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Let’s talk Craftsy…8 online classes that make great Christmas gifts for your favorite colored pencil artist

If you are looking for a thoughtful Christmas gift for someone who loves drawing and painting, look no further. Craftsy has got you covered this holiday season with 1,000s of online videos that wil…

Source: Let’s talk Craftsy…8 online classes that make great Christmas gifts for your favorite colored pencil artist


Blogging 101: How to get recognized as a leading expert in your field by blogging

You heard a rumor that you should start a blog to score higher in Google’s ranking system, so when customers search for your business category you pop up in the first-page results.

Yep, it’s true.

Other than paying exorbitantly high prices for ads, creating a lot of searchable content is key to getting your business or hobby website noticed locally and worldwide.

However, money isn’t the only pay-off and return on investment (ROI) you need to think about when deciding whether or not to start a blog.

Authority matters as well!

Brand yourself as an expert in your field

When you publish frequent blog posts, your content marks you and your company as an expert in any given subject.

So when people want to know something about a subject, like dog grooming or how to create awesome colored pencil artwork, who do you think customers are going to contact in their local community? A. a company they know nothing about other than the White Page and Yelp rating, or B. an actual person who took the time to educate and entertain potential clients about a topic that matters to them?

I would argue the answer is “B.”  Consumers are going to click on the most relevant blog post first, scan through it for free content that benefits them, and then click on the contact or call option at the bottom.

Boom! You, owner of XYZ, just put your foot in the door with a potential client who hopefully will share your blog post on social media to their hundreds of family and friends online.

Organic verses paid content

Here is another reason. Small businesses are already at a disadvantage when it comes to their marketing budget, which for many is little to zilch.

Ads are considered paid content, and they are expensive. The average cost per one person clicking on your ad is $1 to $2 out of your profit margin, according to Wordstream.

However, you can create organic content on a subject you are already passionate about for free. The only expense is your time.

What is organic content? It generally refers to information that individuals search for like a fajita recipe or an article on the best laptops under $1000 versus ads and sponsored articles fed to consumers via a newspaper, website or other traditional media.

According to creator and owner of BlogMutt Scott Yates, more than 80 percent of the clicks for a Google inquiry land on the organic side.

Engagement, sharing and a sense of community

Saving money on ads isn’t the biggest reason you should blog though.

Blogging creates a genuine sense of community. Whether you are a carpenter, writer, therapist, baker, dog walker or a jewelry shop owner, people will naturally gravitate to other people who like the same things they do. These newly-formed contacts will become your tribe or social network, and they will not only buy products and services from you they might become your allies and friends.

Since I started blogging in 2012, I have connected with people all over the world.

Bloggers and artists from India, Japan, the Netherlands, Australia, England and more have found my little blog through targeted Google searches on topics that matter to them. You could never reach this same audience through traditional media or attract them through local ad placements.

To learn more about Tribe engagement, listen to Seth Godin’s Ted Talk.

Now that I have thoroughly pontificated about why blogging is important to doing business in today’s worldwide marketplace, here are some key strategies and tips to create blog posts people want to read!

Consistency matters – blog at least once a week

I am guilty of breaking this rule myself, but I do try. So should you!

The bottom line is any company or individual who wants to establish themselves as a local, national or international expert in any given area really needs to blog at the minimum once a week.

So if you are a company that hasn’t updated their website for years, who do you think is going to rank higher and appear more attractive to potential customers?

The answer is your competitors who understand the importance of blogging and write about the products or services your potential consumers want to buy.

Your customers are your business partners in a sense, so you need to engage them at every opportunity you can to sustain a thriving relationship. Blogging does that and it reminds customers you have an online presence beyond your brick-and-mortar storefront.

As you might guess, the more in demand you are as an expert in your field the more you need to create and publish content. So someone who attracts an international following might want to blog or vlog (video blogging) two to five times a week versus once.

Really it matters how hungry your audience is for your content, and how much time you can devote to blogging.

You need to FEED your customers WHAT they want to eat

In fancy marketing terms, this is called identifying your target audience.

If you run a pet store in the middle of nowhere Kansas that only specializes in fish and aquariums, then it doesn’t make sense for you to blog about the best food to feed thoroughbred horses in Saudi Arabia.

