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