Thursday, July 12, 2007

Care Packages

For those of you who don't know what it is I do for a living, it's probably a good idea to explain so that this post will make sense. After years of working in television, I recently started as an Account Executive for a great PR agency in Washington, DC called Susan Davis International. It's Public Relations - something I've never thought I would be interested in doing. Turns out I am interested, and I happen to really enjoy it.

One of our biggest accounts, and the one closest to my heart, is America Supports You, a Department of Defense program which highlights citizens' support for military personnel and their families, and then communicates that support to our troops serving all over the world. The "communicate" part of the equation is the most important element to me, and it has a lot to do with this post. Under the umbrella of the America Supports You program sit over 275 non-profit organizations whose purpose is to provide support of any and all kinds to our men and women in uniform. Fulfilling the needs of our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, and Marines is the priority, and it's very upsetting when the needs of these amazing Americans aren't met, or aren't communicated properly.

Today my boss sent me an email a soldier who is stationed in Iraq sent to an extremely successful non-profit organization here in the states.. Because the email was not sent directly to me, I won't reveal which non-profit it was nor will I reveal the soldier's identity. But I would like to talk about what he wrote in the email. Here is a small snippet:

"I am just another Joe in the desert out here in Iraq...has it ever occurred to anyone in the States to ask the troops directly what they need or what in terms of support? The last thing we need out here is another million letters and boxes jammed with Q-tips, cotton balls, and pilfered hotel soap bars.....It just frustrates me to see these campaigns and no one is coordinating with us here."

The email was sent to me because my boss knows I can relate to the soldier's frustrations and she wanted to gage my perspective to see if this is a bitter soldier or a valid complaint. Here is my long response (clearly it is something I am passionate about):

A few things come to mind:

He may, in fact, be a disgruntled Joe. But we have to explore exactly why he is disgruntled and pin down why he has chosen to send an email that can potentially hurt someones efforts in supporting the troops. I'm guessing he is "over it" - run down by missions, danger, violence, increased public dissatisfaction of the war (which we ALL feel and know but rarely talk about with anyone outside of our little circle), time away from family, having very little control over the decisions that affect us, and last but not least, feeling terribly homesick.

As I have mentioned before, the ONE thing we look forward to CONSTANTLY, is getting mail - and if there is a package, light the candles because it absolutely feels like a birthday!! But imagine you are so excited and then you open a package only to find one of hundreds of items you have been sent before; items that were useless even in 2004. It's like getting a birthday present you can't use. Don't get me wrong...the appreciation is there, without a doubt, but the excitement wears off because it's just another example of the disconnect taking place between what soldiers need and what the public think we need.

The truth is our government has gone to great lengths to make sure the majority of us are properly taken care of. Not long after the initial invasion, when logistics were just starting to take effect, private contractors were hired to build and house us in air conditioned trailers stocked with a shared hot water shower and bathroom, television, DVD player as well as personal armoires and beds, TV stands and night tables. Basically, it didn't take long to assure our quality of life on the FOB's (Forward Operation Base) was high. And while the food in the chow halls is wide ranging and served in abundance, it's THEIR choice for what we want; not the choice of the service member.

People can argue that it's the life you choose when you voluntarily sign up to be a JOE. That is true. But it's also true that your friends and family, along with thousands of strangers who want to help in any way they can, are going to send you care packages in an attempt to make you feel less homesick, make you smile, or to help fill a void. If you are a family member, you know exactly what your loved ones want and you can fulfill the request. If you are not, you simply go on what you've heard or what you THINK a soldier needs: q-tips, toothpaste, hand sanitizer, wet naps, beef jerky, pens, pencils, and random well wishes from a kindergarten class in the mid-west. All well intended and appreciated of course, but it's not filling a need and to the soldier, it further fuels the assumption that there is a disconnect between our needs and you, thus adding to our homesickness. Is this too confusing? Well, it is to us as well. It's hard to verbalize or make sense of your feelings in that environment without fear of sounding like a whiner, a slacker, and a pansy that can't take the tough life of a JOE. That is why I think we should move away from assuming this soldier is disgruntled and think of his letter as a Citizen Service Announcement for the thousands of troops who share his frustrations. And think of ways to combat it (pun intended).

How do we do this? Well, one way is to push this relationship with As I have mentioned before, I spent hundreds of my own dollars at Net Grocer on items I wasn't getting in care packages and that weren't offered in the chow hall or PX....items that gave me a piece of home and a feeling of normalcy. I understand this probably sounds crazy, but it truly boosted my morale to enjoy a 12 ounce can of Diet Mountain Dew - something that I can pick up anywhere in the states but also something that takes over 2 weeks to get when deployed in a war zone. When I relayed that message to my friends and family, I no longer had to spend my money on it. They took out the toothpaste and q-tips and made room for another 6 pack of Diet Mountain Dew. They weren't wrong for not doing it in the first place; they simply didn't know.

Secondly, we should relay this message to all the home front groups who fall under ASY that send care packages overseas. I think they should ALL reevaluate the items they spend their time and money on, determine if those items still fit the needs of today's soldier based on the soldier's conditions, and adjust fire (again, pun intended). There is no need to fill packages with unwanted or unneeded items and then waste a lot of money on shipping.

America Supports You can provide the troops and the home front group a fantastic service. We've been provided a very useful message from a soldier who knows what he is talking about. Now we need to relay that message to the appropriate home front groups, start a conversation (perhaps a conference call summit), and see what we can collectively agree is the best plan of action to assure this kind of letter isn't written again.

I get that most of this message may not mean that much to you. Alot of what I wrote is jargon known to only those of us who work on the account but I'd like to address a few of the points I made in the email because this can help everyone out who is planning to send care packages to soldiers like me (wink wink).

