Carolyn Blashek was in shock, like many of us, on 9/11. She was searching to find something that would assuage her concerns. Her decision was to enlist in the Army. The Army recruiter took one look at this then-46-year-old, 5’ 5”, and 115 lb. woman, and suggested she find another way to channel her energies. That recruiter definitely saved Islamic terrorists from a severe thrashing.
Looking for something to fulfill her commitment to help, she volunteered at the military lounge at Los Angeles Airport. Ms. Blashek had a unique experience with a particular soldier on leave, one who really had no family at all. It became clear what the soldiers in war zones really needed – which then became her mission – was to help our best men and women believe that someone here in the homeland actually cared.
Starting in her home, Carolyn created something different – and special. Her objective was to send each soldier an individually addressed box that included not only helpful items, but also a handwritten note. This is not an easy task to accomplish. She has to get the names and the locations of our soldiers which is something the military does not hand out willy-nilly. The decision to release this information is left to the commanders in the field or on the ships. You see, these packages are meant for the men and women in harm’s way -- those that most need to know that we sincerely care – and deeply appreciate what they are doing for us.
From the days in 2003 and 2004 when you would visit Carolyn’s house and be greeted by a wall of boxes, the operation has really changed. Operation Gratitude has taken over the Army National Guard Armory in Van Nuys, California. I stopped by recently and what I saw there made me particularly proud to be American.
At first glance, it looks like Santa’s workshop three days before Christmas. You are stunned by the mass of people hard at work on an assembly line. Almost 1,000 volunteers (no one at Operation Gratitude gets paid) are busy working away on this season’s goal of sending 70,000 boxes to our brave souls in Iraq and Afghanistan. Who would have thought this could happen in California, the heart of blue-state America?
While looking at the line, I asked Carolyn: “Who organized this? You have many talents, but an operation of this scale clearly required someone with real skills in mass production.” She led me to one of their 70 supervisors, Charlie Othold, who holds the title of Director of Operations. Charlie is your definition of grizzled, old guy. He did 20 years in the Air Force and then another 20 at Lockheed as a logistics engineer. He detailed to me how they are set up to package 1,200 boxes an hour.
Since 2004, Charlie has worked essentially a full-time job for Operation Gratitude. He spends at least 30 hours per week at the Armory because there is such a tremendous amount of work required to get the donated products -- lip balm, sunscreen, CDs, hats, t-shirts, flash drives and myriad other items -- into the boxes, along with a personalized letter from a child or adult from across America. Charlie served in Viet Nam. When I asked him what it would have meant to him to receive one of these boxes, I had to stop and compose myself as I was overwhelmed by the moment. Charlie told me what he thought the difference would be from the generous yet impersonal bag from the USO. I noticed a tear in the eye of this tough guy and I knew what it would really have meant.
Not all of the volunteers are military veterans. I spoke with Gregg Contreras, a self-employed security contractor, who has a second job working as a supervisor at Operation Gratitude. He came on board in 2005. We discussed “the corner,” which is where the personalized label goes on the box, and the moment that the whole process becomes real because it now has a soldier for which it is designated. From there volunteers then complete hand-addressed customs forms as required for each box to reach its destination. Contreras, who never served in the military, now has found his calling. He gets up every day personally committed to do what he does for Operation Gratitude. Yes, he says, he has to do it.
The Armory has become a magical place. Volunteers have taken a thought, a concept and made it happen. Because there is no staff and no meetings and no bureaucracy, they succeed on their mission. They are just ordinary citizens doing an exemplary job for people who do something extraordinary for this country and for the free people of the world every day. It is an unbelievable convergence of people doing good for people who are doing greatness. You walk out of the armory wondering who is benefiting more – the volunteers or the soldiers - and the answer is both.
As we enter this week of unique American experience of giving of thanks for all we have and for all of those who came before us to make this the wonderful country it is, remember Operation Gratitude. Despite the incredibly generous donations of products, they still need $11 to cover the cost of mailing each of those 70,000 soldiers receiving boxes this holiday season (the packages can only go by USPS). Remember that whatever you are suffering is nothing compared to what they are enduring for us. So please go to www.opgratitude.com and help make sure that America’s finest people know we are thinking of them daily and that we appreciate what they are doing for free people everywhere.