Giving Thanks to a Soldier, a Friend, and a Stranger

If you have thanks in your heart but don’t have the words in your pen or keyboard, I invite you to use some of mine. Why? Because it has come to my attention that some people hate writing. It could be just people I’m related to (especially at homework time) but I suspect they are not alone. That’s why I’ve jotted down a few words that may come in handy this week for anyone that needs them.

There are many things to be grateful for. Such as the fact that there are too many to list here. So my joyfully incomplete list includes three people you may wish or need to give thanks to on November 28th: a soldier, a friend, and a stranger.

Soldier

Somewhere, thousands of miles from home, there are Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, and Sailors you’ve never met who would do anything to keep you safe, up to and including sacrificing their lives. They raised their hand and took this on. However, choosing this life doesn’t make their hearts less vulnerable. If anything, they appreciate the moments with their loved ones even more. Everyday things like reading to your child at bedtime become like treasure.

I know you’ve probably heard the words, “remember the troops” a thousand times. Possibly a few of those times were me. But the truth is that it’s important they know they are not alone.

One way to remember them is to send a thank-you with coffee through Cup of Joe (COJ) Below are two options if you’d like to do this but need some ideas on what to write:

1. Simply replace the underlined details with your own.

Dear Service member,  My two brothers, sister-in-laws, their kids, my parents, and 2 dogs are all headed to my place for Thanksgiving and then sleeping over. Along with my family (husband, 2 kids 1 dog, 1 cat, 1 turtle) this is the recipe for craziness. The very best kind. Sure, every dish may or may not turn out perfectly. Someone may or may not fight over the X-box. But this much is certain: we are grateful for your help in making this day possible. Because of what you do, we have the freedom to be together in safety. Thank you for this on Thanksgiving and every day. Sincerely ___________________

If you’re not hosting the dinner, you can change the opening to reflect your plans, “We’re headed to _________”

2. Copy or change as you like.

Dear Service member, It is Thanksgiving and you may be far from home, but you are not far from our thoughts. It is your service, and that of your brothers and sisters in arms that allow us to gather at the table, free from fear. Not everyone in the world enjoys this amazing gift. So, I wanted to take a moment to say thank you. Please tell your family that my family thanks them as well. Sincerely_________

Each cup of coffee you send costs $2. You can even send just one.

A friend 

My family is spread out from NY to the Pacific Rim (that’s geographic, not cinematic.) For me, Thanksgiving usually means heading to Nancy’s house on Long Island. If you’re headed to a friend’s and want to include a note along with the wine or pumpkin pie you’ll be bringing, here are my words:

Dear Nancy,  Just wanted to say thank you for including us and making us feel like family. Knowing we have a place to call home for the holidays means more than I can say. Not having to cook for five hours is also pretty exciting too. Thank you for all of it. You rock. xo, Gina

A stranger 

For the first time ever, I’m traveling ON Thanksgiving Day. I’m taking my daughter Sofia to Florida to see Grandma and Grandpa. For the journey through La Guardia Airport, we’re bringing a bag of candy to share. It’s for the Policemen, TSA agents, gate agent, flight attendants or whomever we meet. Maybe they wanted to work, maybe they got stuck with the shift. Either way, there are probably slightly more desirable ways to spend a day devoted to family than x-raying a stranger’s carry-on luggage. Plus, since holiday travel can be stressful, any drop of kindness is probably a good thing.

This time, the words we’ll use are simple and what I wish for you and those you love:

Happy Thanksgiving!

Some of the candy we'll give out at LaGuardia Airport on Thanksgiving Day

Some of the candy we’ll give out at LaGuardia Airport on Thanksgiving Day

© 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

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

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

glass of whiskey

The military has its own culture. I quickly learned that like any self-respecting culture, it has its own language. Upon first hearing it, you may wonder, “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?” Which, of course, stands for the letters “W-T-F” in the Nato Phonetic Alphabet. I found that understanding this language meant embracing acronyms. They are everywhere in the military, like the linguistic version of camouflage. After all, it was the U.S. Army that gave the world ASAP. Which is how we all know when things are due at the office.

Nato Phonetic Alphabet

Nato Phonetic Alphabet

Not every acronym is issued by the Dept. of Defense. Humor happens. All the troops I’ve “met” have made me laugh at one point or another. Like when I found out that BCG = Birth Control Glasses. These are the standard-issue eyeglasses which are considered to be so unstylish that they make the wearer attractive to no one.

I asked one of my soldiers, Col. Mike, to help me become more fluent. So he described his deployment (Nato phonetically speaking) as: Sierra Hotel which means in this case, Sh*t Hot. Then he gave me a sample paragraph. If you are very sensitive, I should warn you that “f-bombs” are dropped in combat and censored ones in the following section.

Acronyms in action

Below is a sample followed by the translation.

