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

The Strongest Coffee In The World

I found a coffee that can reduce stress and anxiety, mentally transport you and even make a grown man teary.  Are these magic beans?  Close.  It’s Green Beans Cup of Joe for a Joe.  This is a cup of coffee you buy for a soldier who is deployed. You send a personal message with it and it’s like eight ounces of ‘liquid home” for the troop receiving it.  Oh, and it’s easy to do and costs $2.

I want to share some of the ones I’ve done and a few troop responses.  I also want to warn you about my Christmis-hap (that’s short for my mishap over Christmas).

But first, how it works…

Green Beans Company has cafes in many of the bases where our deployed troops are. Servicemen and women sign up for Cup of Joe (COJ).  Then strangers (you and me) go to the COJ site where we can buy our troops a cup of coffee.  Each cup is $2 and you can even buy just one.  You send a personal message with it.  Most of the time they write back a thank-you note.  There’s also the option to be pen pals if both sides wish to.

Dear soldier

They’re not all soldiers but “Dear Soldier, Marine, Sailor or Airman” sounds a little impersonal.  I write “Dear Soldier” and if they’re not, they’ll let me know.  Also, the Army is the largest branch so the math is on my side. The note you send goes out to however many troops you bought coffee for.  If you become pen pals, that’s one-on-one.

You can write something short.  Don’t be thrown that I sometimes go long. I also vary the tone and subject.  I think all that counts here is sincerity.   Even saying hello and wishing someone well has great value.  Imagine coming off a 14-hour day in a combat zone.  The closest thing to home is this café.  You stop to have a break and someone you don’t even know cared enough to say a few encouraging words and “PS- coffee’s on me.”  These are the kinds of things that impact morale and reduce stress.  And we have the power to make that impact from our living room.

I said/ they said – dinosaurs

Dear Soldier,  My little girl Sofia taught me something you may find useful in your work. It’s the reason why dinosaurs are extinct.  SOFIA:  A giant astronaut fell from space and made a big crater in the earth and made the dinosaurs extinct.  ME:  Do you think maybe that was a giant asteroid and not a giant astronaut?  SOFIA:  No. —-There you have it.  At any moment an exceptionally large NASA employee could come barreling out of the sky butt-first.  So be sure to look up now and then…Also, I want to thank you for all you do. Thank you for letting me have dino stories and more in safety and freedom. Take care, Gina

-Ms. Gina, Thanks so very much for the coffee.. and for sharing Sofia’s story about the falling astronaut!!  Both brightened my day and brought a smile to my face. The story made me think of my young daughter and of the unpredictable things that come from the mouths of babes.  And by the way– I’m an Air Traffic Controller here in Iraq, so if we pick up any falling NASA employees on the radar scope, I’ll be sure to let you know! With sincere thanks, __________ SSgt, USAF

-Gina; Thanks for making me smile 🙂 Sofia sounds a lot like my little girl from a few years ago; she turns 9 in two weeks and this is the first time in her life I will miss her birthday. Don’t ever think that it doesn’t mean a lot to have people you don’t know thank you for what you are doing … it means the world. Regards, LTC _______________

I said/ they said – Christmas

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 Gina. I received your coffee on Christmas Eve.  We were all having a pretty tough day here but finding your note with the coffee was sweet.  Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.  Thank you, _______

-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, _______

Christmis-hap

Between sending care packages to my adopted soldier and handling presents at home, I was having some holiday mailing stress.  That’s when I found COJ.  No boxes, no post office…just a few clicks.  It was so easy that I bought a lot of coffee that day.  When I got to the part about pen pals, I checked “yes.” I figured what are the chances that all these troops are going to want to be pen pals?  I learned that at Christmas, when everyone is missing home very much, those chances are 98%.  The rest of the time, it’s only a few troops that want to write.  But after Christmis-hap, I don’t put a giant order in all at once.  I spread it out.

With some troops, you just exchange a few emails.  Some write the entire time they’re deployed.  There are a few I’ve kept in touch with after they’ve gotten home.  One is a solider who taught me one of the most important things I learned in this journey.  That story is for next time.  But for right now, may I suggest a cup of coffee?   I know where you can get some powerful stuff.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

Combat Golf

My adopted soldier found a driver in Afghanistan. I assumed that meant “chauffeur.”  Nope, he meant golf club. Of course. So I figured I’d send him some golf balls. Then I saw how expensive they were. I revised my plan to be: I think I’ll ask everyone I know to give me some used golf balls.

