What to write to a military pen pal I don't know?
November 19, 2007 9:54 PM   Subscribe

What sort of things should I write about to my soldier pen pal?

I signed up to be a pen pal for a soldier overseas with a volunteer organization, but I'm having a hard time keeping up with my correspondence. This isn't someone I know, so I can't write about familiar subjects (because I don't know what they are!), and they don't regularly write to me (which is part of the deal, so I understand that). I've been writing about my life, but it feels so awful - "Hi I'm having a great comfortable spoiled life here with my friends and family! Hope life alone in a warzone isn't too awful!" What sort of things can I talk to this person about that will provide the most comfort and support?

I am a woman, and so is my soldier.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Carry a camera around, and send pictures of interesting or beautiful things (and cute guys)?
posted by BrotherCaine at 10:10 PM on November 19, 2007

Talk about regular everyday stuff...when I was in the Navy, we loved getting junky letters full of newsy stuffs, pictures of the kids, ANYONES kids...you just want to know that there's a 'normal' someplace out there waiting for you to come back to it.

Tell her about the latest movies, send some crappy celebretard magazines...anything that gives you a little escape from the now.
posted by legotech at 10:20 PM on November 19, 2007

Print out threads from metafilter. Include sheets of favorite photos from Flickr. Random articles from Digg that she might like, or like to share with others. Make her feel in the know about other parts of the world. People just want to be connected to stuff. Provide some of that.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:30 PM on November 19, 2007

Tell her how thinking of her sacrifices - what she's given up to be in the armed services - has made you remember how much you have to be thankful for in your everyday life. Tell her what those things are.

The other way to pitch it is that your "spoiled, comfortable life" as you put it is something of value - something that soldiers overseas have signed up to protect. The idea is that soldiers want to know what's going on on the home front, because that home front is the whole reason they're over there doing the work they're doing. You have to believe this to pull it off, I think; maybe these days people are too ironic for this to carry any weight. In which case you might as well drop your pen pal.
posted by ikkyu2 at 10:40 PM on November 19, 2007

I am writing emails to a teenage boy soldier and having similar problems. I just send him emails occassionally letting him know that I am thinking of him and asking if there is anything he'd like from the States.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 10:41 PM on November 19, 2007

Back in the day when I had a job where I got paid for sitting in front of a computer and doing nothing all day, I took it upon myself to correspond with several people on my sister's ship (she's a career Naval officer).

It was fucking FUN. I started by just giving them a brief rundown of who I was, where I lived, what I did for fun, and then I turned the conversation to them. I asked questions about their childhoods, their hometowns, their families, their favorite books/music/movies. Some questions were dead ends with some of my pen pals, but there was always something that was a goldmine of interesting stories.

This was right around the Cole bombing, and this ship in particular was out there in the Gulf at the time, so tensions were high and the crew was under a lot of stress, as now. I think having a possible email or letter to look forward to was a huge psychological boost.
posted by padraigin at 10:52 PM on November 19, 2007 [1 favorite]

I agree with legotech, and disagree with ikkyu2. The only thing I really felt when somebody said "Thanks for your service", or something like that was somewhere between guilt and resentment. Write letters about things you think are interesting. Write anything that will remind your penpal that there is definitely a 'real world' to return to. Ask your penpal if there is a "character" in their unit.

posted by ArgentCorvid at 11:17 PM on November 19, 2007

I agree with AgentCorvid and disagree with ikkyu2 (surprising myself). Don't make this about atoning for liberal guilt or false efforts to boost morale in a war you know is lost or that sort of thing. Just think of her as a friend you haven't met yet. What she probably wants as much as any soldier is a vicarious "normal" life without sand and sun and patrols and fifteen standard circulating mess menus. Army life is, as they say, long stretches of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror, so figure you're alleviating the boredom as much as anything.

So, movies, celebrities you think are stupid or cute, your car not starting because of the weather, your boss driving you crazy. Open yourself to questions and angles from her point of view. Probably best not mention politics until she does, unless it's more of a funny story.

Don't feel the need to send over internet excerpts -- unless they're at an FOB or on a convoy they have internet just fine, though maybe just limited hours of access at a kiosk. (Although you didn't say whether she's in Iraq, you'd be amazed. Anywhere else it's base life as usual.)