When I was in the AOR, I was a CA with NTM-A, CSTC-A working at the MOI in Kabul advising the ANP as part of the ANSF. We worked to establish LOCs and LOLS by building a RSC in each region and a PSP in each province. I wasn’t the HMFIC just a FNG but it didn’t take much of a SWAG to figure that TARFU! But I figured since I was already there, FIDO and do the best I can. BOHICA some things never change!

AOR– Area Of Responsibility (Afghanistan) ; CA– Combat Advisor; NTM-A – NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan; CSTC-A– Combined Security Transition Command-Afghanistan; MOI-Ministry Of Interior; ANP– Afghan National Police; ANSF– Afghan National Security Forces; LOC– Lines Of Communication; LOLS– Lines Of Logistics Support; RSC– Regional Support Center; PSP– Provincial Supply Point; HMFIC- Head Mother F—er In Charge; FNG– F—ing New Guy; SWAG– Scientific Wild A– Guess; TARFU– Things Are Really F—ed Up; FIDO– F— It, Drive On; BOHICA– Bend Over Here It Comes Again

For pen pals

Luckily, how troops speak is not how they write to civilian pen pals. For me, language questions have fallen into two areas. The first is their deployed addresses, which often resemble bad Scrabble hands. The other is when acronyms or terms sneak into the conversation. That’s how I learned things like DFAC = dining facility (pronounced D-FAK.) and that v/r at the end of a letter means “very respectfully.”  Below are a few of my favorites.

Soup sandwich = someone or something that is as useless or difficult as a soup sandwich.

Off Base Commander = spouse or significant other.

FM = f–ing magic. As in, “it runs on FM.” Used when the real answer is too long or difficult for the questioner to understand and would be a waste of time to explain.

As with most languages, there are dialects. I read a helpful post from my friends at Buoyed Up about some Navy terms. I was trying to find master lists for the all the branches, but only found partial ones. And quite a few slang sites. However, there is a Joint Forces dictionary you can search. Or read. But as is usually the case, it’s easier to learn when you converse with a real person.

A few words about transition

After years of saying, “roger that” when someone tells you something, is it hard to go back to saying “okay” or “I understand?” Or to switch from “Bravo Zulu” back to “well done?” Does it take effort to lose the rhythm and cadence of short direct bursts when sharing something important?  When our troops go back to being civilians, the transition is physical, emotional, mental, financial…I wondered if verbal was also on the transitional to-do list.

So I asked one of my soldiers how he felt. He had left the Army in ’03 when he was wounded and came back in ’08 when he got his medical waivers. During his time out, he had a lot to deal with. But he said one of the hardest parts was learning how to talk to civilians again. “My mouth almost got me in trouble because I was used to speaking a certain way.” I’m not sure if all troops find it as challenging. But if they do, I hope they also find civilians who can speak from the heart and say, “I’ve got your 6.” Which means, of course, “I’ve got your back.”

© Gina left the mall, 2013

When The Troops Supported Me Right Back

I never thought troops would send me a care package. Or letters and emails just when I needed a morale boost most. But they did. It really took me by surprise. It meant a lot to have people I’ve never met care enough to think of me. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a small taste of what mail call feels like for our troops.

No-Vent Zone

Everyone has bad days. But unless it ends with a happy twist like the time a mariachi band boarded my crowded subway car and burst into song, I don’t mention it. I keep things light. Luckily, my daughter Sofia provides plenty of humorous mishaps and mild public humiliations for me to share. You don’t think it’s possible for your 5-yr-old to accidentally “pimp you out” in an elevator but, you’d be wrong.

I had gotten to know a few troops well and they knew I was getting divorced and looking for an apartment to rent. I didn’t vent about this. Just a statement of fact. But you don’t need details to figure out that this is not fun. The apartment search had the bonus of coinciding with Thanksgiving which made getting approvals harder since everyone was on vacation. I needed to move the first week of December. That month was filled with change and challenge.  And, as it turned out, some very special mail deliveries.

The gift

My adopted soldier and his wife sent me a box. Inside were birthday and Christmas presents for Sofia. (Her birthday is at the end of November.) What a delightful and touching surprise! But what really got to me was the house-warming gift for our new home. A little cactus plant. It was sweet and hopeful and I loved it. It was also the first and only object in the apartment after I signed the lease.

What I didn’t know then was that my furniture delivery would be weeks late and this cactus would become a continuing source of sunshine through dark winter days.

What my adopted soldier and his wife didn’t know was that my birthday is near Sofia’s and that’s when the box arrived. This unexpected kindness was the best birthday gift I could have gotten.

A little house-warming gift from my soldier and his wife.

A little house-warming gift from my soldier and his wife.

It would be weeks before the furniture would arrive.

It would be weeks before the furniture arrived.

