My career in the Marine Corps was marked by two bookends — from my first deployment as a young Second Lieutenant in 1990 -1991 in support of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm to my deployment to the Middle East as a Lieutenant Colonel during 2008. The biggest difference between those deployments was the first time I left my parents and siblings behind and the second I said goodbye as a husband and father.
With that said, the two things that were the same during those deployments actually hold true for millions of men and women in uniform, who have deployed in service to our nation for the past three decades. I missed my loved ones terribly, and I wished there was a way I could have done more for them while I was away.
These two things may not be surprising, but the magnitude of how those feelings take their toll on America’s fighting force is difficult for many to comprehend. I, like so many of my brothers and sisters in arms, missed birthdays, and holidays, and special occasions — too many to count and too painful to recollect. In total, I spent more than 1,000 nights away from my three boys during their formative years —1,000 dinners and 1,000 nights when I didn’t tuck them into bed or hear how their days went.
I’m not telling you this for sympathy or pity, I’m sharing these very raw emotions and reflections with the hope that it will create a better understanding of what it is like to serve in our military and empathy for the sacrifices that military families make every day.
Strangely enough, it took more than a decade after my retirement and continuing my service as the CEO of Operation Gratitude to realize that there is a simple way to bring families closer together during deployments.
This occurred to me this past weekend when I saw four of our newest volunteers – three daughters (Mona, Mary, Margaret) and their mother, Jovanna, post on our Operation Gratitude in Action Facebook Page that they had just completed their 2,000th handmade blank holiday card. They will go at the bottom of the Care Packages we send to deployed troops in December, so they can write home to their loved ones during the holidays.
When I read Mary’s post I reflected on the true impact of her family’s actions. I realized they are not just blank greeting cards, they provide 2,000 opportunities for deployed troops to make meaningful connections with their loved ones during a challenging time.
At that moment I thought back to the first care package I ever received in the desert of Saudi Arabia, filled with reminders of home, a hand-knit scarf from my grandmother, and a bundle of letters from my sister’s 3rd-grade class. I remember wanting to write to my family as well as back to every 8-year-old who had written to me. I remember using the back of an MRE box to craft two makeshift cards and feeling inadequate and saddened that I didn’t have a real card that truly captured my appreciation for what they had done to lift my sprints.
I thought to myself how great it would have been if I had blank greeting cards with the words “Thinking of You” or “Thank You” written across the front.
At that moment I also thought about all those times I sent my boys postcards from the 50 countries I deployed to, instead of birthday cards or a card that perfectly captured how much I missed them. As painful as it is to say this, I realize now that I could have done better as a father on special occasions or when I knew they needed to hear those things from me.
Below is one of the many emails we’ve received demonstrating the impact of our Greeting Card Brigade. Enjoy!
Hello from Ali Al Salem Air Base, Kuwait!
Today I needed to write a note to someone back home, and I went to the chapel’s card section.
There was a nice blank card with a matching envelope. It had been tucked into a larger envelope with a few blank cards, and on the larger envelope’s back flap was your name – Operation Gratitude.
I would like to pass along my sincere thank you to the “Greeting Card Brigade.” Your mission means a lot to so many.
I am at the chapel every day, and at just about any hour of the day. There is usually someone searching for a card in order to stay in touch with family and friends back home. One morning I came in early and saw an Airman sitting quietly writing a letter. He told me that he likes to come to the chapel, search for a card, and write to his wife. He shared that a note or a letter is more permanent, and to him is more special than an email or a phone call.
From junior Airmen to senior leaders, your generosity makes a difference.