I think the camera idea is a cool one.
posted by dhartung at 11:34 PM on November 19, 2007

I wrote to my cousin for awhile, and we didn't have enough of a relationship prior to his leaving that we had a shared experience to discuss or anything. I mostly told him funny stories about my incompetent co-workers. He told me funny stories about hanging out with Iraqi kids. It was awesome for both of us.
posted by adiabat at 11:38 PM on November 19, 2007

In 2003, I wrote this:
It's perfectly fine if [the mail] mundane and trite; it's a link back to normalcy for the soldiers. If you know someone who's serving there, write to them; write often; write regularly. Tell them what's happening in your life. Don't wait for something big to happen; keep writing. A letter from home is a lifeline, a promise that all the insanity around the soldier will eventually end, and a way of keeping hold of what "normal" life is like, because after a while it starts getting hard to remember. It also tells the soldier that someone cares, that he isn't just a piece of a machine, but still a person that someone misses. And when that mail stops coming, that lifeline breaks and hangs limp, leaving that soldier adrift, abandoned. So keep writing.

Even if he doesn't write back. He's busy, you know; there's a war to fight. email is good, but paper mail is better; soldiers carry their letters from home with them, and reread them when the situation is getting them down.

Don't write to him about what he's doing; he knows what he's doing. Write to him about the stuff he wishes he could do but can't: write about movies you've gone to see, and how your favorite football team should draw and quarter its quarterback but still managed to pull it out and win the big game, and about trips to the store, and what you bought, and about people you've talked to, and why the new television season is the worst ever. Think "Lileks writing about Gnat" and write about that kind of stuff. Write about all the things that you take for granted that a soldier in a combat zone can't do. He can read your letter, and vicariously do them through you. As he's reading, he's home again, if only for a few minutes. And he will read it, more than once.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:15 AM on November 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I suggest you write as though it were a diary - that way, returns would be expansions of a topic already mentioned and might develop conversational type threads; if not, it would still read as interesting to someone without 'normality' around them perhaps? I'd keep it up-beat, with some allowable self questioning / down-beat content, at the very least balanced, if you see what I mean.

I also second the photo idea - and the printed threads idea has merit (difficult to judge which ones though! Maybe this one as a start!:)

Whichever, and whatever, just keep the contact going - I imagine there would be nothing worse than for the recipient to start generating interest in your writing and then for your contact to just 'stop' - even if they are not actively responding in order to encourage you... :)
posted by DrtyBlvd at 12:28 AM on November 20, 2007

Why not make a little multiple-choice questionnaire asking, essentially, what she'd like? Maybe five short questions.

If you're able to send paper mail, why not enclose interesting things that you can't e-mail: richly-colored art greeting cards, a fall leaf (I have no idea what regulations about this would be, so check), real photographs (which are going to be better than digital photographs because the resolution is higher).
posted by amtho at 6:35 AM on November 20, 2007

I'm sure she's surrounded by tons of dudes. Whatever it is that you women talk about when we are not around that might be different from what guys talk about might be in order. I know that if I was somehow far away with mostly women, I'd be looking for guy talk in any letter.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:26 AM on November 20, 2007

Don't make this about atoning for liberal guilt

See, that's what I mean about our cynical age. Gratitude isn't possible any more - it's interpreted as a masquerade for guilt.

I certainly agree that if you don't feel true gratitude, don't bother trying to write about it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:25 AM on November 20, 2007

Something to keep in mind: What kind of soldier is your penpal? What she would like to hear from you is likely to be different depending on if she is Officer vs. Enlisted, Reg. Army vs. Guard/Reserve and "Lifer" vs. "Signed up for the college money".

ikkyu2: The thing about saying something like that, is Guilt was often used by the higher-ups in my unit to 'motivate' us peon types to a higher, not always realistic standard. What I'm trying to say by that, is a statement like 'thanks for your sacrifice' will be taken differently by an E-nothing ground-pounder that spends their time cleaning latrines, than it will be by a Captian in the Signal Corps, that spends all day reviewing message traffic.
posted by ArgentCorvid at 9:41 AM on November 20, 2007

Just trust your instincts. If you find something funny/interesting, your penpal probably will too. Chatty stuff about movies you've seen and TV shows you are watching are fine.

If there is serial intrigue at your workplace or in your family, that is fantastic. Share that. By serial intrigue I mean your friend who has a crush on the courier and needlessly sends documents by courier so she can see him, or the new VP who was brought in, but drinks too much at client events and makes a fool of himself.

I often put some effort into the presentation of a paper letter. Either picking out pretty cards, of sending along stickers.
posted by Mozzie at 9:41 AM on November 20, 2007

Any fun anecdote or story is good. I had a similar problem when I wrote to a soldier, and I ended up telling a story that had happened recently where we found a mouse in our house and how we caught it, etc. Fun, light. Something normal. I didn't really know what else to say.
posted by agregoli at 10:57 AM on November 20, 2007

Write about anything. Anything. Talk about your day. Talk about TV shows or wacky internet sites. Bring up an interesting news story you ready about. I can tell you, any mail is good mail. She will appreciate it.
posted by Silvertree at 11:44 AM on November 20, 2007

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