You need to stick to blogging about subjects that matter to your consumers’ unique niche and interests.

You need to FEED your customers WHERE they want to eat! Social media is a must! 

Let’s face it tons of people aren’t going to remember to check your little olde website for new blog posts, and that probably includes your mom and significant other.

However, people do spend a large chunk of their time perusing social media nowadays. They read news aggregated from various sources on their Twitter and Facebook feeds. I am one of those people. You probably are too.

According to, 63 percent of people read news on those two social media platforms versus all other traditional media. That was about a sixteen point jump from 2013, and I am sure the current 2016 stats are much higher.

If you don’t post your blog’s weblinks to your social media sites, I dare say don’t even bother blogging at all. No one is going to read it, and it is not a wise use of your time and effort.

You need to FEED your customers WHEN they are hungry

It might be convenient for you to write a blog post at 3 a.m., but your readers and future customers are asleep.

I know it is tempting but don’t publish your blog posts as soon as you write them. You need to employ a specific strategy for posting your content on social media. created this nifty social media publishing guide that tells you which days of the week and what hours are most advantageous to post on several of the largest social media sites.

For instance, the best time to post on Facebook is on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 9 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. On the other hand, Twitter followers check in around 12 p.m., 3 p.m., and 5 to 6 p.m. on Wednesdays.

Really if you think about it, following these set time guidelines makes sense.

Are you more inclined to read a blog post on Monday after you get home wasted from a hard day of work, or on humpdays, Thursdays and Fridays?

What happens if you post on Monday or Tuesday? Nothing really. There aren’t any hard and set rules to blogging just guidelines that are proven to work.

However, here is what is going to happen. As other friends and family members, and competing experts that individuals follow post their information, your single blog post will probably never see the light of day at the bottom of these long news feeds no one sees.

Note: Having said all that don’t stress too much over posting times and dates when you first start out blogging. You need to focus more on consistency and then fine-tune your processes. Just stick to publishing your blog post later in the week and you will make out fine until you gain a larger following.

Key word searches and SEO

Since you are taking all this time to write weekly blogs, you need to make sure people can find you through key word searches and search engine optimization (SEO).

According to blogging specialist Brian Dean at BackLinko, Google uses over 200 signals to rank you and your competitor’s sites.

Before you go into brain melt mode like I did when I read his detailed-report, here are 10 factors you need to focus on: 1. Place relevant key words in the beginning of your title tag, 2. Content length, page loading speed, keyword prominence and positioning, page authority/page rank, domain authority, link relevancy, dwell time, responsive design and thin or duplicate content.

Click on his link to learn more about all 200 factors. I double-dog dare you!

Go long to achieve a higher page-ranking

As a professionally-trained journalist for years I have heard, keep it short. Very few published news articles are over 1,000 words and many news sites are posting around 300 to 500 words per article.

However, I will tell you Google doesn’t operate that way. You will actually get ranked higher on page searches for in-depth blog posts around 900 to 2,000 words, according to Orbit Media Studios.

Sometimes new bloggers think the blogsphere is the wild wild west and anything goes.

To a certain extent yes you can write whatever comes to your mind, but there are still tried and true practices that attract and keep readers. So let’s talk about creating an actual blog post.

Keep it conversational but not overly personal

Blogs are not scholarly articles, so don’t aim to impress your English teacher and write a book report.

In general, you want to communicate the way you normally would when telling news to a friend or colleague, but make sure your grammar and spelling are on point.

You want to write a blog post in a conversational tone, but you don’t want to be that creepy uncle who recounts his entire life story to anyone who looks his way for half-a-second.

For instance, if you are a new online bank startup, you don’t want to flood your blog posts with cringe-worthy personal information about your honeymoon to Tahiti. Stick to information that informs you readers about new banking and investment opportunities.

However, there are exceptions to the rule.

I am a colored pencil artist, and I maintain a colored pencil blog called The Colored Pencil Enthusiast where I inform my CP tribe about other artists, new products and techniques.

I occasionally share information about myself and my personal life because I am selling myself as the expert and I am also selling my “personality.” I’m not selling products. Therefore, my blog is more informal and personal than a blog for someone who sells walkie talkies or raincoats.

