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

Apparently, You Can’t Reenlist In A Latrine

You’re in a combat zone and your enlistment is up. Exit Strategy? Nope, a chance for dedicated professionals to raise their hand once again. And while I’m sure each ceremony is very moving, the ones I’m familiar with also include a slightly different emotion. All the troops I’ve “met” have a pretty healthy sense of humor. If you’ve seen the troops imitating cheerleaders’ Call Me Maybe video, you know what I mean.

One of my soldiers in Afghanistan sent me this picture of himself and a few buddies sharing a special moment in the Pesh River. He told me a favorite reenlistment locale for his unit was standing on top of the Battalion Commander’s desk.

Taking the oath in the Pesh River (I blurred faces for privacy)

Taking the oath in the Pesh River (I blurred faces for privacy)

Keeping with the water theme, here’s one I found on YouTube for a Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class.

What would mom say?

Sgt. Brown* (name changed for privacy) was in Iraq and thinking about whether or not to reenlist. I asked him what his parents thought and he said his Dad was for it. Then he shared that his Mom had died when he was a boy and he missed her very much. I told him that if he ever wanted an Official Mom Opinion, I could hook him up. I told him those opinions and the ability to write excuse notes were powers bestowed in the maternity ward. I didn’t expect him to say, “yes, I’d like that very much.”

I was kidding around to brighten his mood. This is a serious thing, how do I answer? Especially when I have a little girl that I wish I could swathe in bubble wrap and never let out my sight? (Attn: Child Services, no bubble-swathing has occurred) I wanted to do right by this fellow mom I never met and be supportive of her son. So this is what I said,

“If you reenlist, I will not get one good night’s sleep until your boots are safely back on American soil. But what is also true, is that I am so proud of the man you have become. So what I want you to do is this: follow what’s in your heart. If that’s the Army, then that’s what I want you to do. But if you’re done, I want you to come home now. Don’t feel guilty about leaving your buddies. Don’t worry about the economy. I will be there for you and help you figure out what’s next. Just promise me you’ll be honest with yourself. That’s what I want you to do.”

He thanked me and continued to think about it. Finally, he decided he wanted to reenlist. The officer in charge asked him where he’d like to do it. Sgt. Brown said, “the latrine.” That idea was overruled. I laughed and told him it was probably against regulations.

We would’ve done it

I spoke to my Pesh River soldier about the latrine locale and he said, “Our unit would’ve done it. They would’ve wondered why you’d want that, but…sure.” Apparently, you can raise your hand more ways than I thought, and even cause a few smiles along the way.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Finding The Beautiful Parts

C-130 in Afghanistan, snow-capped mountains

A soldier wrote to me about the snow-capped mountains in Afghanistan, “it’s too bad we don’t get along, I would love to snowboard there.” Another spoke of a local shopkeeper who served him tea while hand-carving a box he was buying. Yet another told me about a warm encounter in a bread factory in Kabul. These sound like very little things but they made me happy. I was glad that even in a combat zone, these troops still noticed the beautiful parts, whether in nature or simple human connections with strangers.

With all that we know about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and the real threat strangers can pose, I think retaining the ability to find the beauty around you is important.

Hand-carved box made in Afghanistan

Hand-carved box made in Afghanistan.

Kabul bread factory

This is a story Col. Mike, one of my Cup of Joe soldiers, shared with me:

We inspected a bread factory in Kabul where they make all the bread for the police in the city. The bread factory is in a huge building that was built by the Russians over 35 years ago. They have 5 giant ovens and machinery that mixes the dough. Machinery inside a bread factory in KabulWhen I walked into the bread factory, there were the usual flies and there are birds that fly in through the broken windows pecking at the fresh baked bread! The women who were working there told me about how they wrap their hair with a scarf so their hair doesn’t get in the dough. I told them that I didn’t have that problem and they had a good laugh over that!

The workers shape the bread into different forms, some is flat, others are in loaves and they also make a sweet bread that is my favorite! All the bread tastes great and is a main part of every meal. Most of the workers are women and were very friendly. They were really proud of their work and kept asking me to sample the different types of bread. After every bite, I’d say “Xhoob as!” (That’s good!) and they would just get the biggest smiles on their faces!  When I tried the sweet bread, I said “Beeseyahr xhoob as!!” (That’s very good!)  I think they were just happy to get visitors. Unfortunately, the place was pretty run down and showed the years of use, and the strains of the turmoil over the last 30 years. But in spite of all that, they still made some of the best bread I’ve ever tasted!

