can be summed up: latrines = good.)

Night-lights are mandatory

To be clear, I was not buying 90 sets of twin sheets and pillows. I was getting two. Andrew had written to Soldiers’ Angels and they put the request out to the group. (So far, volunteers have signed up for all the pillows and 37 sets of sheets.)

As I headed to the store, my daughter Sofia informed me that I had to send them a night-light too. “Mommy! You can’t make them sleep in the dark! The dark is scary!” Technically, she has a point. I imagine it can be scary out there in the dark. But if I told her the soldiers probably didn’t need this, I know she’d say, “but what if one does?” Seeing her concern and how she relates it to her own world and what makes her feel vulnerable, touched my heart. The nightlight was in.

My options were Sponge Bob floating in a bubble of water, mermaids, or princesses. I went with Sponge Bob because had the edgier look in his eyes. I also got coffee. After all, with all this newfound comfort, these soldiers may need help waking up.

Pillows, sheets, "mandatory" Sponge Bob  night-light and coffee

Pillows, sheets, that’s Sponge Bob sleeping on top, and coffee getting weighed at the UPS store. No way to smush that into my usual flat-rate box.

More than talk

Leslie at Soldiers’ Angels had shared Andrew’s request and was keeping track of the responses. So I let her know how many pillows and sheets I picked up. We got to chatting and I found out:

1. She is the wife of a disabled vet.

2. She does a lot of volunteer work at Soldiers’ Angels.

3. She got into a “debate” with a gentleman at Walmart and is now writing 4,000 letters to deployed troops to prove him wrong.

Number three took me by surprise. Leslie explained that she was wearing her Soldiers’ Angels t-shirt as she shopped in Walmart. A woman approached her and started asking questions. Leslie was happily answering when a gentleman chimed in, “They don’t want letters, all they want is stuff. Letters don’t make a difference.” Leslie asked him why he had that perception. He didn’t have an answer. He just kept repeating his assertion.

I know, as Leslie does, that a letter can make all the difference in the world. It can transport you and lift your spirits. A letter can be carried with you and offer irrefutable proof that you are cared for and not forgotten. Whether our troops sleep on a bunk or in the dirt, whether they have bedding or nothing, that’s knowledge that brings comfort.

The, “all they want is stuff” part bugged me. These are our young men and women in harm’s way. Not Veruca Salt from Willie Wonka (the girl who wants it all and sings, I want it now!) The number one item I’ve seen requested is: anything. Because any little thing is appreciated. They’re in a combat zone. They don’t have access to the every day things we take for granted. Chips, soap (for those in remote areas) a cup of coffee. These are touches of home that mean a great deal. And when there are specific needs or group requests like Andrew’s, I know exactly what the motivation is: they want to help support their fellow troops any way they can.

Leslie’s debate went in circles until she asked this gentleman what she could do to change his mind.

GENTLEMAN: Nothing!

LESLIE: You tell me how many letters you want me to write. I will write them and show you the response and I will change your mind.

GENTLEMAN: 2,000

LESLIE: I’ve hit 2,000 in one year before. So why don’t we make this interesting? Let’s say 4,000.

GENTLEMAN: I don’t think you can do it.

LESLIE: You’re on!

She has been doing it. To cheer her on or check the countdown, go to her facebook page: 4,000 Letters From Home. The deadline is December 31, 2013. I look forward to this gentleman starting the New Year with a new perspective.

Almost bedtime

The bedding care package is on its way to Afghanistan. I hope Sofia’s nightlight makes them smile. And since I enjoyed the talks the pillows started, I figured I’d let Andrew have the last word by sharing the last line of his request:

Anything will be cherished. Thank you.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

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

The Day I Got A Flag

I didn’t own a flag and then one day, a troop sent me one from a combat zone as a heartfelt, “thank you.” As July 4th approaches, and more flags adorn more places, I thought I’d share the story of how I got mine.

No outdoor space

I live in an apartment building in NYC. While some people do have yards or balconies, I do not. Hanging things outside your window, many stories above unsuspecting pedestrians, is frowned upon here more than large sodas. Living vertically means certain safety considerations. When I lived in the suburbs we had a flag on the porch. But the porch stayed with the house. When I crossed the city line, owning a flag never crossed my mind.

“You have a package from Afghanistan”

In my volunteer experience, emails are easy to exchange but letters are mostly from here to there. So if I got correspondence, “from the sandbox” I was very touched. On this particular day I was not only surprised to have a package, but by the contents as well.

At times, troops will have flags flown at bases or in this case, carried aboard aircraft, in honor of someone. It’s a way to say thanks. I never knew about this tradition until that day.

I had been pen pals with an Airman and before he came home, he decided to do this for me. It seems that sharing funny stories about my daughter Sofia and the care packages we sent had helped him through a difficult period and painful losses. But because he never shared what he was going through at the time, I had no idea how much the little things we did meant to him. Then I opened the box.

Flag flown in combat, in Afghanistan. Gift from an Airman.

When I held the flag in my hands I was very moved, thinking about where it had been and his reasons for sending it. Underneath it, I found this certificate. The words “combat mission” made something I know is serious and dangerous, seem even more real. And, as always, made me wish for an outbreak of world peace. Seeing the words, “for Gina and Sofia” also struck me. We were strangers that wrote to him through Soldiers’ Angels. Yet he and all the others, “do what they do” for people they love and for the vast majority of us that they do not know and will never meet.

flag certificate from combat zone

(names blurred for privacy)

Happy Independence Day

Beach, barb-b-que, red, white, & blue cupcakes, fireworks, I wish you a happy holiday whatever you’re doing. I also thank our troops everywhere for helping ensure we can celebrate our country’s birthday yet again. I thank them and their families for the freedom to enjoy days like this with our own families. And, while my flag still remains indoors, I’m very grateful to have it.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

How To Stretch $16.46 Across The World

I believe every kind act has a ripple effect, the power to resonate. So last week I spent $16.46 to try use my “power” to help nine strangers in some far-off places. I’m not sure what will happen, but I have learned that anything’s possible.