It really goes back to understanding your target audience and what they like to read about.

Create sub-heads for more readable text

An easy way to make your blog more searchable is to create sub-heads or bullet headlines inside your blog post like I did in this article.

Sub-heads serve two purposes. One, sub-heads breaks up large amounts of text that make the reader’s eyes bleed red scanning down a page, and two, it makes it easier for the consumer to find exactly what they want by scanning through your text.

So you are saving readers time by formatting your post to their needs.


Awesome graphic by Mike Litcht, Flickr commons

A picture is worth a thousand words

People connect to pictures more deeply than they do to sterile text on a screen. So it is smart to include graphics and pictures that draw readers in and break up large chunks of text. Blog posts without pictures tend to get overlooked.

Picture placement and finding common use photos is a subject onto itself, and I could fill an entire 2,000-word blog post with details about it. For now you can check out this short, informative video on how to find and insert images into your blog posts.

If you want to create your own personalized graphics and banners for your blog posts, a great free graphic manipulation site is PicMonkey. I use it all the time. You can also pay $4.99 a month to access some serious design capabilities, which is it worth to me versus paying $1,000 plus for Adobe PhotoShop software.

Play tag with your readers

Make sure to use blog post tags in WordPress and other blog hosting platforms. These tags are kind of like categories in a library and help readers and Googlebot crawlers find and interpret your blogs content more efficiently, which indirectly helps your site rank higher in Google, according to SEJ.

Ask for feedback

Blogging isn’t about one-way communication. You really need to think in terms of engaging your tribe. A great way to do that is to ask questions at the end of your post like “Have you ever encountered XX problem and how did you solve it?”

Ask your readers to comment on your blogs and tell you what they would like to read from you in the future.

Comment, comment, comment

If you want to be known as an expert, one easy way is to get noticed is to make comments on other tribe member’s blogs and social media.

In turn, some of them will check you out and potentially read your blog posts.

So comment away by leaving relevant, thoughtful information and encouragement on other bloggers sites. You should like and share other people’s blog posts frequently. They might return the favor and share your blog posts – widening your reach and influence.

Subscribe to other bloggers

Once you found your tribe, you want to locate other industry experts and follow them on social media, websites/blogs, YouTube, as well as  subscribe to traditional trade magazines.

For instance, writers can learn more about blogging and other writing opportunities by purchasing the following trade magazines ( and

Millionaire Digest is a great free blogsite to learn more about blogging and writing tips.

Don’t stress and try to have fun

I know this is a ton of information, and writing is a scary proposition for many people.

My advice is start out slow! Write a 300-word blog post on a single topic you are an expert on. Then write a 500-word blog post where you include information from other industry experts. Then keep on rolling and never look back.

Write about solutions to your tribe’s problems. Write about what inspires you. Just start writing.

Before you know it you might just enjoy blogging for the sake of engagement with your tribe versus trying to solicit more customers or sales.

Blogging still sounds like too much trouble?

If you feel like you are going to turn into a skeleton thinking of something to blog about weekly, maybe you should think about hiring a professional.

You hire an accountant and other specialists, right? Why not hire a professional writer?

I provide personalized, boutique blogging services. I specialize in health, art and Christian inspiration; however, I am open to inquiries on other subjects.

But, I am not a scientist or a cardiologist. If you need someone to blog for you that is current in a very specialized niche industry, you might want to check out crowd-blogging at these sites: BlogMutt, Constant Content, Text Broker and Upwork.

No one will know you hired a professional blogger, and you can provide detailed directions to tailor each post to your specifications.

If you have any tips you would like to share about blogging, please leave them in the comment section below so we can all learn from them. If you would like me to blog more about blogging in the future, leave some topic suggestions as well.

Happy writing, Melissa


Melissa LeGates is a professional writer and retired Air Force journalist. She specializes in long-form features and loves to write about living a victorious Christian life, art and health. 
She and her husband live in Delaware.
In her free time, she is a student of colored pencil, watercolor, acrylics and oils.

She is also an avid blogger and currently maintains three blogs:

– PTSD/my first book “Set My Captives Free” launch at

– Her writing career:

– The world of colored pencil art and artists:

You can contact Melissa at

Sharing is caring!