Fresh baked bread in a  Kabul bread factory

In spite of all that…

In spite of all that, there are still moments of warmth to be shared and natural wonders to be appreciated. These things may be a small defense against disconnecting and feeling numb from the bigger and more dangerous moments. But as long as these troops are still noticing and connecting, that makes me feel like they’re going to be okay. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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

The 24,600-Mile Coffee Break

What would a coffee mug from a total stranger mean to you? Well, when you’re deployed to Iraq, little things can mean a lot. That, plus 24,600 miles, led to one of my best coffee breaks ever.

While you wait

A Marine named Adam signed up to be adopted at Soldiers’ Angels (they help every branch of the military.) I volunteered to send a care package while he was on the waiting list. I sent over an I LOVE NY mug, some coffee and snacks.

My care package was the first he received in Iraq. That made the mug special to him. I found out just how special at the end of his tour. When he packed his gear there wasn’t an inch to spare, let alone room to LOVE NY. But Adam couldn’t throw the mug out or leave it behind so, he decided to carry it home by hand.

Germany joe

Imagining this Marine walking around in uniform with a duffle bag and an I LOVE NY mug, made me laugh. I asked him if any of the other guys gave him a hard time.

ADAM:  I got a lot of flak from my guys, but in Leipzig Germany, we were sitting in a hangar and they had a coffee machine. Shortly after we were there they ran out of little styrofoam cups, I pulled my mug out. BAM! Just like that, I had coffee still! And of course some of the guys were jealous, but as Marines always do, we adapt, adjust and overcome. Some of them were cutting Gatorade bottles in half for some joe.

Since he brought it all the way back, I tried to guess the mug-milage. I was not even close. For one thing, I didn’t know his mail gets routed through San Francisco. Adam did the math for me:

Ok. So let’s take the fact that the mug was Made in China out of the equation.

From Manhattan to San Fran is about 2800 miles, and crosses 12 states. (According to Google’s fastest route).

From San Fran to Iraq, as the crow flies, 9800 miles, passes 9 states and 9 countries on 3 continents.

From Iraq to Camp Pendleton we’ll say another 9800 miles.

Cp Pendleton to Cincinnati, 2200 miles and 9 states.

So this mug traveled 24,600 miles, give or take a couple hundred, 39 state crossings, 18 countries crossed, and 5 continents crossed.

That’s enough to cross the world at the equator once.

Cincinnati joe

About a year later, I found out we’d both be in Cincinnati at the same time. Adam said he would like to buy me a cup of coffee as a thank you. I’ve only met a few of my troops in person so this was something special. I got to the cafe first. As I waited, I thought it’s funny how you never know what ripple effect a random act of kindness will have. I never thought that little care package would mean so much or that I’d gain a friendship.

Adam walked towards me and at first, I didn’t realize it was him. He looked so much younger than the pictures I had seen of him deployed. I think what I was really seeing was the effect of home and peace (that’s a good look on anyone.) Seeing Adam healthy, happy and safe was a wonderful feeling. My smile was big and my eyes filled with tears. Then I saw what he was carrying and I laughed. The server came over to take our order and Adam said, “Ma’am, I’ve brought my own mug. If you don’t mind, I’d like you to use it for my coffee, please.”

I LOVE NY mug© Gina left the mall, 2013

Guam. Really?

Guam does not usually add stress to my life. It is a little dot in the Pacific and can be hard to spot on a map if you don’t know where to look. The island is hot, humid, and beautiful. The people are abundantly kind, generous, and friendly. It is very laid-back. I know this because I used to live there. I have a lot of family there. And unless a big typhoon is forecast, Guam doesn’t keep me up at night. This is in stark contrast to my current island, Manhattan.

Guam

Guam…..(photo credit, chotda)

New York City skyline

Not Guam

For many people in the Pacific Rim (and beyond) the news from North Korea lately has caused some anxiety. My mom is one of those people and she asked if any of my troops, “had heard anything at work.” She was looking for some kind of reassurance. I told her that no one is going to tell me “anything.” But I called one of the guys anyway and he confirmed my suspicions about how National Security works: Random civilians are not on the need-to-know list. Then he kindly called my mom to tell her that everyone is paying close attention, is highly trained, deeply dedicated, and other things that helped her feel more at ease.