The letter

The furniture was late so we had mattresses on the floor and stacks of boxes. With no table, we ate our meals “picnic” style. And no Christmas decorations were up yet. I unpacked Sofia’s toys first so I could sorta set up her room.  Everything felt undone and overwhelming.

Then came the first time I had to take Sofia to her Dad’s place. After I dropped her off, I walked into the cold night with my heart feeling gutted without her. I went to my new lobby filled with strangers to check my mail. I had just done my change of address so I was surprised to find a card. Upstairs, in my undone apartment, I sat in her room and the emptiness was crushing. Then I glanced at the envelope in my hand and thought, “Who the heck is this?”

I didn’t recognize the name and in my achy blur, I didn’t notice the return address was Afghanistan. It was a Christmas card with one of those long letters that details the past year. It was from a combat medic that I had sent a few magazines and a letter to back in August while she was waiting to be adopted. Because of that small kindness, she had included me on her Christmas list.

As I read on, I discovered that she was mother of three. Her youngest was Sofia’s age. All of sudden I started crying. This woman would not see her children for a year. I would see Sofia in 30 hours. This woman lived in a combat zone. I lived semi-unpacked. Suddenly I thought: maybe I could suck it up for the next 30 hours. This mom I didn’t know helped me feel grateful for the blessings I had. With my spirits lifted, I went out that very minute and bought a Christmas tree and some lights.

In the coming days, cards from family and friends filled my mailbox. More troops surprised me as well. I loved them all, but I will always be especially thankful for the timing of that first card.

The email

It was New Year’s Eve and Jim, one of my soldiers in Iraq, asked about my plans. I told him it was going to be low-key. I really just wanted to be home with Sofia. Then I wished him and his family well.

That year, Sofia was determined to stay up till midnight and watch the ball drop. But she was struggling to stay awake. The countdown began and she said, “10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, Zzzzzzzz”  And she was out. I hugged her tight and just after midnight my email pinged. It was Jim.

“I hope your evening with Miss Sofia is one you cherish as one of your best New Years yet”

I broke out into a big smile. Grateful for the kindness of being remembered. Appreciating all the ways my troops made me feel special when I was having a tough time.  And more determined than ever to do the same right back for them.

New Year's Eve

New Year’s Eve

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Air Force Mom. Mission Of Love.

When my son went in, it was before 9/11. All this wasn’t going on. Back then it was almost like he had an everyday job. There wasn’t this heightened sense….like I had to do something. That changed.

Denise is an Air Force Mom and USO volunteer at Raleigh-Durham International Airport. With all the love in her heart, she helps troops and families. She helped me too when what I saw at the USO that day drove me to tears.

He grew up right before my eyes

I asked Denise to tell me a little about her son.

We were together on 9/11 in London. He was there on leave. His friends met us and we were deciding where to go next. Maybe Buckingham Palace…they were just kids being tourists. We sat down at a restaurant and when the waiter heard our accents he mentioned a plane hit the tower. We assumed it was an accident. The TV was on. When the second plane hit, we knew. 

I looked at my son and right before my eyes, he changed from my baby to that Airman, that highly trained person. You don’t see your child as that person. Before my eyes, he grew into a man 10 feet tall and strong and very protective. The phones started ringing like crazy and they had to get back to base. The media were waiting when we got off the train near the base. They wanted to talk to Americans. He walked in front of me to protect me, got me to my hotel and said, ‘Mom I’ll see you later.”

"This is what everyone else sees when they look at my son."

“This is what everyone else sees when they look at my son.”

"This is what I see when I look at my son."

“This is what I see when I look at my son.”

Banking love

I look at these troops and think, this is another woman’s child. So I treat them like my own. I say, “you tell your mom there was a mom here who made you fill up your pockets with sandwiches and snacks and took care of you.”

I tell my son I put something in the bank for him to withdraw when he needs it. Because when my son is somewhere in the world, maybe at a USO, I hope that there’ll be a mom there with a smile or sandwich or whatever he needs at that moment. Someone to give him the same kind of love that I give to those that I meet here. 

Three of many

I asked about some of the people she’s met. Here are three of many.

1.The young wife who was travelling overseas with pets. She had all kinds of crates that didn’t meet airline standards and was crying because if she missed the flight, she might not see her husband before he left for training.

What I did was reassure her that she was part of a big family. If she couldn’t get to him in time, someone would be there to meet her…another wife, another soldier …someone would be there for her. You’re part of a big family now. No matter what branch. No matter where.

2. Around the holidays, the USO is very busy. A soldier Denise was talking to was amazed that they all volunteered to be there, at how much they were doing and that they were open 24/7.

Finally I asked him, didn’t you volunteer for the Army? He looked me in my eyes, and said, ‘yes I did.’  I said, me volunteering here is my way of thanking you and those that serve with you. 