If you like this article, please “like” this post and leave a comment to help others along the path in their journey.

Non-profits and fellow artists

If you are a non-profit organization or fellow artist, please feel free to share my articles on all social media outlets (as long as you keep my name and information intact).

For-profit publications

If you work for a for-profit publication, please contact me first prior to publishing my work in a fee-based magazine, e-zine or newspaper.

Does ‘natural talent’ limit your creative potential?

Colored Pencil artist Matt Fussell lists some great tips in his article “What I learned and didn’t learn in art school.” In it, he talks about the controversial topic of raw or natural-born talent.

I personally believe God endowed all of us (even my mother who says she cannot draw a straight line to save her life) with creativity.  However, I have talked to way too many people who are under the misconception that they can never make good art. They believe to their core that they weren’t born with that talent and it stops them from even trying.

Matt counteracts that idea stating, “I had to let go of ‘talent’ and embrace the idea that drawing and painting are skills that can be learned and developed by anyone.”

He says he only became a better artist when he realized talent could only take him so far.

I especially love the ‘by anyone part’. That’s good news for us that want to create great artwork. We can always improve our skills! We are not hindered by our talent level.

As an online instructor, Matt is available for a nominal fee to teach what he has learned about drawing, painting and digital art to anyone.


You can catch up with him at his site or in pages 28-30 in this month’s issue of COLORED PENCIL Magazine.

I loved working with Matt as his talent scout for the magazine, and it is always amazing to see the article come together before my eyes.

I also was privileged to work with Carol Kotsher Marden, whose artwork combines inspirational quotes and pictures to tell a story. I love her sense of humor and whimsy. You can see her awesome artwork in her article “Art Journaling”on pages 18-21 of this issue.


Carol is a professional illustrator and glass artist. You can check her out at


The February 2016 issue is a stunner – as always! You can buy this issue and past issues of COLORED PENCIL Magazine online at  Happy reading!


Melissa LeGates is a freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist who specializes in feature writing. She is also the associate editor at COLORED PENCIL Magazine, as well as a colored pencil artist herself. She blogs about the exciting world of colored pencil art at

Handmade Gifts Dad Will Love

Handmade Gifts Dad Will Love

Melt your dad’s heart this Father’s Day with a thoughtful handmade gift — buy it straight from the artisan or choose a tutorial to make it yourself.


Dad Hero Necklace

Alison Kelley Designs on

Hero Necklace

For the dad who has everything and wants to give back, consider this beautiful sterling silver necklace by Alison Kelley Designs for yourself and let Dad know he is your hero. Fifteen percent of the proceeds go to the David Turner Lymphoma Foundation.

Chicken Dinner recipes

Chicken Dinner with a Twist

They say the way to every man’s heart is through his stomach. So why not give the old chicken dinner a new face lift with Buttermilk Fried Chicken with Chiptole Mayo from the recipe book, Great Pub Food: Make Home Your New Local? Then add some quick side recipes like mashed potatoes from a Tummy Treasure and green beans from the World’s Healthiest Foods. Plus, what dad doesn’t like carbs and bacon? So serve him these Bite Size Bacon and Cheese Scones from the cookbook, Homebaked Comfort. Dad won’t even need to break out an after-dinner cordial with these Pecan Mini Pies laced with bourbon and topped with a crown from the cookbook, Mini Pies. After all this great homemade food, Dad will surely feel like a king on his special day.
Concrete Flower Pots

Camilla Arvidsson and Malin Nilsson

Concrete Flower Pots

Use containers you already have to make impressive flower pots from the book Concrete Garden Projects. Perfect for dads who love getting their hands dirty.

Fish Embroidered Pillow

Fish Pillow

Sew this beautiful embroidered fish appliqué pillow for the stylish and outdoorsy dad.
Handtooled Leather Notebook

Lady Artisan on
Handtooled Leather Notebook

For the creative dads out there, Eva Buchala makes a hand-tooled, leather spiral medieval notebook for writing down those special memories all year long.

