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

Today Is One Year

Happy 1st AnniversaryI couldn’t help but notice. Whenever I shared stories about “my” troops, people would suddenly feel connected to them too. Some would ask how about ways they could get involved. If I was talking to someone in the military, the stories touched their heart. So I decided to start blogging to see if I could help these good things happen more often.

It’s now one year later and I’m humbled and honored by the response of my amazing readers. I’m thrilled that many have been inspired to take action. Here are just a few examples:

-Thanks to readers, an Air Force family got help from Peyton Manning in a special way after the tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma. Folks reached out, shared their story, sent supportive messages…the family felt comforted even before they knew Peyton would get involved.

-Wendy from the blog The Monday Box (care packages of home-baked love) was inspired to create some “desert-safe” recipes specially taste-tested to survive the rigors of shipping to a combat zone. Now she’s a valued resource for those wanting to send “home baked love” to the troops (or any bakers wanting travel-friendly recipes.)

-Dayna is a Veteran who is spending her civilian life having as many travel adventures as possible (35 countries and counting) She shares them on her blog Where In The World Is Dayna. Reading a post here made Dayna remember how much letters and care packages meant to her when she was deployed. So she adopted two soldiers.

-Another reader is a caregiver to a family member. Her situation is isolating and challenging. This reader was inspired to adopt some soldiers and use her love of writing to lift others up. She wound up lifting her own spirits as well.

-Natalie from the blog Mother Goose, was inspired to “do more.” So she turned her volunteer work, hand-making Blue Star Family banners, into a charity. She hopes to help more of these families connect and feel supported in their communities. She knows how important this is because she has two sons in the Navy.

-Many readers have told me they were sending coffee through Cup of Joe or adopting troops through Soldiers’ Angels or Adopt A U.S. Soldier or participating with the other charities listed in the Ways To Make A Difference page.

Then there are the comments and emails. I appreciate every note and the emails have been especially moving. Civilians have shared what volunteering has meant to them. Troops and families have said they feel like they have a voice here and how much it means to know that they are not alone. I should know by now to have tissues ready when I open my blog inbox.

Thanks and…

Thank you for coming here. For caring and for every kindness shared. Thank you for all you do. I’m also grateful for my “advisors,” both civilian and military who I bug with questions, bounce ideas, and receive invaluable feedback from (often on very short notice.) And thanks to all the wonderful and experienced bloggers who have encouraged and taught me along the way.

After my initial “hello” post, I wrote about the random event that started this journey. It’s called A Sailor Wrecks My Indifference. One year later, the last line in that post has taken on even more meaning.

© 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

When My Adopted Soldier And I Decided To Meet

They tell you contact usually ends when deployment ends. But I already had a few unusual things happen with my adopted soldier “K” so…why should this be any different? We started making plans for him, his wife and infant child to visit me in NYC. Both their friends and family and mine said, “What???” After all, we were strangers.

(At this point, I would like to suggest a detour for my readers with a loved one who is currently deployed. Perhaps the post where golf balls helped increase safety or how this all started. Why? Because parts of the following sections may be hard to read. And I’m a big fan of reducing stress.)

Most of the time

Most of the time our correspondence was light. I sent him a lot of funny stories about my daughter Sofia. But the events unfolding around him were anything but light. K was the first troop I ever got to know and he had one of the more difficult deployments of all the troops I’ve come to know. 10 days after I adopted him, they had a casualty. His unit had only been there a few weeks and this was not the first one. Then a nearby base was overrun and many lives lost. And so on. He would state these events simply, never going into detail.

At home, when I mentioned an attack, most people hadn’t heard of it. That felt very isolating. I felt like I was caring about somebody in a parallel universe. But I understood that people weren’t aware because I used to be one of them.

The worse things got, the more I wanted to do something to help protect him. I know that sounds crazy because he is a highly trained, very capable soldier and I am afraid of spiders. But I’m also a Mom so that protect-gene is hard to turn off.

Maybe I could do this

K told me that getting mail was like Christmas morning for them. I know that mail = better morale. Better morale can reduce stress, depression and anxiety. I thought, hey…If I could keep his morale up, maybe I could help him get home in better shape. Then I found out the Army has a soldier’s creed. So I made a “volunteer creed.”  I never told K because I wrote it for myself. I feel a little vulnerable sharing it but, I think it captures how I had come to feel.

I am my soldier’s soldier. My mission is to make sure he hears his name at every mail call for the duration of his deployment. To make him feel that the hard, dangerous job he does, the long stressful hours for days on end…is appreciated. To brighten his day if only for a few moments with a taste of home. To pray for his safe return. And to do this with no effort, thanks or consideration required on his part.  And no complaints or wavering on my part. I am my soldier’s soldier.  And I will never fail him.

He was in a remote base and mail arrived by convoy every two weeks. When you adopt, you send one care package a month and one letter a week. I doubled that to increase my chances of hitting both deliveries. Once he got a box much quicker than I expected. He explained that the convoys kept getting attacked so they started doing helicopter drops. Now mail came every 2-3 days.

ME:  That’s great!

ME ON THE INSIDE:  Uh oh.

How the heck was I going to make all those mail calls? Of course, it’s not like anyone knew that was my goal. A more sane person might just say forget it. Clearly, I am not that person. I decided to rely on the kindness of strangers.

Enlisting strangers

I started carrying around postcards. Especially when I travelled for work. If I were delayed at an airport I’d sit at the bar. After chatting with the bartender for a few minutes, I’d ask if he could do me a favor and say “hi” to my adopted soldier. Or if I were getting my nails done, I ask the girls around me.  After the initial surprise (you can adopt a soldier?) the answer was always yes. They felt good doing it. After they wrote a message, I’d address it (you keep addresses private) and drop in whatever mailbox in whatever town I was in.

His wife

Usually contact is with your soldier. But the Taliban kept shooting out their internet. So for the second half of his deployment, I had much more contact with his wife. That’s how I came to see the everyday impact on the family. She would share a “first” that baby Kyle did and I would realize, wow…another thing he missed and that she did solo.

One day she wrote that I might not hear from K for a while. And she wanted to let me know what was going on. His best friend, a fellow soldier deployed with him, had shot himself. The military calls this a Non-Combat Death. I don’t think this is an accurate description because I believe combat has a great deal to do with Army suicides.

I found out this soldier left behind a 3-yr-old son. I wrote a letter to the family.

K

I didn’t hear from him for a while but I got updates from his wife. Then he went on a mission for a few weeks where he had zero contact home. By the time he returned, he found a pile of mail on his bunk. There were packages from his wife and my daughter, plus a stack of mail from me and my army of strangers. Including a copy of the letter I sent his friend’s family. He appreciated it all. But the letter meant so very much to him. Maybe it’s why that day, we decided to meet in real life.

Visiting a total stranger sounded unusual to others. But the truth was, by that point, we didn’t feel like strangers at all.

New York City skyline

Where we planned to meet.

© Gina left the mall, 2013

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

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