For many people, receiving a card, letter or package is more than just a delivery, it’s a reminder that no matter where you are, someone is thinking about you and cares. Now multiply that feeling by more than 800,000 and you’ve got a glimpse at the impact the organization Operation Gratitude has had on the U.S. military. How did this growing number of care packages came to be? It was the brainchild of Carolyn Blashek that sprang from a chance encounter.
After 9/11, Blashek felt compelled to enlist in the military, but didn’t meet the age requirement. Determined to contribute to America in some way, she volunteered at a military lounge at the Los Angeles International Airport. It was here that the a chance encounter occurred that would inspire the start of Operation Gratitude. “I was in the facility by myself when a distraught soldier came in asking for a chaplain,” remembers Blashek. “I panicked, thinking I wasn’t trained to handle something like this.” With his plane departing in 30 minutes, the soldier asked Blashek to sit with him. “He told me he’d just been on emergency leave to bury his mother,” she says. “His wife had left him and his only child had died as an infant. He had no one left in his life. He said, ‘For the first time in my twenty year career, I’m going to war and know I’m not going to make it back. But it doesn’t matter, because no one would even care.”
Listening to the soldier, a wave of realization washed over Blashek. She’d seen military personnel come and go from that lounge and it hit home that tens of thousands of American Service Members are deployed in hostile and remote regions of the world, including the Middle East, Afghanistan, and on ships throughout international waters. The physical conditions they endure are difficult and they're often separated from loved ones for long periods of time.
Struck to her very core, Blashek decided to take action. As a mother, she’d sent care packages to her children while they were away at summer camp. “That’s what I wanted to do for the troops,” she says. “Send something to let them know I was thinking about them, along with little reminders of home.”
Though the idea seemed simple, it was far from easy to accomplish. The first obstacle Blashek came up against was a change in military mail regulations due to the anthrax scare. Names and addresses of military personnel were considered confidential, and the only mail that would make it through came via direct contacts. This sent Blashek on a name-collecting mission from chat rooms to store checkout lines. “It slowly started to snowball,” says Blashek. “I went from being a volunteer once a week down at the lounge to (founding and) running a multi-million dollar organization.”
As the list of names grew, personal funds Blashek had set aside for the project dwindled, so she pursued product donations from various companies. “In the early years, we didn’t have name recognition,” she says. “So every day, I’d make at least 20 phone calls to companies across the country asking them to support us by donating products. I’d be lucky if one out of the 20 said yes.” Here’s where Blashek lends hard-earned advice to others: never accept a “no.” “There’s always a way to do something,” she says. “The challenge is to find what that is. Every time someone told me ‘You can’t do X,’ I’d say, ‘Okay, we’ll do it the Y way, but get the same result.’”
To this day, Operation Gratitude’s lifeblood are volunteers who do everything from knitting scarves, collecting cell phones and writing letters. Blashek says their involvement is key. “Our packages have an impact because they’re coming from strangers and not family members. That’s what sets them apart and makes the troops feel so special, because they realize it’s the American people who are supporting them.” Another thing the organization has discovered along the way is that “Operation Gratitude has served as a bridge for the civilian/military gap and given Americans a way to say thank you.”
Ten years later, Operation Gratitude is flourishing. Still, says Blashek, “Like any non-profit, we’ve grown and so our expenses have increased. You just have to keep trying to raise money and awareness.” The organization is evolving, as well. “As the geo-political situation changes, we need to be poised to change with it,” says Blashek. “People mistakenly think that because the wars are supposedly ‘over’ now, that all the troops are home. That’s far from the truth. There are still over 200,000 U.S. Service Members deployed in harm’s way somewhere in the world, away from family and in difficult circumstances.”
To meet changing needs, Operation Gratitude has launched multi-faceted programs including Battalion Buddies for military children, Wounded Warrior and Veteran Care Package Programs, food and necessities through Military Family Packages for those facing hardship in difficult economic times and First Responder Program disaster relief packages.
When asked how has Operation Gratitude has impacted her, Blashek can’t help but laugh. “Aside from taking over my life and my house?” Putting all kidding aside, she points to something infinitely more personal. “Two and a half years ago, my son joined the military. Now I’m experiencing Operation Gratitude not just as its founder, but as a military mother. I see a whole other aspect that wasn’t necessarily apparent to me beforehand. Now I’m able to see that other Americans honor and respect families for the choice our child made. ”