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It’s Not Just… a Drawstring Bag or Fleece Hat

The story in today’s post is very personal to me, and I am sharing it with you because it illustrates so clearly what many young men and women experience when they are deployed — many of them separated from their families for the very first time. 

Last year, the Director of our Handmade With Love program, Kelly South, sent me a few drawstring bags and fleece hats that she and a few of our dedicated crafters had sewn. She sent them so I could visualize, touch, and feel two of these new HWL items that she had introduced to our talented volunteers. Our hope was to give our sewing community more opportunities to make an impact.

The timing of her delivery couldn’t have been better. My son, Karl, was about to deploy with his Marine Corps Artillery Battalion. Karl was going through a rough time. He was doubting his decision to serve and was suffering from bouts of anxiety. The thought of separating from family and friends in the ensuing days made him more anxious and reinforced his doubts.

As a father, and veteran who experienced the same doubts and the same anxiety when I was deployed and away from Karl and his two brothers when they were younger, I tried to reassure him — but nothing seemed to comfort him. I can think of no worse feeling as a parent, and someone who deployed dozens of times myself, than seeing the same expression on my son’s face as I had seen on the faces of hundreds of Marines, Sailors, Soldiers, and Airmen.

The night before he left I grabbed one of the drawstring bags and a fleece hat and headed down to Karl’s room in the basement. I will never forget it. I sat with him on the edge of the bed. I told him how much I loved him. And I handed him the drawstring bag and fleece hat.

When he asked me what they were, I told Karl they were sewn by a grateful American just for him. I said, “these were handmade with love for you, Karl, with the same love, respect, and admiration that I have for you.”

Karl didn’t say much that night or the next morning when I hugged him and he drove off. Like all fathers I worried for the next few days. There were sleepless nights and that pit in my stomach that we all get as parents when our kids are struggling.

A couple of days later Karl texted me and said he was using the drawstring bag to “hold some of the tools” he used as a small arms repairman, and the hat was “keeping him warm at night on the gun line.”

I’ve never shared this story with our team or with any of our volunteers — not even Kelly — because I didn’t want to talk about my own son’s struggles as a young Marine who faced uncertainty and anxiety. Or for that matter, I didn’t want to talk about my own.

But I am now, because I saw Karl yesterday, and he told me it was OK to share, and because I have a responsibility to do so in the hope that it will make a difference in the lives of thousands of men and women like him.

I want you to know that they are not just drawstring bags or fleece hats… they are expressions of appreciation and love that reassure and comfort our deployed service members. Every stitch you sew is a reminder to them that they made the right decision to serve our country. Every handsewn item casts away their doubts and improves their physical, spiritual, and mental well-being.

The timing of this weekly briefing and my decision to share Karl’s struggles also come just one week after the six year anniversary of his graduation from boot camp and 19 years after the United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Last week I reflected on both of these anniversaries, and I felt two overwhelming emotions: 1) immense sense of pride helping young men and women like Karl and continuing my own service as the CEO of Operation Gratitude, and 2) concern that, with all of the challenges we face in 2020, many Americans may forget that our nation’s longest war continues and more than 200,000 service members still deploy each year.

So I am asking you, as both a father and as a Marine veteran, to join me and renew your own commitment to our men and women in uniform as we start our 20th year of the global war against terror and approach this year’s holiday season. Your support is needed at a time when many deployed service members will feel the same doubts and anxiety that Karl felt when he deployed to Latvia last year.

For those of you who don’t sew, please consider hand-writing a letter to a Deployed Troop. I promise, with the 5 or 10 minutes you spend doing so, you will make a profound difference in someone’s life. Your words will wash away their doubts, struggles, and anxieties, too.

I am forever grateful for your continued support of our men and women in uniform around the world and here at home.

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