4 Lovely Surprises

The package in my mailbox had a return address in the Middle East. It was from Drew*, my adopted Airman. I wasn’t expecting to hear from him. Well, no volunteer expects anything. You do it to be supportive as our troops do a difficult, dangerous job for long hours far from home. Some troops wish to connect and have access to do so, others do not. Whatever they want is fine. And up to then, Drew had not been in contact.

However there—squeezed in amongst the relentless Christmas catalogs that kept coming while we were away at Grandma’s for the holidays—was Drew’s mail. Lovely surprise #1.

Inside the package was a beautiful letter thanking me and my daughter Sofia for our support. We were really touched. Especially when we learned how much he loved the postcards. Sofia had sent him 19  (with one word each) and they were all scenes of New York City.  It turns out that Drew is also from New York Ctiy! We had no idea we were sending him little pieces of his hometown. Lovely surprise #2.

“I hope you find a place for this in your home”

Yes Drew, there is a place in our home for your kind gift. And a place in our hearts for you, your family and all that you do.

Souvenir art from deployed troop

He said it was a small token of his appreciation. But there was nothing small about the smile it gave us.

Surprise #4

I don’t know if Drew will get the letter I sent on New Year’s. Or the one I am sending to thank him for this. Why? He is going home sooner than I expected. And that’s the best surprise of all.

*name changed for privacy

© Gina left the mall, 2016

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

Fort Hood & Angels Armed With Pens

I never heard of Fort Hood until the day of the shooting. My friend Andy called and said, “My nephew is there.” I had recently started doing volunteer work for troops and I thought maybe I could do…something. Anything.

What happened at Fort Hood?

On November 5, 2009, a lone gunman went on a shooting rampage at Fort Hood, an Army base in Texas. He killed 13 people and wounded 32 others. The accused is U.S. Army Major Nidal Hassan. His legal issues have been in the news recently.

Before their first deployment

My friend’s nephew “TM” was in a unit that was about to deploy for the first time. Their mission would be to find and clear roadside bombs in Kandahar. But his unit hadn’t even left Texas yet and they had casualties. One of TM’s buddies worked closely with some of the soldiers killed and felt the loss even more.

Maybe I could get a little support going for that one soldier, a few caring letters. TM thought that was a good idea. I’d said I’d try.

Just a few months earlier I had adopted a soldier. When I saw I was really making a difference for him, I wanted to do more. Two adoptions would be too much for me. But I found that Soldiers’ Angels (SA) had all kinds of programs (as well as adoption.) I started doing Wounded Warrior TLC – letters to the wounded in hospitals so they know they are not forgotten. I asked the TLC team leader if we could get a few people to write to TM’s buddy. She said she would do it and ask some of her most experienced Angels to join her.

Hung up 

At first, TM’s buddy was surprised to hear from strangers. But then he was moved and hung up the letters for others to see. I was asked if SA could help the entire battalion.

SA is almost all volunteers. They get lots of worthy requests so I wasn’t sure if I could make this one happen too. They were already doing projects at Fort Hood for the victims’ families and the wounded. And I was new at this and a little shy to ask for more help. But I did ask. SA put my request out and the letters starting pouring in from all over the country.

Barb has a heart as big as Texas

One Angel that responded, Barb, got large groups of people to write. She also wanted to help this battalion when they deployed. She wrote to TM about being a Point Of Contact.   Neither of us knew what that meant exactly. Barb explained:

“His job as a POC is to take up everyone on their offers, open the boxes, share with everyone and send an e-mail to the person sending the box to let them know it arrived. Just a very short message is okay. He will also need to inform us if anyone needs a morale boost. Things that might be in short supply and I need to know what his favorite junk food is! Inform us or you if someone is not getting mail. He really should put the whole unit up for adoption through SA as soon as he has addresses for the unit.  Wing tip to wing tip we will get er done!”

