For Operation Gratitude founder Carolyn Blashek, life changed soon after 9/11/2001 from the unlikeliest of places -- an airport lounge at Los Angeles International Airport. While tending to the care of a distraught Active Duty service member about to deploy, her deeply personal desire to say "Thank You" has spread like wildfire across California, the country and now halfway around the world.
In this holiday period, a time when our hearts go out to those who cannot share the memories of being with family, Blashek’s team is in peak season from the California National Guard Armory in Van Nuys, California. Thousands of volunteers, civilian and military, are donating money and gifts, or lining up in assembly line formation to pack personalized care packages at a run rate of 8-10,000 packages per day. They delivered their One Millionth Care Package in December 2013, and have sent an additional 180,000 packages since then.
“It’s a logistical tour de force,” Blashek told Veterans Advantage in an exclusive interview, noting over 20,000 people have given hands-on support locally over the years, including young and old, able and disabled, Active Duty and Veterans.
“This is about Americans saying thank you, and Americans come in all shapes, sizes and ability.” Flash back to 2001, when she was turned away from enlisting because of age. Undeterred, Blashek began volunteering at the military lounge at LAX. By 2003, she found herself face-to-face and teary eyed with a soldier due to depart for a war zone in 30 minutes, distraught and breaking down. His mom had died, his wife had left him, and he was still mourning the death of an infant child. “He needed to find a reason to survive, and he didn’t have one,” she said.
"People are willing to die for the guy on the left and the guy on the right. But who are they willing to survive for?" she wondered. "It's not enough for me to sit here serving hot dogs."
The care package idea came from the way she used to mail comforts of home to her children away from home, but the logistics this time around posed a unique challenge. Since the Anthrax postal scares of 2001, all military packages not addressed to a specific servicemember are turned away. On the day war in Iraq broke out in March 2003, she sent four packages. It became a weekly challenge to find addresses and distribute packages. “Before I knew it, my house was filled with donated items.”
Six months and 650 packages later, while picking up donated items at a local armory, she met a soldier with the same mission, Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Cowie. They pooled their efforts, and by year’s end had sent 8,000 care packages for specific personnel in and around theater. Along the way she won the support of Major General David Baldwin the Adjutant General for the National Guard in California. The local Commanding Officers of the Van Nuys armory, LTC Angel Ortiz, LTC Julian Bond, LTC Ted Arlauskas and the newest CO, LTC Kimberely DeRouen, have provided enormous assistance and encouragement.
"There's been a wonderful civilian/military relationship that's developed," she said.
But the shadow side of any thriving “support the troops initiative” is what often makes it so touching, universal and personal. Blashek, herself, found new meaning in Operation Gratitude five years ago:
Jordan Blashek, "being a Marine officer is not about one's self, wants or needs; it is about guiding the young 18 and 19 year-old Marines fighting this country's wars on our behalf,"
“My son became a Marine Officer. I am extremely proud of him, and yet, like any military loved one, have much anxiety. Seeing civilian volunteerism in groups such as Operation Gratitude provides a measure of comfort in feeling that your child is respected and appreciated by the American people for his/her choice to serve our nation. I now understand the importance and impact of "Military Support" on families as well as directly for our troops," she told us.
“Ultimately, I joined the US Marine Corps because I believe that officers bear the most solemn responsibility in our nation, and that was a duty I could not, and should not, leave for others to assume. To say that I wanted that responsibility is not quite right, because being a Marine officer is not about one’s self, wants or needs; it is about guiding the young 18 and 19 year-old Marines fighting this country’s wars on our behalf,” Jordan Blashek, said in an essay, after deciding not to attend medical school, and instead join the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School (OCS) in 2009.
Support for Operation Gratitude continues to grow. With the expansion of the program to include care packages for Veterans of all eras and New Recruits graduating from Boot Camp, Blashek believes the two million-package milestone is readily within reach. The organization continues to offer many hands-on opportunities for Americans anywhere to participate and say “Thank you.”
“We developed this amazing structure and organization of people and relationships that care about our military,” she said. “We should and will always be an avenue to express our nation's appreciation for our heroes in uniform.”
Veterans Advantage has supported Operation Gratitude's mission with 309,485 complimentary one-year VetRewards cards for the troops, contributing to its total award of 469,485 during OEF/OIF. You too can support Operation Gratitude with time, money or donations by visiting OperationGratitude.com.