Combat Golf

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

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

I know a guy…

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

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

Balls in the zone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You don’t realize what you did

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

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

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

© Gina left the mall, 2012

My Soldier’s Wife

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

The family also serves

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

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

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

If I’m worried…

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

Questions

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

SFX (sound effects):  NEEDLE SCRATCHING RECORD

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

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

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

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

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

The power

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

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

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

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

© Gina left the mall, 2012

The Phoenix Coyotes vs. The Taliban

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

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

I tried to make him a Ranger fan

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

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

We get a lot of requests

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

Weeks go by

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

Not a foam finger

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

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

Don’t send it

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

Back at work

My adopted soldier in Afghanistan

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

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

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

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

Phoenix Coyotes Win

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

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

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

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

Canned Ravioli

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

© Gina left the mall, 2012

“We had a rough week….”

Bad things happen in a combat zone. In my head, I knew that. But after adopting my soldier, I felt it more. My connection to him made the evening news feel personal. Or as my buddy Andy said, “now you have skin in the game.”

His Email

In the first 9 days after adopting my soldier, I learned:

He couldn’t wait to meet his baby boy, Kyle.

He is a sniper currently doing a Personal Security Detail.

He is in charge of 23 soldiers. He cares about them a lot.

He is a huge hockey fan.

He loves canned ravioli.

Day 10:

“……. this last week has been really tough here. Another platoon in our unit lost a guy when their truck was hit by a roadside bomb. The…….other guys in the truck were sent back to the states because of injuries. We have been here since mid June and this is the third person we have lost. It has been hard for most of my platoon since this is their first deployment and they have never been through anything like this before. “

His concern was for the fallen, the families and his fellow soldiers. My concern was for him as well.

This I Can Do

I can’t make world peace happen. I’m all for it, but I can’t make it just happen. However, I could do this- I could make sure he hears his name at every mail call. Give him 5 minutes where he’s reminded of his real world a world away. Where he knows that the sacrifice he and his family is making is appreciated. So I stepped up the letter writing and started sending a few more care packages.

Communication Blackout

sniper rifle on roof in combat zone

Six weeks later, I turn on the news and there’s been an attack. It sounded like the area my soldier was in. His emails stop. The e-silence in my inbox was profound. I found out that when someone is KIA, there is a communications blackout until the next of kin are notified. In this attack, eight U.S. troops were killed and 22 wounded. Here I am not knowing if my soldier is okay or not. I was worried. Then I thought, “I’m a stranger. What must his wife be feeling?”

I found out the attack occurred at a base about 15 minutes away from him. I said a prayer for those soldiers and their families. And I felt relief that my soldier was alright. There would be more days to get to know him.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

I Adopted A Heavily Armed Grown Man

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

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

I hit send.

What is Adoption?

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

It’s like Christmas Morning For Us  

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

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

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

Your Soldier Information from AAUSS Adopt A US Soldier 

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

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

my adopted soldier in Afghanistan

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

© Gina left the mall, 2012

A Sailor Wrecks My Indifference

Life-Changing Event wasn’t my plan that morning. We had no plans. But the USS Intrepid had a plane with shark teeth, my 4-year-old daughter was in a “shark phase” and that’s how we found ourselves on a flight deck.

Sofia (the 4-year-old) wanted to leave immediately because flight decks are hot. On August 16, 2009, a sweltering NYC day made it “super hot.” Instead, I took her to the air-conditioned lower deck.  One exhibit had a film playing about the ship. We had missed most of it, so I pulled her away. But with pre-K mega-strength, she dragged me back.

The Sailor

I stood there watching black and white footage of the ship being attacked. I sensed the man to my right moving closer. I turned towards him and he said, “I was there that day. I was there.” Then he turned back to the screen and stared intently. He was an elderly gentleman wearing ID badges that said Former Crew Member and Plank Owner.

When the film ended, he walked away to talk to a few people. At that point, I had no idea that walking up to someone in the military and personally thanking them was something people did. I didn’t know anyone in the military. I never ran into troops. But I said to Sofia, “do you see that man over there? He did something brave on this ship that helped protect us. I want you to go say thank you”

Pre-Wreck

Sofia started buzzing around the group trying to get this Sailor’s attention. He kept talking to the adults. I thought to myself that this was a mistake. Retract!! Retract!!

But after a few long minutes he finally said very loudly and with mock exasperation, “Yes, little girl…what can I do for you?” Just as loudly, Sofia replied, “Thank you for being brave on the boat! I like your boat!!!”

Everyone stopped talking. His eyes filled with tears. His wife became teary. So did the others with them. I walked over to see what was wrong and his wife said to me under her breath, “Thank you for her words. You have no idea how much they mean. This is the last time he can visit the ship. This is his last time here.”

Then It Hit Me

As we walked away I started thinking about my Mom. She’s from the Philippines and if it wasn’t for American G.I.s, she might not be here, then I wouldn’t be here and Sofia wouldn’t be here. And I don’t remember thanking a single one of those thousands of Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen.

So that night I went home, did some research, and adopted a U.S. Soldier who was deployed to the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. I never imagined where that first step would lead me.

My adopted soldier's Combat Outpost in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan

My adopted soldier’s combat outpost in the mountains of Afghanistan.

© Gina left the mall, 2012

To Be Honest, I Never Thought About The Troops

I wasn’t against the Military.  I just thought of it as another big government institution.  Granted, a heavily armed big government institution, but still…I had no personal connection. Back in 2009, I had only a vague sense of what “peace keeping” in Afghanistan or Iraq meant, either for the men and women doing it or for their families at home.

Then one random event led me to adopt a Soldier.  And everything changed. I made a difference for him and his family.  I saw how our lives were connected. That inspired me to do a little more.

Along the way, I’ve done that “little more” for over 800 Troops. This blog is about what I learned.  It will include the good, bad, funny and sometimes heartbreaking.  But it will always be honest.  And I have two hopes:

1.  This helps others who want to support the Troops.

2.  This gives people like me (well, the old me) who never really thought about the Troops, a reason to feel connected.  To care.  And to help close the divide between civilian and military.

That’s my Mission.  Thanks for giving me a chance to accomplish it.

Gina

© Gina left the mall, 2012