I went to the usual suspects and got a small pile. But I wanted more. I wanted to fill a box and have them spill out in his brick hut when he opened it. Sort of an interactive care package.

I know a guy…

As luck would have it, I shared this plan with my friend Tina. Tina knew of a guy who would dive for lost balls in a golf course lake, clean them and then sell them out of the trunk of his car on a certain street in Staten Island. Of course.

Tina graciously handled the deal and commuted in with a LOT of golf balls. I filled a few flat-rate boxes. Then I had the problem of carrying these heavy boxes to the post office.  Once again, it was Tina to the rescue (thanks T!)

Balls in the zone

All the balls made it to the combat zone. My soldier opened the boxes (no, they didn’t spill) and ran to get the biggest golf lovers in the unit. Picture three guys, eyes wide, very happy.  They went to the roof of their brick hut to create a driving range. However, I did not think to send a golf TEE.  I’m not very sporty. No problem. Our soldiers are resourceful. They used a shell casing.

Yes I know the picture is cut off. As always, I edit for privacy and OPSEC/PERSEC (Operational Security and Personal Security) guidelines.

My adopted soldier in A'stan hitting the golf balls I sent off the roof of his brick hut.

Shagging (UK readers, this is not what you think)

The soldiers hit the balls off the roof and had a great time doing it. There were not a lot of entertainment options at this remote mountain base. Then something surprising happened the next day. Some Afghan children came to the FOB with their shirts held out and filled with golf balls. They had shagged the balls and wanted to sell them back to the soldiers.

A price was agreed upon. The children were paid in cash or brass shell casings. Children would often collect the casings because they were worth .50 each in the local economy.

The soldiers hit them off the roof again. Again the kids shagged the balls and sold them back. This went on until his unit pulled out. He left the driver and the balls for next unit.

You don’t realize what you did

I was just happy that I helped a few guys have a little fun.  When I shared this story with another soldier he said,

“You don’t realize what you did. We’re not welcome here. You gave them a positive way to interact with the community. The kids are the lookouts when the bad guys are planting IEDs. Getting the kids on your side is huge. You probably saved lives”

Okay, I don’t think I saved lives. But maybe I helped a few of those positive interactions with the kids. Reduced a little stress for the soldiers.  And that officially makes this my best (and only) golf game ever.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

My Soldier’s Wife

Friends. Family. Total strangers. “My adopted soldier’s wife” doesn’t fall neatly into the usual categories. My situation also wasn’t the norm. The Taliban kept attacking my soldier’s base and knocking out their internet. After a while, I had more contact with his wife than him. And along the way, I learned things worth sharing.

The family also serves

My soldier’s wife is amazing. When we “met” she was a new mom (he missed the birth by two weeks). His deployment was difficult and their contact was limited. He could call her once every 3 days for 15 minutes. Unless his mission took him away for…who knows how long. That uncertainty was her everyday normal. But the everyday resiliency and grace she exhibited was impressive.

She went house-hunting solo (from out-of-state no less). Set up the baby’s room. Handled the bills. Handled everything. I wish I were half as buttoned-up.

I’m sure she had her bad days that she shared with those closest to her. But the part I saw was her taking action. Doing all she could to keep her family thriving. That also meant making him feel as connected as possible to home. Including sending updates and pictures to a total stranger in NYC. I think she didn’t want me to mistake his increasing silence as a sign to stop writing.

If I’m worried…

There was a bad attack in his area. The news named his task force and unit. The military has a communication blackout policy when there are KIAs. I was worried for him. But then I tried to imagine how she felt. That’s the moment I figured out that when a soldier raises his hand to serve, the whole family serves as well. Not just in the scary moments. In the ordinary moments too, where we do most of our living. Imagine going months without the help and support of your loved one. That is just part of what we ask of our military families.

Questions

“Doesn’t his wife mind you writing to her husband?”

SFX (sound effects):  NEEDLE SCRATCHING RECORD

I stopped what I was doing. The beef jerky hovering above the flat-rate box I was packing for him. “What??? He sent me pictures of them together. I’m sure she knows and supports his being adopted and um…um….”

That’s when I decided to assume he was not the only one reading my emails. I’d assume his wife and roommate were too. Not that I was planning on writing anything “bad” anyway. I would just keep the potential audiences in mind. It was a long time before I shared that I’m a single mom. I was a little cautious because I wanted to make sure that nothing I wrote came off the wrong way.