DIY tile coasters
DIY Coasters

Decorate a tile by A Dose of Paige with your dad’s favorite theme and coat it with Mod Podge to create a water-tight coaster. You might even use a newspaper clipping from that spelling bee you won or basketball tournament that your dad helped coach you for hours to prepare.

diy Farmhouse Bench

Anna White

Farmhouse Bench

Build this stunning farmhouse bench for the DIY dad from the book, The Handbuilt Home.

hand-stamped metal Tag Charm

Alison Kelley Designs on

Keepsake Tag Charm

These cute keepsake tag charms from Alison Kelley Designs help you commemorate a special date with dad and would look great attached to the zipper on his hoodie or gym bag.

Original blog posted May 30, 2014 at


Melissa LeGates is a freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist who specializes in features and B2B writing. She is also a colored pencil artist and blogs about it at  You can commission Melissa’s work (either writing or art) by contacting her at

Sneaky Storage Tips

Tips for Sneaky Storage in Small Spaces

Check out these great tips for organizing everything from jewelry to gift wrap to secret treasures with these DIY storage ideas that squeeze as much room as possible out of your small spaces.

Framed Earring Organizer
Make an earring organizer look like a work of art. Misty created this quickly and easily with quilt batting, pretty fabric and a picture frame.
Laundry Room Drying Rack
Kate from Centsational Girl built this space-saving DIY laundry room drying rack for a third of the price of a store-bought version. Now that’s sensational!
Mobile Wrapping Paper Station
Christina from 2 Little Hooligans was inspired by a project she found in an old issue of Flea Market Style Magazine — an upcycled wood kitchen stool turned upside-down into a wrapping paper organizer on wheels. What a cute storage solution that can sit anywhere in the house! If you’re not into sewing, you could attach baskets to the sides for a similar effect. This project could even be adapted as an umbrella and shoe stand to put beside your front door.
Upcycled vintage suitcase for craft supply storage
Craft Supply Suitcase 
Amy Powers remodeled an old wood suitcase into compact travel storage for craft supplies. Not only is this the cutest case in town, her clever use of a cookie sheet and magnets in the lid is genius! Whether you travel across the country or across the hall to do your crafting, this storage solution will keep you organized.
Dish Rack Lid Organizer

Dish Rack Lid Organizer

Donna from As the Card Rack Turns organizes her food storage container lids in the slots of an old dish rack. It fits nicely on the bottom shelf of your large cabinet for pots and pans.

Secret bookshelf storage project
Secret Bookshelf Storage
Shannon from Sewing Barefoot created this cool hidden storage box out of book covers and a small wooden crate. Along with instructions, she gives tips for how to keep the inside pages intact if you’d rather not completely destroy the books you’re using. Don’t have any unwanted hardcover books? They’re easy to find at garage sales and thrift stores.
Pet Pantry custom cabinet

Fairfax & Davis
Pet Pantry
Henry from Fairfax & Davis designs and builds these custom cabinets for storing your pet’s food and supplies. It doubles as a dining cart with two drawers at the bottom for bowls.
This pet pantry is one of many projects entered into The Craftys, an annual competition celebrating the best in crafts. If you vote for this or any entry (by clicking the heart underneath the photo), you have a chance to win one of the prize packs from  Red Heart YarnsWe R Memory Keepers, Blick Art Materials or I Love to Create. Each prize is worth hundreds of dollars — but hurry, the deadline to enter or vote is 5/26/14!
Originally posted May 24, 2014 at


Melissa LeGates is a freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist who specializes in features and B2B writing. She is also a colored pencil artist and blogs about it at  You can commission Melissa’s work (either writing or art) by contacting her at

Building a summer 4-season container

3 Ways to Build a 4-Season Container Garden for Earth Day

This is my first blog post from Craft Foxes ( I have been interning there since early April 2014, and I’m enjoying every moment of this 3-month internship.

The article text is listed below in case you don’t want to jump to the link.

Happy Earth Day! Creating container gardens is a great way to celebrate — they bring natural color and beauty to your yard, they require less water than full garden beds, and you can get really creative with repurposed and recycled containers. When choosing plants, look for varieties that naturally grow together in nature and that will thrive given your yard’s own sun exposure.

We talked to three expert gardeners about how to build four-season container gardens that will last all year long.

4-season succulent garden
Photo by Anthropek
Anthropek used the following plants in their 4-season container: Sedum rupestre (Angelina), Sedum (Purple Emperor), Armeria maritima, Sempervivum sp. (#1-cultivar unknown), Sempervivum sp. (#2-cultivar unknown) and Sepmervivum sp. (#1).

