Wednesday, March 14, 2007

For an Angel, Opportunity Knocks Everyday

The parade was fantastic and it, necessarily, sidelined a number of things like posting about personal experiences, pointing out other Angel activity and generally reminding KC Angels and others who visit about other things to read to get an idea of what is "going on" in different places our men and women are deployed to.

Thus, what I am about to write is a few days old, but emphasizes in a small way the very purpose of marching in the Snake Saturday Parade.

Last week I was supposed to meet the Parkville American Legion manager and the Mayor of Parkville, Kathy Dusenberry for the Sunday Breakfast at the American Legion. I was hoping to discuss how we could do a project together to get the town of Parkville involved in supporting a company of soldiers. It was really their idea that they approached me with and I was just trying to help them make it happen.

For multiple reasons, meeting with them has met with serious set backs. First, my computer went down and I did not have the AL Managers email and no phone number so I could not confirm a date and time. So, I decided that I would just drive the two miles to the American Legion and hope that I could at least give someone my number so that the manager could contact me and we could go over some ideas and, hopefully, I could help push this into something successful for both Parkville and Soldiers' Angels.

I was lucky to find Terri at the American Legion. We sat and talked about a number of things, exchanging personal stories and talking about projects the American Legion had already done and things they wanted to do. Terri tried to get hold of the Mayor to see if she wanted to drive down real quick for a conversation (she lives two blocks away), but found out that the Mayor had surgery a few days before and could not come to have a conversation.

We arranged to meet that next weekend at the next Sunday breakfast, exchanged numbers and I went home, very excited.

Well, difficulties abound and that Friday, Terri called me and said she had to go out of town on an emergency, but I should go see the Mayor at breakfast. I was good with that, I just wanted to make things happen because, as the saying goes, "all politics are local". If you understand that "politics" is a euphamism for "things that interest people" or are important to people, then you understand that a really important aspect of Angeling is making connections in your local community.

It's not really about trying to influence the world (ie, global community). As Maxwell Gladwell indicated in his book, "Tipping Points", massive social change does not occur by itself nor in some mass frenzy out of the blue as if everyone suddenly has the idea beamed into their heads from outerspace that hip huggers or iPods are cool and everyone should wear/use them.

It begins by regular people within a community sharing ideas. He calls them "social epidemics" and they spread like diseases (in a good or bad way depending on the trend). Like how your kids spread measles and chicken pox. It's by contact. Everytime we make a contact, the idea has a chance to spread and infect others. When that idea is taken up by people that Gladwell calls "mavens" (like "fashion mavens" who set fashion trends - think Jackie O. sunglasses or Breast Cancer Awareness pink ribbons, etc), the idea is forced into a public venue. While most of us consider ourselves to be "individuals", we are all still influenced by things and people around us. Once people get the general idea from these "mavens", it starts spreading until it reaches the "tipping point" and, suddenly, everyone is doing it, or wearing it or saying it.

It starts with that one little step outside of our comfort zone and then, WHAM, things start rolling. Like Soldiers' Angels. It is a great representation of Gladwells "tipping point". It started with Patti finding out about some soldiers who had no support. Then she asked some friends to help. Suddenly, there are thousands of soldiers and thousands of people sending their support.

But, it started in a little community of friends and family.

That's why I was trying hard to get something set up with Parkville and the American Legion. Kathy Dusenberry, as mayor, is definitely a "maven" of the community. And, that community draws a huge number of outside people for shopping, dinners, the university and its famous "by the river" festivals.

Of course, all things are not so easy as simply meeting with someone and going forth with an idea. As noted, I was trying to get with Mayor Dusenberry two Sundays ago. Unfortunately, two things happened: Terri went out of town on an emergency leaving me with no number to contact the mayor over the weekend (townhall being closed on the weekends) and Sunday morning I was awakened by a desperate call from my brother who was stranded on the road with his family. The front tire went flat as they were driving down the highway at about 70mph. Needless to say, the tire was shredded. Worse, the spare was flat. So, no way to contact anyone and a family on the side of the road, I had to make a tough choice and that meant not going to the American Legion.

I was very frustrated (and, I imagine that the Parkville folks are as well). Still, I hadn't given up on the idea and planned to contact the Mayor and Terri on Monday with my apologies and an attempt to meet again. Monday morning I got to my office and discovered that I had to fly to Ohio of all places for the week and would not be back until Friday night (the night before the parade). So, I had to give up on the idea of meeting with the Parkville folks once again.