Wow. So this went from a few letters for one soldier, to a battalion, to caring about a battalion for their upcoming deployment. This is more than me or TM ever expected. POC is also more than TM could do in his particular job.  Luckily another soldier could take that on. Meanwhile, as the mail continued to arrive in Texas, TM wrote:

“The letters have been coming in fast and numerous. I actually just picked up a box filled with letters from Barb. The support is absolutely amazing!! The (unit name) greatly appreciates all the love you and Soldiers’ Angels have shown!”

Armed with a pen

Do I think a simple letter can make everything okay? No. But I think it can connect two people, even if just for a few moments. With absolute certainty, care is given and received. I think both hearts are just a little better for it. It’s also something I can do. If I had superhero skills or if I could bake (yes those are on the same level for me) I might take action in those ways. But doing something…anything, feels better than not. Whatever your skill or interest is.  Of course it also helps to have a few Angels on your side.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Killer Snowflakes

Did you know that glitter could be picked up by night-vision goggles? At least that’s what I found out after I mailed the glitter-filled 1st grade snowflake project I sent my adopted soldier, Staff Sergeant K. Previously, I had sent some care packages that turned out better than I ever imagined (Combat Golf and Phoenix Coyotes vs. The Taliban) along with greatly appreciated ones of soup or beef jerky. This was the first time I had problems and glitter was only part of it. Ironically, these killer snowflakes taught me something very important about volunteer work. And class projects.

Night vision

Night vision picking up something reflective. Presumably not glitter.

It seemed like a good idea at the time

My daughter Sofia was in 1st grade and it was close to the holidays. What could be more heartwarming than getting a boxful of handmade Christmas decorations from her class? The school said that was great but it couldn’t have anything to do with religion. Okay. What could be more heartwarming than getting a boxful of handmade winter decorations from her class?

I invented “Snowflake Wishes.” I’d have the kids make and decorate snowflakes. Then write something they wished for him on a card, which I would then attach with clear fishing line and let it magically dangle below the snowflake. Oh, and I’d make fishing line loops for the top too so he could string the snowflakes up. Exactly what part of my single-working-mom brain came up with this labor-intensive plan, I do not know.

Making 27 kids cry

To introduce the kids to my soldier and this project, I gave the teacher a few pics of him in uniform and some of him with his family. She projected them on a white board and the images were huge. The kids were all drawn to the one with him and his infant son, baby Kyle. Roughly, the conversation went like this:

CHILD 1: He’s not with his Daddy?

ME:  Well…not right now, no.

CHILD 2:  But they’ll be together for Christmas right?

ME:  Um…no.

CHILD 3:  What about the next day?

ME:  Well…his Dad works far away and…

CHILD 4:  What about day after that?

I revealed that my soldier would not be getting back till June of the following year. Suddenly I was surrounded by tear-filled eyes and trembling lips. Uh oh. But then I explained that was why these snowflakes would mean so much and be such a happy surprise.

They then became a determined little group on a mission to make this happy surprise. Their 4th grade book buddies were also there to help with any “scissor issues” in snowflake production.

Box of sad

Decorating was cut short by the surprise fire drill. Then I found out these snowflakes needed to dry. I didn’t factor in “dry-time” and I had to ship soon to make the Christmas, I mean winter deadline. The teacher and I checked on the wishes and found two main areas. 1. Heartbreaking hopes to be with baby Kyle and 2. “hope you don’t die.”

Now the teacher and I were ready to cry. How can I send him a box of sad? So I asked the kids if they could have anything they wanted right now, what would it be. One said “pizza” another shouted “ice cream!” So they wrote another round of wishes. After he got them, he made an observation.

SSgt K:  It was so funny, most of them wished me pizza and ice cream.

ME:   Really? How interesting.