1.  Use a variety of low-growing succulents

The great thing about succulents is they can thrive in small spaces for a really long time — you don’t have to replace them each season. Erika Hanson from Anthropek Containers + Gardens recommends using succulents with contrasting shapes and colors to create the most dramatic effect.

Plant succulents in a weather-resistant hypertufa pot, which is not only lightweight and mobile, but it also ages gracefully and promotes proper drainage. You can dig up lots of online tutorials for making your own DIY hypertufa pots, using just about any container as a mold.

As for the soil mix for succulents, Hanson suggests incorporating some good compost and poultry grit. It’s also important to elevate the container to allow water to drain freely.

4-season container garden
Photo by Joanna Guzzetta
Four Seasons Container Gardens in Portland, Ore., plants New Zealand Flax (Phormium ‘Rainbow warrior’), Hebe Variegata, Primula (primrose), Hens and Chicks,
Lamium (White Nancy), and Hellebore (White beauty) in their 4-season container garden.

2.  Provide good drainage so plants last longer

Joanna Guzzetta, owner of Four Seasons Container Gardens, says even though container gardens thrive the best when you change the soil and plants each season, you can help your plants last beyond the season by using fillers in the bottom of your container, under the soil, to provide good drainage.She recommends a reusable, long-lasting filler called packing pearls, but never use foam packing peanuts because they are toxic to plants.

You can also place clean plastic pots upside down in the bottom of the container, but as they are prone to becoming brittle and cracking over time, they need to be replaced every so often.

Spring 4-season container garden
Photo by Melissa LeGates
The 4-season container garden was built by Ashcombe Farm and Greenhouses, in Mechanicsburg, Pa. The planter contains Juniper Compessa, daffodils, Calendula, Gerber Daisy, and pansy.

3.  Build around a tall evergreen plant or shrub

Kerri Laudig from Ashcombe Farm and Greenhouses likes the idea of using an evergreen or a slow-growing shrub like juniper, cypress or dwarf crepe myrtle as a focal point for your container garden. Then you can seasonally change out the flowers surrounding it.Laudig says a juniper will last about three years in a container before it becomes root-bound. You can either transplant it into a bigger container or remove it temporarily to prune the roots and put it back into the original container.

She suggests using a water-soluble fertilizer regularly and adding fresh soil to the top as needed to keep the plants healthy.

4. A few more tips that didn’t make the cut

You can also use stones, pebbles or mulch on top of the soil to retain moisture, according to Balcony Container Gardening.

While you are planning your 4-season container garden, make sure to check out a former Craft Foxes post on Renee Wilkinson, author of the blog Hip Chicks Dig and the book Modern Homesteading: Grow, Raise, Create.

You might also check out blog post DIY Garden Project: Aluminum Garden Markers. They look great in any container and help keep you organized.

Find out more tips and ways to celebrate Earth Day at the Earth Day Network.


Melissa LeGates is a freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist who specializes in features and B2B writing. She is also a colored pencil artist and blogs about it at You can commission Melissa’s work (either writing or art) by contacting her at

Servicemember in Iraq serves to help the ‘good guys’ win

I rarely wrote many commentaries while I was in the Air Force. I am a behind the scenes type of gal so I prefer to tell other people’s stories – not my own. But this one has a special place in my heart. Sometimes it is easy to forget what military service really means and this commentary captures my feelings.


A picture of a little Bedouin girl in the desert outside of An Nasiriyah, Iraq. She is probably looking at the first stuffed animal she has ever been given. Photo by Maurice Hessel July 2007
A picture of a little Bedouin girl in the desert outside of An Nasiriyah, Iraq. She is probably looking at the first stuffed animal she has ever been given. Photo by Maurice Hessel July 2007
Here a young Airman tries to communicate with a Iraqi mother and her child while on patrol near An Nasiriyah, Iraq July 2007. The vast majority of the U.S. Air Force missions around the world are humanitarian in nature. Photo by Maurice Hessel.