When it’s not just “coffee”

If you’ve been here before, you know I send coffee and notes to the troops through Cup of Joe (COJ). I’ve had troops write me back and say, “I read this to my guys and we all had a good laugh. Thank you!” I love when I get those emails because knowing I made a few people smile in a combat zone, makes me smile.

I’ve stayed in touch with some of the COJ troops I’ve “met” this way. One ripple effect is that they’ve helped increase my understanding, which I’ve then shared here. The post about PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is one of many examples. Anyone who has read them and learned something or been inspired only further increases the “ripple.”

I’ve had family members tell me how much it means to them that strangers took a little time out of their day to think of their deployed loved one. As a mom, I try to imagine how I’d feel if my child were far away and I couldn’t do anything to protect them. Granted, my kid is in elementary school, and I am a total mush to begin with. But I think seeing that someone else cares and knowing that your child is not forgotten, has power.

Some people ask me what I write to the troops. Well, anything that pops in my head at the moment. A lot of times, I “steal” ideas from my daughter. This time I wrote:

Dear Soldier,

Yesterday someone asked my daughter what she wanted to be when she grows up. She said, “world-famous swimmer.” They asked, “Olympics?”  She said, “No. Mermaid.”  Her back-up plans are, “world-famous rock climber,” or “fashion designer.”  I’m not sure what will happen in the future, but I do know that I’m grateful she has the freedom to follow her dreams. Thank you for helping to safeguard that freedom. Thank you for all you do. Sincerely, Gina

Below is the first reply I received back.

COJ reply. Name blurred for privacy.

COJ reply. Name blurred for privacy.

I bought 8 troops coffee @ $2 each so that’s $16.00.

Helping an “Angel”

I read a posting from a Soldiers’ Angel that the soldier she adopted was going through a stressful time. She wanted to send him a box with as many encouraging or light-hearted letters as possible. I said I’d be happy to help.

While I’ve become very good friends with a few troops, many times I don’t hear back. And that’s fine. I don’t do this expecting anything in return. But after I write a letter, I like to imagine its journey. In this case, I saw my fellow “angel” heading to her mailbox, getting letters from all over the country. I saw her being delighted with the support and happily filling that box. Then I imagined a soldier hearing his name at mail call and opening letter after letter….different postmarks….different stories…with my voice one among many and all with the same purpose: to make him feel cared for. My part in this cost 46¢ for a stamp.

Use your power

If you haven’t already done so this week, I invite you to use your power of kindness to help a stranger. There are a lot of little opportunities all around us. Of course, if you need ideas, I’ve got a few suggestions including those in this post. But no matter what kind act you do, be prepared for it to ripple back. It seems doing things for others has a way of touching our own hearts. What would the world be like with more kindness on a regular basis? Be nice to find out.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Aloha Kandahar

I had a soldier in Kandahar whose job was to clear roads of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices.) I decided that soldier needed a luau.

His base in Kandahar

His base in Kandahar

They already have sand…

When it comes to care packages, troops appreciate anything. While there are staples and standard items, doing themes is fun for both the sender and sendee. I figured since this soldier already had plenty of sand, I would give him a “luau” in a box.

LUAU care package

Luau care package part 2

It’s hard to tell from the picture but, those are TROPICAL flavored Tums and the small brown bag is Kona coffee. I got some cigars and made a cigar box out of a small USPS flat-rate box so they wouldn’t get smushed.

A real luau is a large feast not a hearty snack. However, it is where you gather with friends, wear bright colors and relax. I was hoping my version might make him smile after a long day. Since troops often share what they receive with their buddies, I knew the cigar break would be appreciated and help reduce stress a little.  With or without wearing leis.

Other essential items

Even when I send hygiene items, I’ll still toss in something fun. You never know when a game of dodgeball may break out. It’s good to be prepared.

care package- toys

When my friend Abby found out about the fun-factor she wanted to help think of ideas. I was about to send something to my solider based in the mountains and hadn’t come up with anything yet, so I accepted her help.

ABBY EXCITEDLY:  I know! I know!  How about a kite?

ME:  So… a bright, red, diamond-shape in the sky that can be seen for miles attached to a string that leads directly to his position on the ground?

ABBY:  Oh, that wouldn’t be good. What about a canteen?

ME: I have a feeling the Army gives them canteens. The Army may have even invented canteens.

Abby and I had a good laugh as we decided she should help in other ways. Imagine a kite in these mountains near his base.

Mountains near my adopted soldier's base in Afghanistan

Afghanistan

A different box

Of course, there’s more than one kind of box you can fill that makes a difference. That would be a mailbox because a simple letter or postcard can mean a great deal.

One thing I like about Soldiers’ Angels is the opportunity to help other members with their projects. Last week, an “angel” put the word out that her adopted soldier, a female combat medic, and her entire unit (50 soldiers) were having some tough days. The angel wanted to send them a care package filled with encouraging letters and postcards from all across the country. It only took a few minutes to write a letter and postcard. It only cost two stamps and the price of the postcard.

letters to the troops

While the luau box was fun, I love that I can make an impact by doing something small too. Because if there’s one place in the world where little things mean a lot, it’s wherever our troops are far from home.

© Gina left the mall, 2013