VERY IMPORTANT VOLUNTEER LESSON

Putting together these snowflakes was a nightmare. I didn’t have enough time. The book buddies made some too so I had more than 27. The “fishing line” or whatever craft line I bought defied being tied. It was too slippery to stay knotted without tremendous effort. My carpal tunnel hands angrily protested this activity. And I felt I had to make sure the right wish went with the right snowflake. Have you seen how first-graders write? Not an easy code to crack. But, as the clock turned from 1:59AM to 2:00AM and I was still working on this to meet my shipping deadline……I realized this:

You don’t have to do a lot to make a difference.  Do what you can.

This project was too much for me. I should’ve asked for help on the back-end or done something smaller. I think this lesson holds true in any volunteer situation. But especially with our troops because little things mean a lot out there.

Glitter Kills  

After I was so happy to get that care package out the door, I happened to read glitter danger articles. I had visions of his platoon standing under these snowflakes while shiny bits of vulnerability floated down upon them. So I wrote and mentioned there may be some mess or glitter in this box. It was fine. And the funny part? Look how he hung them up. I laughed thinking about the extra work I had created for myself with those darn loops.

Snowflake Wishes my daughter's 1st grade class made for my adopted soldier

(photo cropped for privacy and security)

In the end, he appreciated that the class did something thoughtful and kind for him. That’s all that mattered. And even though the first-graders were the ones in school, I’m the one that learned the biggest lesson: do what you can.

© Gina left the mall, 2012 

Even The Storms Are Beige

sandstorm

sandstorm (Photo credit: bzo)

my marineMy Marine in the desert was tired of beige. The sand was beige. The tents, trucks, uniforms, even the storms, while tremendous to witness, were beige. When I asked him what he was missing, he said: color. Especially the green of nature. For a minute I thought about sending him a handful of grass and some fall leaves. Instead, I sent him 25 postcards of Central Park all at once (15 arrived on one day. The rest over the next year) He hung them up in his tent so they would be the first thing he saw every morning. I laughed at how excited he was to get them. He reminded me not to take the little things for granted. In fact, he asked me to notice and appreciate them for him. I promised I would. But every day is busy and after a while I noticed that I kept forgetting to notice. I felt bad about this unkept promise to a man I never met.

We “met” over coffee

My Marine, Gunnery Sergeant MZ, had signed up with Soldiers’ Angels to be adopted and was on the wait-list. Volunteers like me would send a letter or one-time care package to hold them over. I had sent him coffee and a mug and we wound up becoming pen pals. He was what some at Soldiers’ Angels would call my “unofficial.” That’s someone you support but not at the same commitment level of adoption which is one letter a week and one care package a month for the duration of deployment.

Little Is Big Day

To make up for my delay, I decided to appreciate as many little things as I could for a whole day. Here’s just the first two:

1. Hot shower

I usually turn on the water without thinking. But this morning as I paused to appreciate this act, a certain troop I helped came to mind:

“We spend most of our time in a very remote outpost living and working with the Afghan National Army, living a very meager existence.  We don’t have showers or running water. We live out of the back of our armored vehicles or from our rucksacks. We are very far from home. Anything you could provide my soldiers would be greatly appreciated.  Some of my men do not have families in the States who can support them.  Our communication back home is infrequent and unreliable. Letters and packages are our lifeline and the only way we know we are not out here alone.”

2. Waking my daughter up

This is usually a difficult task as my daughter is the U.S. Sleep Champion. And she only trains on schooldays. But this morning I thought of all my troops who were separated from their children. I remembered a female combat medic I wrote to with three kids. Her youngest was a little girl the same age as mine. They were both starting 1st grade. This combat medic would miss every wake-up struggle for the whole year and more. Then suddenly this difficult task felt like a gift. I get to do this in freedom and safety because other men and women are not doing it. This is part of what they sacrifice when they raise their hands to serve.