3. A family of six came through. The mom was pregnant and had a toddler in a stroller. Just the mom and toddler were headed to Phoenix to visit her sick mother.

We fed them and made them comfortable. Then I said, “let’s get you juice boxes and some snacks for the flight.” The mom started crying. She said she only had $5. That’s all she had in her wallet and there was a layover too. When we heard that, we really packed it in. Gave her all she could take.

The gold star

The were a few other people at the USO the day I spoke with Denise. The women at the table behind me looked exhausted. I assumed they had some terrible travel delays. Nearby was a volunteer named Julie. We started chatting. “I’m a Gold Star Mother, do you know what that means?” My heart dropped. I knew it meant her son or daughter died while serving this country. Julie said she was there to help the family behind me. To help them get through the airport and whatever else they needed as they “brought him home.” My heart dropped even further.

A few minutes later it was time for me to catch my flight. I had made small talk earlier with one of the women behind me. Now that I knew what this family was going through, I didn’t want to just leave. I wanted to tell them how very sorry I was for their loss. I got as far as “I’m so…” before I choked up and started to cry. Trembling, I couldn’t get the words out. Their eyes filled with tears and they nodded. I nodded back and walked away, afraid I was going to just lose it. I felt Denise’s hand on my shoulder. I had to keep walking. When I got home, there was an email from Denise.

Just wanted to check in with you…I know how you feel. My first two shifts at the USO involved families receiving the body of their loved ones KIA. It leaves a mark deep within. As volunteers we fill many roles, by far comforting a family in this situation is the most challenging…I’m here if you need to talk.

One thing

I asked Denise what was the one thing she wished everyone knew.

When they look into the face of our service people, that they would just remember, that’s somebody child or husband or wife. That every day they sacrifice something, a big portion of their lives…time with their family… so you can be free to do the things you want. 

I wish they could remember this about our service people.  And to just give them the respect and support and love that they deserve. 

© Gina left the mall, 2013

Spiders And Everyday Battles

A deployed soldier sent me an email with the subject line, “look what I killed in my bunk this morning.” Knowing his sense of humor, I didn’t know what to expect. Turns out, it was this lovely baby camel spider.

baby camel spider

Photo courtesy of R.O., Soldier

When I saw it I thought, if National Security rested on my small shoulders we’d be doomed. I can just imagine the phone call…

THE PRESIDENT:  Gina, we need you to go on dangerous mission. The fate of the world is at stake.

ME:  Will there be spiders? Because that’s a deal-breaker.

Along with stealthy insects

I know troops must have courage, stamina and skills for their particular job. But I also learned about the everyday battles when they deploy. Along with stealthy insects, here are a few others:

1. Keeping clean and dry

This impacts health in a lot of ways. It’s easier to do if you’re on a base with running water versus living out of the back of a truck in the sweltering heat in some remote area.  But even on bases I’ve had troops whose tents and surrounding roads would flood for long periods. Then keeping their feet dry would be a challenge.

2. Breathing clean air

There’s a reason that living next door to an open burning trash pit is recommended by no one. Yet some troops endured this.

3. Keeping weight on

My adopted soldier K lost 50 lbs. during his deployment. Hiking with 100 lbs. of gear in 120 degree heat will do this for you.

4.  Ground Hog Day

This refers to the movie where Bill Murray is forced to relive the same day over and over.  Many troops have told me they feel this way.

 5. Company 24/7

Yes, there is special bond amongst the troops. But imagine never being alone. After a while you want a break. Many troops hang blankets on their bunks for privacy. One amazing Air Force Mom made this awesome curtain. I love the phone holder and other interior pockets. I think this is a “luxury suite” compared to the usual.

bunk curtain

Photo courtesy of Kathy, Air Force Mom

bunk curtain- interior

Note the pockets. As for the pillow, it was given to this Airman by his daughter when she was little. It then became a deployment tradition.  Photo courtesy of Kathy, Air Force Mom.

bunk curtain interior with lights

Photo courtesy of Kathy, Air Force Mom.

6. Morale

This is one of the most important everyday battles because it influences so much. It can affect focus and performance as well as stress, anxiety, depression, and PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder.)

A real break

A Vietnam Vet told me this:

When you’re a soldier, you’re always too hot, too cold, too wet or too dry. Maybe you’re sleeping in the dirt. Maybe you have a cot. But it hurts. It physically hurts to be uncomfortable for so long. Then mail call happens. And it’s like a break from your reality.  A letter lets you go someplace else. You read it and you’re transported to a whole other world. And a package…wow… and for those moments, you feel better in so many ways. You forget how much you hurt.

I think it’s amazing that a simple letter could have a positive impact both emotionally and physically. There are no bad side effects and each dose costs 46 cents. This may not stop spiders or keep boots dry, but it does help with battle #6, Morale. It seems that’s one we can fight together.

© Gina left the mall, 2013