I am on my way back to Iraq and it's almost guaranteed that I will have the same comfy set up that you see in the picture above. Many soldiers and Marines do not, however. If you pay attention to the background of this picture you will see he is living is substandard conditions, one which allows the mighty Marines to pack up quickly and defend our Freedoms (Thank You!). Please understand, however, that this is NOT how the majority of us are roughing it. If you know a soldier or Marine serving in this capacity, the items in this pic are probably more suitable for them. These items are great because they fit in pockets, ruck sacks, and duffel bags. They are also very convenient and necessary for troops who have to travel light and for troops who like to brush their teeth, wipe off the sand, and fuel up on snacks between firefights.

But like I said before, most of us are not living like that so those little things people think we need end up in the garbage - or as handouts to Iraqi children. There is a huge misconception about the life of a soldier. True, there are moments of inconvenience and restless nights on uncomfortable cots while consuming dry and tasteless MRE's. But for MOST soldiers, this happens very rarely. Which is why the email from the soldier is so valuable.

He and his soldiers don't need food that is still edible ten years down the road. They, like me, want things they can't get their hands on: soda, candy, or chips not offered in the chow hall or PX, portable entertainment equipment (ipods, dvd players, handheld gaming consoles) and a litany of other things. My suggestion, if you want to send care packages and not waste your money, would be to find a soldier or a unit and communicate with them and their Chain of Command to gage their specific wants and needs. Additionally, I wouldn't send something to "any soldier". We're beyond that as almost every soldier receives cards, letters, and packages and if they aren't, a random letter of support from someone they don't know won't do much to boost their morale. I do suggest, however, that in your communication with your loved one, you ask if someone in his or her unit isn't receiving mail on a regular basis. Then email that soldier, ask them what they would like specifically, and send it with love.

The fear here is that people will think soldiers are being unappreciative. It's not that at all! But it does get redundant to read letters of support from strangers we don't know. At first, it's cute and appreciated but the feeling wears off after the 10th letter from someone whose name we don't recognize. When it's personal, it's awesome. When it's not, it's a little less awesome(sorry to sound so rude, but it's true!).

Whew, this has turned out to be a long post! I'm not even sure it makes sense but I hope it is helpful in pointing out what is valuable to a soldier and what is not. I mentioned NetGrocer's a great on-line grocery and product service that ships to military bases all over the world. I used it and I encourage others to use it. SDI is in the process of building a relationship with NetGrocer and some of the non-profit groups that fall under America Supports You to make it more user friendly for the military and their families. But until then, hop on over and look around. Better yet, send the link to whoever you know in Iraq or Afghanistan, and ask them to make a wish list. It will do wonders for their spirit and you can be sure your money will be well spent.

Have a great weekend!

Sunday, July 8, 2007

Family Time

Okay, so I'm sorry for the long delay! I'm thinking the three people who read this didn't even notice but there was something wrong with my blog settings, something that I did apparently, and I had no idea how to fix it! I am fairly savy with computers, and I've blogged before, but there is so much computer jargon I don't understand...html, scripts, tags, encoding, etc. OY. It gives me a headache. I finally fixed it so let's get to it.

The last week has been great. Nothing but pure FAMILY TIME with Greg, Gumata, and me. We're coveting every little minute we have together. We took our little girl to the beach last weekend and although she was really timid and shy around other people, we think she enjoyed it! If she is anything like her father, she will learn to love it! After the beach, we took her to play with some other doggies but she wanted to hang with us instead! We got Gumata from a Mastiff Rescue organization, which may explain why she is so timid around people. For the first six months of her life, she lived in five different homes! She is very comfortable around us, but she's still super shy around others. We're working on it though! We take her everywhere we go....and yes, it's Dad who deals with most of her doggy doo! Okay so that will be the only poo picture I post on here. Sorry about that but I didn't want to waste that picture by not sharing it with everyone!!!


I bet you all didn't know that I am rocking the cradle with Greg, did you? Well, I am....I've got a good 15 1/2 months on my man. On July 2nd, he turned the big 3-0. We didn't really do anything but chill at the house and have cake with LD and Paul. It was a good time had by all.

Oh, I bet you are wondering what GUMATA means. Well, Greg is very proud of his Italian heritage and as some of you may know, when an Italian man has a mistress or "a girl on the side", she is known as their GUMATA. So, we named her GUMATA since she is the only woman besides me and the women in his family that he is allowed to love! I know it's weird but we love it!

The rest of the week was fairly uneventful. We had a great time in Costa Mesa with our friends Michelle and Steve for the 4th of July. I am praying I will be back by this time next year so we can do it again because we had a blast! I hope everyone remembers all the sacrifices people are making to maintain our independence and freedom, not just on patriotic holidays. Somehow I feel most people just think of BBQ's, fireworks, and vacations on Independence Day. Hopefully that will change. We're so lucky; I just hope people remind themselves of that on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, I don't have any more updates about when I am leaving for Iraq. It's very frustrating but there is a lot of paperwork to process in order to get one soldier out and another soldier in. I imagine Greg and I will be heading back East to visit family in about two weeks. When we get back from there, I'll probably have just a few days before I have to leave. It still makes me sad - especially when I look at Greg and Gumata and think about how much I'll miss them - but it's getting easier to accept as the days go on. Plus, I have an incredibly strong support system and that makes me feel great!

I know how depressing talking about Iraq can be so I'll end this post with a few more cute pictures to make you smile. Isn't Gumata the cutest!!?? Have a great week and I'll keep you posted on developments from beautiful and sunny California.