In my home, I have a framed fabric flag. The edges are worn and unraveling. The color is faded from its days in the sun.
I purchased it on Sept. 13, 2001.
After the 9/11 attacks, I sat on my couch, unmoved, for two days. I constantly watched the news. I called in sick to work. I was in college at Oklahoma State University then (on the seven-year plan), and I skipped classes that week because I was glued to the coverage. The death and destruction of average people just going about their lives was angering and sickening. It still was unbelievable, even after the OKC bombing, even as I was watching live coverage as men and women were jumping from the Twin Towers to their deaths.
Beautiful souls with families and life left to live, but the cowards gave them no choice. They already had stolen their futures long before that — the second they decided and planned to use planes as weapons to kill.
Like so many other Americans, I watched in horror with an overwhelming want to pitch in, but I didn’t know how or what to do. On the 13th, I went to Walmart and purchased one of those 10-inch fabric flags on a stick. Since I lived a few blocks from campus in an apartment over a garage, I didn’t have a place to fly a big flag from a porch.
I settled for my little Walmart flag instead. I removed the stick and I stapled the corners of it to the rail of the stairs that went up to my apartment. When I moved to Chicago, it was taped up in the tiny window in my bedroom closet, which faced the courtyard of my building in Wrigleyville. When I moved to North Carolina, it had its own place in my underwear drawer. I framed it when I moved home to Oklahoma, and I am reminded of its meaning every day.
Back then, that $2 flag made me feel like I was doing something to help, or at least to recognize, those directly affected by horrific acts of terror – acts of war.
A few years ago, I decided to take it a step further and I asked myself, “What can you do to make this world a better place?”
I recalled sitting in an upper-level history class the week after the 9/11 attack. My professor made an announcement. He said he wanted all of us to know that the young man who usually sat on the end of the third row had withdrawn from school to join the Air Force. He went to enlist on Sept. 12. We had a moment of silence to pray individually for him and then all 100 of us sat unmoved for what seemed like forever before the prof dismissed class early with these words…
“Whatever your calling is in life, do it with purpose.”
It took me a few years to establish my purpose. With family members and dear friends who have served the United States in uniform, I figured there was no better way to honor their bravery, and those still sacrificing, than to “adopt” members of the military,
I first chose a group of Texans, because a PFC who was serving as his unit’s liaison wrote a moving care package request to AnySoldier.com that said this:
“It would be nice to read not only things from the national scene, but local things as well. Things like which kid won the area spelling bee, or the 4-H competition. It doesn’t really matter which state or town the paper’s from… any city in America is home to us all.”
I sobbed instantly, and through the tears, I requested that particular unit’s address. Reading that excerpt made me realize I most definitely was doing the right thing by writing to random soldiers fighting for America’s protection. Because, like he wrote in that email, no matter who read my letter, no matter what state or town the soldier was from …any soldier serving America is a hero to us all.
After a few care packages, some correspondence and many thank yous on both ends, the military moved “my” unit to an undisclosed location where it was unable to receive mail. I was worried about those soldiers like I would have been about my own brother or sister. Every time bad news hit about Iraq, I shuddered. I almost was too scared to find out to which unit the fallen belonged. Two months later, I found out my entire unit was resting on America’s shores, safe and sound until its next mission. I was relieved, but I knew there were others out there, fighting in much worse areas of the world, some very remote and practically uncivilized.
So again, I went to AnySoldier.com and scrolled through the list, but this time I just closed my eyes and chose a name. With a click of the mouse, I was new friends with a unit from Virginia serving in Afghanistan.
And the next day I wrote, among other more lighthearted things, this message in a letter:
“…Because I don’t know what information you are able to receive about life back in the states, I feel as though it is necessary to tell you this: I suppose there always will be clashing opinions when it comes to war, but know that everyone I come in contact with and everyone I know has an enormous amount of respect and supports your mission fully. Like you, we all hope that casualties will be low and morale will remain high.