A promise kept

Little Is Big Day turned out to be very meaningful and sometimes emotional. But it helped me hit the reset button. So now even on busy days, I’ll take a moment to find a little something special around me. If you try Little Is Big Day, please let me know how it turned out. As for mine, I’ll tell you somewhere in an arid sea of beige, I made one Marine very happy.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Combat Gumbo and The Sexy Lunch

Mountains near my adopted soldier's base in Afghanistan

combat outpost

my soldier’s combat outpost

Mario Batali is not hiding in these mountains. The Iron Chef does not deploy. So if you’re at a remote base like my adopted solider, you get creative if you want a break from Army issued MREs (meals ready to eat). That’s how I found out about a dish I call Combat Gumbo. As I supported more soldiers, I learned other tasty tidbits like how food and lots of “sex” can bring us one step closer to world peace. I now share this bounty with you.

MREs

This is food-to-go that has to withstand harsh conditions and have a long shelf life. The troops eating it need nutrition and energy. This is especially important if it’s 140 degrees out and you’re hiking in the mountains with 100 pounds of gear. My adopted soldier, Staff Sergeant K, lost 50 pounds during this deployment. And he did not start out overweight.

Taste-wise, I hear that you would never confuse an MRE with home cooking. However, the ingredients can often be used to add something new to your menu. Below are some MREs. If you’re first reaction is not “yum!” you will understand their culinary motivation. 

Army MRE cherry blueberry cobbler

cherry blueberry cobbler

Army MRE spaghetti

spaghetti with meat sauce

Gumbo

I once sent SSgt K a care package with 23 pounds of canned soup. (Yay for flat-rate boxes! One price no matter how much it weighs.) However, had I known he was going to use that soup as the base for a recipe, I wouldn’t have sent such a variety.  I can only imagine what they tasted like as he combined them in a large pot for shared meals.

“I would use the soup you sent me with saved up MRE rice packs and a chicken that we bought. I would also use V8 vegetable juice as a base and use goat, rice, and the seasonings that I saved from the MREs”.

He also tried this recipe with cow meat, potatoes and some other vegetables.

“The way we got all the ingredients was from a local Afghan kid with a donkey. We would pay him and then the next day he would show up with all the food and some chickens tied to the donkey.”      

I don’t have an image of the finished dish. Or the chicken-toting donkey. But here’s the prep. The black thing in SSgt K’s hand is a knife. Looking at this makes me want a grilled cheese sandwich…or pretty much any chicken-less dish. But when your options are severely limited and you’re tired of MREs, this is the beginning of a beautiful meal.

soldiers preparing "combat gumbo"

The Sexy Lunch

I met Colonel Mike through Cup of Joe (where you buy coffee for troops)  and I asked him about his favorite meal while deployed. This is what he shared:

“Two of the Afghan generals I work with threw a big farewell lunch for one of the majors who is leaving to go home soon. She had been here for a year and was very well liked and respected. After a big traditional lunch of lamb, rice, chicken and some of the best fruit I’ve ever tasted, it came time for the generals to say a few words and present some farewell gifts. My interpreter, Safi, was doing the translating. The generals stood up and gave some very nice speeches about how hard the major worked and how they all liked her. They kept wishing her very good success, that she has success when she gets home and that she has lots of success in her life. Safi has a little trouble with his “c” and “s” sounds so when it came time to translate what the generals had said, Safi said that they wished her very good sex, that she has sex when she gets home and has lots of sex in her life!  All the Americans started laughing but none of the Afghans could understand why we were all laughing so hard!!  They had a good laugh when it was explained to them!

This was one of those times when I could really appreciate the Afghans as a generous, kind people who are very social and warmhearted. I think we might have just made a very simple but powerful step forward just then while we were crowded in a small room sitting shoulder to shoulder enjoying a great meal and a great laugh!