By Master Sgt. Melissa Phillips, Special to American Forces Press Service (former name) 

WASHINGTON, D.C. July 13, 2007 — Before I left for my current deployment, an 8-year-old asked me out of the blue, “Why do you have to go to Iraq?” It stopped me in my tracks.

I remember thinking, “How can I possibly answer such an immense question without somehow tainting her view on this unpredictable world?”

When I deployed to Southwest Asia in 2002, a fellow Airman told me that he explained to his daughter why he had to deploy by telling her, “Daddy has to go help feed the camels in the desert.”

After about two months into his tour, he said, his 4-year-old told him on a telephone call, “Daddy, someone else needs to feed the camels. I want you to come home.”

I thought that was such a cute, bittersweet story, but I knew the camel trick definitely was not going to work on the well-informed 8-year-old bookworm who posed the question to me.

I wanted to say something profound and comforting, but I was at a loss to answer her. After all, I was headed for a war zone where people don’t always come back alive, and there is no easy explanation to ease the worries of family and friends.

After a few ums and ahhs, I heard myself tell her, “We have to help the good guys fight the bad guys who are trying to hurt them.”

She seemed satisfied with the response, gave me a beaming smile and ran off to play. I sat there stunned.

I had been trying to avoid thinking about the reason why I was going back to Iraq.

After my conversation with her, I thought, “Is it really that simple? Do good guys still win in our universe? Can U.S. and coalition forces really help a nation of people overcome their differences to rebuild a stable country? Who exactly are the good and bad guys?”

In reality, I know there isn’t a black-and-white answer to these questions. That’s hard to accept by a nation of Americans who pride themselves on their logical and forward-thinking mind set.

To servicemembers’ advantage, we are used to operating in the grey. While it’s unfortunate, and although we do our best to avoid it, it’s accepted there will be collateral damage in war.

Lives will be lost. Families and innocent people will be hurt on both sides. I don’t like that reality. However, I firmly believe we are doing more good in Iraq and Afghanistan than harm.

I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

I’ve witnessed children receiving the first stuffed animal or toy they’ve ever had, and I’ve seen their eyes light up. I’ve seen thirsty and hungry people barely surviving in blistering 130-degree heat receive life-sustaining supplies.

I know most Americans don’t have the opportunity to witness the endless parade of care packages that family members send their loved ones to give to the Iraqi people: shoes, clothes, wet wipes, diapers, food and more. I had the privilege to see the goodness in people on both sides, despite the harsh conditions that brought them together.

Many military members, and those who support them, are personally invested in helping the Iraqi people.

We admire Iraqis who are forging ahead to make their country a better place, even though they and their family members are targeted for accepting the responsibility to secure their future.

Insurgents don’t recognize freedom of speech, nor do they value human life. They don’t seek a compromise with their countrymen or neighbors for the greater good of their collective society. They are the bad guys.

Not only is our mission to destroy the bad guys, the U.S. military spends a huge hunk of time on humanitarian missions. We patch up Iraqi and Afghanistan children when they’re sick or hurt. We provide medical services that a vast majority of people could never afford on their own, and might not have access to if they could.

We build hospitals, schools and a myriad of facilities that directly improve their lives and will continue to do so long after the U.S. and coalition presence is gone and this war is in the history books.

The success stories are rarely told in the media, but they occur every day. I knew that from my last tour in Iraq, but I was still confused about how I felt about this war.

Now, when anyone asks me why I’m in Iraq, I know what to say.

I’m here to help the good guys win. It’s that simple.

(Phillips of the U.S. Air Force is deployed to Iraq from the 436th Airlift Wing Public Affairs.)

Melissa LeGates freelance writer

Melissa LeGates freelance writer

Melissa LeGates is a freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist who specializes in features and B2B writing. She is also a colored pencil artist and blogs about it at You can commission Melissa’s work (either writing or art) by contacting her at 1-541-995-0015 or e-mail

Purple Heart Recipient Praises Pre-Deployment Training

By Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips, USAF (former name)
Special to American Forces Press Service

DOVER AIR FORCE BASE, Del., Aug. 23, 2006 – Whenever Air Force Tech. Sgt. Randy Gardner drove a short distance from the protected gates of Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan to pick up rental vehicles, he always felt uneasy.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Purple Heart recipient Air Force Tech. Sgt. Randy Gardner, a vehicle mechanic with the 436th Logistics Readiness Squadron from Dover Air Force Base, Del., recovers with his wife, Kathy, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., after a mortar attack at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan. Photo by Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips, USAF

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

He told himself it was only for a few minutes, but he admits now that each time he left the protected bubble he was scared.