I can tell you that DAILY, I pray for peaceful resolutions and the safe return of all the men and women who are on foreign soil. I try to say a silent “thank you” often. And, in case you are wondering, I am not even close to being alone in doing so. I hear so many people talk about how proud they are of those who are showing such courage. It makes me think about how wonderful God is, in that there are so many people suited for so many different things in life, but He made the hearts of soldiers so large that they are willing to protect people they don’t even know. American people. Iraqi people. Afghans. People all over the world are on the receiving end of your courage, and they live better lives for it. I am not sure of your religious beliefs, but I do know that the Lord is protecting you, just as you protect complete strangers.”
I received a heartfelt email response from the unit’s 1SG (typos included):
“Dear Ms. Ball,
Thank you for your support of the troops. The letter you wrote made our men and women tear up and even smile. They are soldiers and trained well but the appreciation shown by civilians like you are what keeps them goin. Words cant express what it means when these soldiers receive a letter from the states. i believe that the Lord will bless you in your life because of the kindness you have in your heart.
The hunting and sports magazines and newspapers you sent are a good distraction. The women are thankful someone thought to send a Cosmo or two. They were fighting over them!!! It is nice to take a break and read things like magazines and books and pretend that there isn’t a war going on and it’s nice to remember that there are people back home who depend on us and who appreciate the sacrifices our men and women are making everyday. Please pass this along to all of your friends that we hope they will keep praying for us all!!!
Sometimes its tough but I guess the thing that gets most of us by is that we know that a few months of danger for us means lord willing many years of safety for our families and our country. Life here for me isn’t really so bad. Im proud to be here and proud to serve and i miss my wife and girls, but i belong to my country and i am proud to be here helping guide these young soldiers in their paths. Things could be worse and for some of these guys it is. One of the men here just found out that his wife back home in South Carolina has cancer. When i start to feel sorry for myself in this hell hole -I think about him and how strong he is to be here and be so far away from his loved ones and how strong his beautiful Chelsea is to be going through her illness alone right now. Soldiers like that are everywhere here and they just get up and keep going because they feel like they have a purpose.
please keep the mail coming, because they need all the morale boost they can get. mostly everyone is focused and keeps up their spirits, but this is a rough country and sometimes we spend weeks in places you would not dream about going but we’ll get through and be better people because of it. Hopefully we’ll have a better country because of it also.
Thank you from the bottom of all of our hearts. We look forward to your next package. We enjoy the things you sent and if they’re donations please extend thanks for us. You don’t have to send things but we sure do appreciate it. sometimes a nice letter is enough.
God Bless you and God Bless The USA.”
And I sobbed again. That was not my first correspondence with a soldier in battle, but it’s something you never get used to. It still is mind-boggling to think there are people out there who care so much for my freedom, my safety, my corner of the country… that they would put their lives on the line.
Sure, we hear that every day. Soldiers are heroes, yada, yada, blah, blah. People sometimes say those words with such ease that I wonder if they even understand their depth. But I urge you — the next time you say them — think about it. Really, really think about the power behind those words and try to picture, for one moment, what a day in the life of a military member in time of war would be like.
And think about “my” First Sergeant, who had the right to ask his fellow Americans for anything and everything he wanted. He, and thousands like him, gave up their own lives because they felt a calling to protect us. He could have asked for ANYTHING and he should have.
But instead, he simply said, “a nice letter is enough.”
That little worn-out flag stapled to my staircase in 2001 made me feel as though I was doing something to help. And now, I suppose this blog post is my way of helping. Please utilize the AnySoldier.com service. Do it with your children. The idea of it is decades-old, dating back to when Americans would address a handwritten envelope to “Dear Any Serviceman,” and send it abroad during World War II. Now you can use the Internet to narrow it down to hometown kids or people from your state. There also are sister organizations: AnyMarine, AnySailor, AnyAirman, AnyCoastGuard.
If America is to succeed in suffering as few casualties abroad as possible, it really does begin with support on the homefront.
I didn’t pen this post looking for a pat on the back for what I’ve done in this regard, so please, no thank yous to me are necessary.
But a simple thank you card sent to “Any Soldier” could be your little worn-out flag moment.
Like the young man at the end of the third row — whatever your calling is, do it with purpose.