Ohio had its positives. Sitting in the hotel room at night with nothing to do and no one around, I started formulating my plan for video taping the parade. Until then, it was just a vague idea that I would video tape our activities to show others about things they could do in their communities and, hopefully, show our service men and women that we are actively supporting them "over here". While I played with some of our previous video and my digital camera, the news was playing quietly in the background. The usual stuff about who said what, who wanted what and why it was right or wrong.

I've known for awhile that our men and women get cable news fed into their FOBs, had access to the internet and could see what was written. I knew by many accounts, what was said or done could effect their morale. Just the a few days before I had read the despairing letter of a young man whose friend had taken his life and his friend was not even mentioned by anyone but a lonely Soldiers' Angel blog looking for some TLC for this man. One of his comments was that this man had done great things and the only person getting 24/7 coverage was some drugged out ex-supermodel who died due to her own bad choices, yet no one cared about this soldier.

The idea had been percolating in my mind for awhile. All the things that we do with packages and letters must combat, not only the effects of war, but also the effects of society that has its own way of percolating across the oceans and deserts. For about a month now, everytime I was with a group of Angels, I convinced some to give personal or group messages for our troops, not really knowing how we would get the info to them. I also thought that it might inspire people here to "do something". How, I wasn't sure. It takes exposure to get that message across.

But, as that news played in the background, that letter kept going around and around in my mind. We need more than letters and packages. We need more than some 30 second, professional "infomercial" produced by some slick government agency being fed into FOBs by the AFN (armed forces network). Every soldier there must know that is "propaganda". I don't think that it means quite the same or feels quite the same as heart felt communications (like Angel letters and packages) from "real people" in "real places". Basically, we need "pictures" to send to our troops because pictures "speak a thousand words". That's why some upcoming protest that is going to be broadcast from here to the ends of the earth, however few hours it occurs, can have as much impact or more than all the letters and packages we send over the hundreds of days and hours that Angels work tirelessly to support our troops.

That is when I decided that, when I video taped the parade, I was going to "ambush" people and ask them for a message to the troops. I know my community and I know that my community is not represented by a bunch of folks massing on Washington DC for one day of mayhem with dispicable signs and bizarre ideologies (Black Bloc Anarchists - I don't know about you, but I don't know anyone that believes in or has joined that group). I also know that CNN, FOX and the rest of the media were not going to come to my home town and ask strangers on the street how they felt or if they supported the troops. We're just "regular folks" and "regular folks" don't appear on the news unless their neighbor kills somebody, a tornado goes through their house or they win the lotto. I know that "regular folks" have all sorts of opinions, but that "regular folks" still see the military as an honorable occupation taken up by "regular folks" in their community, thus, deserving of our respect.

It may be difficult to reason that out or accept it as the "norm" considering all the noise from the less than "regular folks" that end up on our television sets or get printed.

So, Thursday night, sitting in a Holiday Inn Express (yes, Holiday Inn Express) in Ohio, the idea that had been percolating in my mind for awhile coalesced into a plan: how do we by-pass the media block between the men and women serving overseas and the people back home? Simple: we ask "regular folks" to record a brief message and we send it over ourselves.

I could hardly sleep that night as I kept going over and over in my mind how I could do it and what the possible outcomes were. I know I said, "I know my community", but that is in a general "sense" of the community. It didn't mean I would get the expected outcome.

Finally, Friday arrives and I am leaving Ohio. After being dropped at the Airport, I went to check in, only to discover that my wallet was not in my bag. No ID, no credit cards, nada. I tried calling the person that had dropped me off, but discovered that I did not have the latest phone number. I called three people before I got the latest number. Spoke to the driver, but, no luck: no wallet in the vehicle. I started calling around and discovered that the wallet was setting on the desk at the office I was just at (over an hour away from the airport) because I had taken it out to get money for the soda.

My plane was boarding in 30 minutes and I knew I would not have enough time to get the wallet there and get on board. I started to panic. I had several pieces of our float and signs for our parade. I wanted to video tape the parade. It suddenly seemed like, once again, Murphy's Law had come to roost like an 800lb gorilla on all my plans. I was trying to figure out how to get my wallet and take the next plane out of there (even if it was the dead of night or crack of dawn) so I could get to the parade. Then, the Manager who had my wallet told me to take a deep breath and ask the air line (to be unnamed) if I could get on the plane without my ID. The thought never occurred to me. Especially because the "threat alert" announcement played every five minutes at the airport announcing that the alert level was "orange" (just a step below "do not let any planes off the ground" red).

I had nothing to lose and knew I could go with plan C: somehow get wallet and try to get the next plane (although, I was panicking about that, too since it is Spring Break) to somehow make it to the parade. The long and short of it is, the customer service person from this airline (who will be anonymous for security sake) helped me get on board the airplane after I explained my situation. Of course, I was practically strip searched and my bags turned inside out, but all in a days work to get back so I could support our troops.