“Doesn’t he have a wife to send him care packages?”

“Yes he does. She’s at home with the newborn he hasn’t met. He’s in firefights in Afghanistan. So should we have her shoulder everything? Do we all get to skip to the park with our kids feeling safe and on the way we’ll yell out- hey you two, thanks for handling that freedom and security thing.”

There was a less sarcastic answer to that question. I just didn’t feel like using it.

The power

I sent my soldier some snacks and included four small water guns. I thought they were funny to send to a sniper. My soldier’s wife wrote that they loved them. They used them to “ambush” a guy on his birthday. She said they’re all really big kids at heart and how it was great that I thought to do that. And what she said next is the reason why I’ve wound up doing things for over 800 more troops.

She told me that they felt grateful and lucky that he got me as his adopter. The thought and effort I put in was making a difference for him. She told me that she felt lucky too and how it made a difference for her.

I thought, I have never met any of these people. But being a total stranger did not in any way stop me from having a positive effect in their lives that day. Even if it was a small thing, it was something good in the face of challenges.  How cool is it that we each have that power? Realizing the impact I was making inspired me to step up and expand my efforts.

I don’t think I ever told my soldier’s wife that she was the reason I started doing more. So I’ll tell her here that she made a difference in my life right back.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

The Phoenix Coyotes vs. The Taliban

A hockey team can kick butt in a combat zone. I have proof.

It all started when I wanted to do something special for my adopted soldier. He was in Afghanistan. His area had been in the news a lot and none of it was good. Then I found out he would be going home on leave and meeting his son, baby Kyle, for the very first time. Yes, that’s a happy thing. But I thought, this is his 3rd combat deployment, he knows a lot about war. What does he know about being a dad? He’s going to hold his son in his arms and then turn around and go back there? As the mother of a young child, I felt pre-hurt for him. I decided that this situation called for more than canned ravioli.

I tried to make him a Ranger fan

I found out the one sport he loved was hockey. I tried to make him a NY Ranger fan because that was convenient for me. No way. His heart belonged to the Phoenix Coyotes.

So I went on eBay and got him a Coyotes hockey puck and some trading cards. Nothing expensive. It’s the thought, right? But when I held them in my hands, they didn’t seem up to the morale-challenge I knew was looming.

We get a lot of requests

I went on the Coyotes website and saw they had a variety of charitable endeavors.  Some involve supporting the troops. I thought maybe they could help me. Then I read that they receive a lot of requests and cannot fulfill them all. I decided to try anyway and wrote the team. I confessed my attempt to lure my soldier to the Rangers and how he stayed true to the Coyotes. Told them about baby Kyle. Mentioned the puck and cards and asked for their help. I asked for, “a program or anything at all really.” I just wanted him to have a touch of home waiting for him in Afghanistan. At at time when I knew it would be hard for him to be far from home. They wrote back that they’d be happy to help me.

Weeks go by

After the commute from hell (think “Amazing Race” with bullets) my soldier makes it home to his family and meets baby Kyle. I still haven’t received anything from the Coyotes. I’m not sure how long things take on their end. I just know that mail takes about two weeks to get from Manhattan to his corner of Afghanistan. If I add his time at home and his long commute back, I’ve got two weeks left.  I send more emails to the Coyotes. I try to ignore how annoying I must be.

Not a foam finger

Lovely Maggie from the Coyotes who had been enduring my emails, wrote to say they had sent something and could I please let her know when I received it  (it had to come to me, you don’t give out your soldier’s info.)

The package was soft. I thought maybe it was a foam finger or a hat. As I opened it, all that mattered to me was that the team he loved, from a place he loved, cared enough to do something.  Anything. Then I pulled out… a team jersey autographed by all the players!!!  I wrote Maggie back with tears in my eyes.

Don’t send it

Some friends told me not to send it. It was too valuable. Just send a picture of it. I told them the real value was that this was something he could hold in his hands that said people cared.  As I shipped it I hoped that it wouldn’t be lost. Or blown up. Their supply and mail convoys had been attacked recently. Or stolen. Some outside contractors were caught stealing care packages meant for soldiers.

Back at work

My adopted soldier in Afghanistan

When he got back, he sent me the longest email.  His wife sent lots of pictures, especially him and baby Kyle together. This is part of what he wrote:

“….It was really hard to get on the plane to come back. You think it would be easy since this is like the 10th time I have had to leave, whether it be a deployment or an Army school. But this time was the worst, now I’m leaving 2 people I love the most.”