The sergeant, who was in charge of maintaining 30 rental vehicles and 117 government vehicles at his deployed location, never saw any “action” outside the compound. But, the action found him when a rocket slammed into his work center July 18.

“It sounded like an airbag going off,” recalled Gardner, a special purpose vehicle mechanic with the 436th Logistics Readiness Squadron here.

He said he was eating lunch in the break room when he felt as if he had been slugged in the arm and was enveloped in a cloud of smoke. At first, he thought the television exploded. In reality, a rocket sliced through the back of his left shoulder and peppered his hands and arms with metal shards.

There was only one thing going through his mind at the time: “Survival! I just wanted to make it out alive,” he said.

Even though he was hurt and dazed, Gardner kept calm and directed several airmen to grab rags and place them over his wounds.

“Combat training and self aid and buddy care really prepares you for what you need to face,” he said. “Everyone needs to pay attention to it when they go through training.”

He was transported to the hospital along with a coworker who was pelted with shrapnel. The coworker remained in Afghanistan, but Gardner’s injuries were more extensive. Within days, he arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Gardner accepted his Purple Heart Medal July 26 with what his wife, Kathy, described as a stiff, military upper lip.

“It’s still hard to believe I got it,” he said. “It felt pretty good to know they recognize you for what you went through.”

Gardner’s wounds are a reminder of what he left behind in Afghanistan. “As soon as he saw his military liaison (for the first time), he kept saying, ‘I’ve got to call the guys,'” said Kathy, who chuckled when she remembered how adamant her husband was about begging the liaison to make sure someone at Kandahar would finish writing a recommendation letter for a coworker there.

His wife said pushing his own feelings aside to help others is indicative of Gardner’s low-key character. “He’s pretty laid-back, although he gets uptight about his tool box,” Kathy said.

Gardner credits his training with helping him remain calm after the attack. “People need to pay attention to what they learn when they’re going through training,” Gardner said. “You have got to be real careful, keep your eye on your surroundings, and keep your ears open.” Gardner is one of three Dover members to recently receive a Purple Heart, but the only one to suffer injuries that required prolonged medical attention back home.

“It’s always shocking to find out this happened to someone close to you. At the same time, I realize the risk,” said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Fulton Morris, also a special purpose vehicle mechanic with the 436th Logistics Readiness Squadron. Morris said he safely weathered 85 rocket and mortar attacks while deployed to Balad Air Base, Iraq.

Although Gardner takes pride in his newly acquired Purple Heart, the best part of his duty in Afghanistan was tinkering with vehicles and keeping them running in extreme weather conditions with sparse supplies, he said.

“They send us there to fix vehicles and keep everything moving; nothing moves without vehicle maintenance’s help,” he said. “People couldn’t drive to the chow hall or use vehicles that accomplish the direct mission.

“We are just over there doing our part,” he added.

(Air Force Tech. Sgt. Melissa Phillips is assigned to the 436th Airlift Wing public affairs office.)

Doing their duty: stories about military members living in Delaware Holiday 2011

Here is an article I did in 2011 on several military members living and working in coastal Delaware.

You can read the PDF file here: Mil Profile DE Beach Life Holiday 2011.

Melissa LeGates freelance writer
Melissa LeGates freelance writer

Melissa LeGates is a freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist who specializes in features and B2B writing. She is also a colored pencil artist and blogs about it at You can commission Melissa’s work (either writing or art) by contacting her at 1-541-995-0015 or e-mail

Outdoorsman’s Paradise Cape Henlopen State Park

Feature in Motorhome Magazine on Cape Henlopen State Park September 2011

Melissa LeGates freelance writer
Melissa LeGates freelance writer

Melissa LeGates is a freelance writer and retired Air Force journalist who specializes in features and B2B writing. She is also a colored pencil artist and blogs about it at You can commission Melissa’s work (either writing or art) by contacting her at 1-541-995-0015 or e-mail

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