US soldiers and Afghan soldiers sharing a meal together

The delicious care package

Mail reduces stress and improves morale for our deployed. I think a care package with food has it’s own special power. Think of how many memories occur around the table. Or how a favorite childhood snack can still make you smile. Food is simply one of the ways we show love and welcome new friends. It’s also how to give a total stranger, like your adopted soldier, a little taste of home.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

A Healthy Cigar

The man at the wooden table hand-rolled another cigar. I was the only non-smoker in the shop. Possibly ever. But I had discovered a health benefit to cigars and was on a mission. That mission brought me to a fancy cigar store uptown and to this altogether different one where I would receive an interesting offer.

I have no medical proof but…

My adopted soldier and a few other soldiers I wrote to loved cigars. Based on my years of no medical school, I decided that the emotional and physical benefits outweighed the nicotine negatives because:

1. Getting mail reduces stress, anxiety and a host of other bad things. Getting a care package with an item you love and miss ups those benefits.

2. Their current environment and/or air quality is worse than anything I could do. They were working near towns that burn trash in endless fires in long ditches, and breathing in fighter jet fuel, smoke from being mortared, etc.

Sounds like pickles

I pressed a buzzer to gain entry into the uptown cigar shop. The atmosphere was quiet and reverent. I was led to the walk-in humidor to contemplate my purchase. After a few minutes, Adam came to help me. I asked him what he recommended.

ADAM:  Does your friend like strong flavors?

ME:  I don’t know. We’ve never met. He’s my adopted soldier. Although he once mentioned something that kinda sounded like pickles…um gerkins. Does that sound familiar?

ADAM: Yes Gurkhas.  Do you want a box?

There is a wide price-point when it comes to cigars. I wound up getting a variety. As I only got four cigars, it was a small variety, but it’s the thought that counts. Adam kindly tossed in a cutter and a box to help me ship them and wished my soldier well.

We know it’s about your hair

The next time I went to a place that hand-rolled their cigars. I was a little shy to walk in because it felt like a clubhouse. But these guys were awesome and more than happy to help me.

Outside Martinez Cigar shop in NYC

As a gentleman thoughtfully chose cigars for my soldier, I kept walking in and out of the shop. Finally, one of the guys said,

We know what you’re doing. We know it’s about your hair. This is why our wives and girlfriends won’t hang out here. They don’t want their hair to smell like smoke

He was right. But in my defense, I had just gotten my belligerent waves blown-out and was pretty much having the best hair day of my life.

So they made me an offer. If I would sit there with them and smoke my first cigar, they would pay to get my hair redone. I wanted to be the cool chick that said yes and had a good story. But I’m me and I was already queasy from the smoke. A cigar would put me over the edge.

Before I left, they asked me to give my soldier their thanks. They also gave me a few cigars for free so he could share and hoped he enjoyed what they had picked out. I asked if they would tell my soldier themselves:

Staff and friends at Martinez Cigar send a message to my soldier in Afghanistan

Cigars in action

Each time I sent cigars to Afghanistan the soldiers loved them. They loved being able to take a break and to have this taste of home. The air around them changed for a few moments, infused with good memories. It brightened their spirits. My adopted soldier even saved one for when he came home on leave. His commute back was like Amazing Race with bullets. It involved many days and little sleep. At the airport, he met his infant son for the first time. Finally exhaustion kicked in and he slept for 12 hours and when he awoke,

“Of course everyone was still sleeping since it was 5am, so I made my dogs wake up and go for a walk with me. After that I tried waking up my wife and she begged me to let her sleep for another hour. So I went outside and smoked one of the cigars you sent me and just enjoyed the country morning.”

The following year when my adopted soldier returned from his deployment, I found out he brought back all the letters people had sent him. He had saved them because these letters from strangers meant something. Small things do when you’re deployed. His wife made me a beautiful scrapbook and I found out he saved every cigar band too. That may not be scientific proof,  but it’s proof enough for me that these cigars gave him a healthy morale boost. In a combat zone, that is very, very good for you.

My adopted soldier saved every cigar band from the cigars I sent. His wife put them in beautiful scrapbook she made me.

© Gina left the mall, 2012