My adopted soldier's son that he met on leave from Afghanistan

No. I didn’t think it would be easy. But I didn’t tell him that. Two days later, he had mail call.

Phoenix Coyotes Win

“…..I was so surprised when I opened the box (more like in shock) I can’t believe you wrote the team and they sent something. Thank you so much!!! I will write an email to Maggie tomorrow. I will also get some pics and send them to you. Thank you for the puck and the cards…… I still can’t believe it. I will write you more tomorrow when I get back from mission. P.S. Thank you again”

For privacy, and general OPSEC/PERSEC (operational security and personal security) guidelines, I crop the pics of him. But I assure you that he is beaming at a time when he never expected to. He called his wife and she was happy to hear his news and how it lifted his spirits. She wrote and thanked me for contacting the team.

Mail is a morale boost.  Mail reduces stress and helps stave off depression and anxiety among other things that combat can bring on. The better frame of mind our deployed have, the better they can focus on their jobs and coming home safe. That day, the Phoenix Coyotes scored a win in an away game when it was really needed.

My adopted soldier with the Phoenix Coyote jersey the entire team signed for him.

Canned Ravioli

I joked with my soldier that it was “all downhill from here” because the next box would be canned ravioli. But he knew that packed alongside those cans, or whatever I sent, would always be my heartfelt hopes and prayers for him. That’s a win too.

© 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

I Adopted A Heavily Armed Grown Man

My finger froze above the keyboard, as I was about to submit my name to adopt a soldier. This was 2009. Soldiers weren’t winning Dancing With The Stars in 2009.  Back then, the only time I heard about troops is when something bad happened. Either they were hurt or had P-T-S-something and hurt someone else.  So I hesitated. What was I getting myself into? If I’m mailing stuff, this guy is going to know where I live. I was having a “stranger danger” moment.

Then I remembered the tears in that sailor’s eyes when my daughter Sofia thanked him for being brave (A Sailor Wrecks My Indifference). And I thought about what I was signing up for. To send kindness and care to someone far from home who was risking their life to protect people like me. You know, strangers.

I hit send.

What is Adoption?

You commit to sending one letter a week and one care package a month for the duration of the Deployment. Mail is important. It affects morale.

It’s like Christmas Morning For Us  

I could write an entire post on just how much getting mail means. So many of my guys have told me it’s like Christmas morning. When I was doing research about adopting, I ran across these thank-you notes from two soldiers.

Soldier 1:  Although I can not truly speak for everyone, I am sure there are thousands of service members who feel the same way I do when I say beyond the cards, letters, and care packages you send to us, the most important and valuable thing you send is a sense of worth. What I mean by that is we realize we are not forgotten by people other than our immediate families. That it does make a difference in the world what we are doing, and that if there is at least one person out there who cares then the sacrifice that so many of us have and or will endure, it is worth it. Thank you very much.

Soldier 2:  The guys out here really appreciate what you’ve done for us and so do I…what you and your friends do makes a difference. Morale lifts and with it depression, anxiety, anger, frustration and loneliness to name but a few things. What you do allows us time to feel good about ourselves because someone we don’t even know cared enough about us to do something wonderful. It allows us to be able to do our jobs out here with a sense of clarity. It helps us all try harder to come home safely. I can never say this enough, THANK YOU ALL. 😉                                                                                                                        

Your Soldier Information from AAUSS Adopt A US Soldier 

This is what I got for hitting “send”.  (For privacy, I took out a few details and cropped the photo of his wife.)

My name is xxxx I’m 24 and from the great state of xxxx. I’ve been in the military for 6 years now and this is my 3rd combat deployment. I’m married to a beautiful girl named xxxx   She just gave birth to our first baby about 7 weeks ago. We had a baby boy Kyle. I still haven’t been home to see him but should be home for leave in a few months. Just got to Afghanistan in mid June and will be here until sometime in May.

my adopted soldier in Afghanistan

I looked at the beautiful but dangerous place he worked. I looked at the child he had yet to meet. I looked at his wife who was about to have all those “first” baby moments solo.  And I felt bad that I ever hesitated. This young family had a lot at risk. I think I can manage a letter and some beef jerky. I also decided to send him a What To Expect The First Year book and call it his new “field manual.” I would try to think of creative things to send. This would be fun! 10 days later I found out it would be something else as well. His email began, “We had a rough week…”

© Gina left the mall, 2012