Comics for Heroes

One Family gives back with care packages despite loss of their own super man

By Spc. Adam L. Mathis/17th Public Affairs Detachment on September 7, 2012

For Gabi Trautmann, stuffing envelopes is a competition.

Starting a care package for deployed service members with comic books is almost a cliché for her, being the owner of Olympia Cards and Comics, but from a gamer's standpoint it is a great opening move: comics are a good, space-economical base for filling a flat-rate envelope.

Her opponent in this contest is the post office's flat rate requirement. As long as the envelope closes by itself - meaning the cardboard flap with the adhesive can connect with the main body of the envelope - the flat-rate parcel is good to ship.

But her personal strategy game with the post office is not all that motivates her to send these packages to Soldiers about every three months. As she fills the last odd spaces with loose candy, a tangible reminder of why she helps the military sits to her left at the end of an aisle of comic books: a graphic novel about her deceased brother.

Military family

"Even though I'm obviously a civilian, I've never left the mentality of being in the Army," Gabi said.

That mentality comes from having a father whose career was the military. The youngest of five children, Gabi lived in Iran and Germany before her father retired out of what was then Fort Lewis. She went on to work at and then take ownership of the cards and comic book store. Two of her siblings continued the military tradition: one graduated from West Point, the other became the subject of "Shooters."

The brother enshrined in a comic book served as a green beret and deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. While Gabi does not know, or perhaps want to know, the details of his service, she remembers doing for him what she does for every Soldier - sending packages.

"But normally when I would send my brother care packages, he would actually ask for stuff for the Afghani kids instead of for himself," said Gabi. "A lot of the pictures that he would send would be him with the Afghan boys. He was there to help, that was his view."

And helping was how he died. In 2005, her brother, David, served as a contractor in Iraq and died defending a U.S. official.

David's life served as part of the inspiration for Gabi's husband, Eric, to co-write a graphic novel about the military. Eric said that many military stories miss the point, telling a sensational story about violence and not about people. He decided to change that.

Originally, Eric wanted to publish a novel, but the work was so bad that he has locked it away, not to be read by even his wife.

"Literally every time I sat down to write, I was second guessing myself so much," he said. "Literally with every word I was like, ‘Is this going to be the one that offends Dave's wife? Is this going to be the one that upsets my wife's father? Is this going to be the one that makes my wife cry?'"

When he hit a dry patch in his graphic novel production, however, Eric decided to give the story a second chance in this more visual medium. The advantage of this, according to Eric, is that pictures can create an atmosphere that strictly prose authors spend pages creating.

"In a graphic novel, as long as guys are dressed in authentic uniforms and behaving in an authentic way on the page, a lot of work is already done to set the mood and the tone and immerse the reader in that without pages of description," he said.

"Every time we ask these kids to go out and be in these incredibly heightened circumstances and they lose a little bit of themselves every time they have to pull the trigger and they do it so we can sleep in our beds at night and then we ignore them. That's wrong; that bothers me."

Reminders of home

There are two groups of service members who receive care packages from Gabi: people she knows and people whose address she has received.

The people she knows often are members of the community who gather at her store. Gabi designed the store to be a sanctuary that keeps the outside world at bay. Within the world of gamers, comic book readers, and card collectors, even military rank can be left outside.

"We're equivalent of bartender or the psychiatrist," Eric said. "I hear all about the breakups, and the marital troubles ... I know a bunch of Special Forces guys, and every time they lose a guy we know it."

Sadly for Gabi, the military lifestyle often takes people from her community. Changes of station and deployments limit their time in the area after Gabi has put in the effort to build relationships.

"It's hard for me because I get to know these people and they're only here for four years and then they're gone," she said. "So, that's hard for me."

The Soldiers she knows well receive very specific care packages from her, crammed with things she knows that person likes. But whether she knows them, they are family, or are merely addresses someone dropped off at her door, Gabi will support those who are deployed.

"I mean the Soldiers that I know well and I know who they are, I can make specific care packages, but the Soldiers I don't know, I mean they're still getting stuff that says somebody out there is thinking of you," she said.

"I've never been there obviously, but I would imagine that being in the middle of the desert and wondering somedays, ‘Why am I this filthy,' you know, and then getting a care package from someone you don't know well, saying, ‘Hey I care about you,' is good."