My danger plate is full

When it comes to danger, I got used to worrying about troops in the Middle East. When you know people in harm’s way, the news feels personal. After a while, I learned to do what many military families do… limit how much news I watch. I would give myself a CNN “time-out.”

My first “time-out” occurred after I thought my adopted soldier’s base was attacked and overrun. The initial information in the news matched his area. It turns out it happened at a base close by: COP (Combat Outpost) Keating. It was a horrible battle. Because there were casualties, there was a mandatory communication blackout while next of kin are notified. It was weeks before I found out if my soldier was okay. During those weeks I poured over every article trying to find information on him.

Even though that was years ago, there have been others that I’ve prayed for in different situations. So you can understand why I am not emotionally prepared at this time to take on additional worry-regions. If one area of the world wants to flare up, I’m afraid I’m going to have to insist that another area calm down. Of course, I dont want that flare-up to be where my family is, or yours, or people in general. In fact, I would simply prefer an outbreak of world peace.

The safety zone

I was relieved when one of my soldiers left Iraq and got transferred to Korea. I figured I don’t have to worry about him now. But the truth is, “less safe” can happen anytime, anywhere. Troops are on call 24/7 and can be sent anywhere, anytime. They don’t get the luxury of saying they are weary of conflict. One soldier wrote me, “You know who hates war? Those of us that have to do the fighting and pay the price.” But they raised their hands to serve for those they love and millions of random civilians. So I will bring my hands together to pray for their safety and ours. I will never take a “time-out” from that.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Travel Challenge: 1-year business trip, 2 bags.

Think of your job and what you need to do it. Now imagine going away for a one-year business trip and fitting your essential work items in two bags (similar to the one below.) In this challenge, you may or may not have electricity, running water or a bed at your destination. You could be in one locale or constantly on the move. And people may be shooting at you so, bring body armor. But pack light.

empty travel bag before deployment

Troops have to carry the essentials for their particular mission with them. Then try to squeeze in some personal items. Depending on their job, they have to carry it on their backs. And while the luggage rules may vary, space is severely limited. I looked at this travel challenge and thought, what are my bare essentials? Could I do a business trip this way? Here’s my list:

Laptop

Wi-Fi

Coffee maker

Electricity for laptop and coffee maker, coffee supplies. I can use powdered creamer if I need to “rough it” so no need for a mini-fridge to store milk. However, bringing my own electricity may prove harder to solve than the milk issue. So too the Wi-Fi.

Desk and chair. I wasn’t going to add these two items, but I have carpal tunnel and if have to sit and write in a weird position for a year, I’d come back looking like one of the dancing zombies in the Thriller video. I remember some Marines I wrote to were setting up an outpost in a remote locale and their furniture didn’t arrive. So they broke down the wooden crates that other supplies arrived in and made tables and benches.

Clothes  Our troops don’t have a lot of angst over what to wear each day. “Hmm, camo or…the camo?” This makes things easy but also caused one troop I know to lose all civilian fashion sense. I did my part and saved him from some unfortunate holiday sweaters. But while deployed, most service members don’t bring a large selection beyond a few uniforms (both work and physical training.) So I guess I could live rotating just a few things for a year.

Of course I couldn’t take my most essential, essential, my daughter Sofia. Loved ones are only carried in the heart and mind. But when I try to imagine being separated from her for a year, my heart aches.

Bouncy balls and Tinkerbell

I’ve often sent toys in care packages, just hoping to make someone smile. Rubber bouncy balls have been a hit. Apparently they are fun for games of surprise dodgeball. I found out that Dan* (name changed for privacy) carried the ones I sent him in his combat assault pack “for luck” for his entire deployment. Even after he got home, he never removed them.

Dan also carried something Sofia sent. I was making a care package for him when Sofia ran to her room and came back with a set of Tinkerbell magic markers. She put them in the box. I looked up and she said, “He needs these!” She was very certain about this so, off they went. It seems she was right because Dan replaced the black marker he used for work with the Tinkerbell one. Whenever he would use it, other guys would start to make fun of him and he’d say, “a little girl named Sofia in New York City sent me this marker.” Then everyone thought that marker was pretty cool.

What we carry with us

Both the bouncy balls and the Tinkerbell marker tell me something about what is truly essential in any journey: love and support. Those are the real items we should never leave home without.

 

© Gina left the mall, 2013