I was even surprised to learn that my company had a promotional credit that bumped me to First Class (one of the extremely few times I haven't had to fly economy cramped up in the rear with the other passengers like a bunch of chickens off to the Tyson chicken processing factory). As I sat relaxing in my seat, I watched the other passengers get on. I saw a couple of Navy men get on and go to the rear but I couldn't get the flight attendents attention to see about offering my seat to one of them. As I was about to give up, a third man in semi-dress Navy blues I associated with Chief Petty Officers and Warrant officers, got on board and took the remaining first class seat. The flight attendant was very solicitous and made sure the Corpsman (hospitalman) was comfortable.

For the rest of the flight, the corpsman and the other first class passengers kept up a general conversation. He was married with two kids. His family was in Leavenworth and he was going to visit them. He was just finished with some extra "life saving" training the Navy wanted him to have before he joined his Marine unit (though most of the people didn't totally get the implications, I realized then that the man was about to be deployed and this was his leave before hand). He was an HM2 (hospitalman second class). He didn't give his age, but he mentioned being called "grandpa" by the other 18 to 20 somethings in his training class. He only joined two years ago (that's one of those amazing moments: where do we find such people? In the middle of a long, ugly war, this guy, who could easily sit at home, work a decent paying job at the local hospital and be with his family had chosen to join the military).

An hour later, we were on the ground and everyone was pulling out their bags. I had several Angel business cards in my bag so I pulled it out and handed it to the Corpsman who was surprised to hear me call him "corpsman". I explained about Soldiers' Angels and told him how to get on the internet to sign up. I even explained to him about our support efforts and what we could do for him if he joined. I gave him several more cards and told him to give them to anyone that he knows who is deployed or will be deployed.

He kept looking at the cards as if they were about to disappear out of his hand. Then he looked at me and said, "Thank you. I guess there is a reason for everything." The only reason he was on that plane heading home was because he was flying stand-by and the only seat left was in first class, which he paid extra to take. Maybe I am getting sappy in my old age (wink), but I felt a little misty (again) because he was right. I almost didn't make that plane and I almost didn't sit in first class. I'd missed meeting the Mayor of Parkville and complained quite a bit about having to fly to Ohio when I had so many things going on at home. Yet, through a little Angel power, I met a Corpsman on his way "over there".

Hey, the story doesn't end there!

I told him he was "welcome" and thanked him for his service as he put the cards in his wallet after reading one again. Then it was time to get off the plane. Being in first class, I got to leave first, but I hadn't forgotten about the Seamen in economy. As I waited outside the gate to give them cards, too, a lady with a cane and a "working" dog approached me and asked if I had seen any other Navy people on the plane. She was looking for her son, also returning from from training. I told her that he was in the back and then handed her another card, explaining about Soldiers' Angels. We talked for several moments and I gave her my personal number to call if she had any questions or wanted to know about joining. Her son came out and they had a little reunion.

Just then, I noticed the third Sailor get off the plane, but the press of the crowd kept me from reaching him. Fortunately, he was headed towards luggage so I had a 50/50 chance of running him to ground there. After handing out two cards and talking in general, I was feeling very good and comfortable about just walking up to people and talking to them about SA. Still, when I got to baggage, he was gone and I was disappointed. Then I saw two marines from a different flight waiting by the bag claim. I handed them a couple of cards with the same spiel.

I was feeling pretty good. Then I discovered that the baggage escalator was "stuck" so I went outside to wait and smoke (yes, bad habit - no, Soldiers' Angels does not support smoking). As I lit my cigarette, the Sailor I had missed earlier, came around the corner and asked me for a light.

How fortuitous was that?

Again, I handed out the card and explained about Soldiers' Angels. He wanted to know specifically how to sign up a friend. He walked away and then a few minutes later came back and asked some more information. When we parted, he thanked me several times and called me, "ma'am". "Ma'am" used to bother me not too long ago, but I think I like it from a guy in Navy blues.

The rest, as they say, is history.

The Lord and Angels do work in mysterious ways.

Just goes to show that every situation is an opportunity to talk to people about supporting our troops and Soldiers' Angels.

Post Script: Don't think I've given up on Parkville. The tipping point in our community can only come after we reach the right people and we reach the right number of people through them. This weekend is my birthday and my family asked what I wanted to do to celebrate. I couldn't make up my mind until tonight. I told them I wanted to have breakfast at the Parkville American Legion.

- May no soldier go unloved