One Woman Makes a Difference to US Servicemen
Carolyn Blashek is proof that one person can make a difference. Brought up in Manhattan where her mother was a teacher and librarian at Hunter College High School and her father a professor of surgery at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, she has lived in Los Angeles for 30 years where, after 9/11, she began a journey that has evolved into the country’s largest program to deliver “care packages” to American troops overseas. Her initial involvement was as a military lounge volunteer at the Los Angeles airport where, in 2003, Blashek encountered a despondent soldier, back from war, who lamented that “nobody cared.” At that moment, “Operation Gratitude was born.” This mother of two realized the packages with goodies she often sent to her children at sleep-away camp could be a model for a larger mailing to soldiers in the field “to let people in our country know that people care.” The first hurdle was the requirement (a new security rule after 9/11) for a specific serviceperson’s name and address on every mailing. She asked around for names, promising to send packages to those mentioned and was inundated with requests. As word of her efforts spread, her living room became stacked with donated items (“It became an amazing thing”) and she wrapped and sent about 50 packages a week. She had started with seed money of her own but, “miraculously, checks appeared.” Discovering a stockpile of sunscreen in a nearby armory, she teamed up with female soldiers dispensing the item, held a “Support Our Troops” rally, and saw three to four hundred people show up to prepare and ship 3,000 packages, each with a name. The task became so overwhelming that she organized Operation Gratitude into two specific efforts annually—”Patriotic Drive” from April to June and “Holiday Drive” from October to December. Preparation of packages moved from her living room to the California Army National Guard Armory in Van Nuys, CA as the outpouring of support grew dramatically. This Christmas, Specialist Harry Colon of the 133rd Transportation Battalion of Brooklyn, NY was the recipient of the 400,000th Operation Gratitude Care Package. Reporters from WPIX-New York were at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq to record the moment. Blashek has noted milestone deliveries such as the 200,000th, 250,000th, 300,000th, and 400,000th packages with special gifts donated by corporate sponsors. For the 300,000th delivery, she went to Iraq and personally presented the lucky serviceman with keys to a car that awaited him on his return to the States.
As envisioned by Blashek from the beginning, care packages include nonperishable foods, personal care items (toiletries, fun T-shirts, scarves, novelties), entertainment items (DVDs, CDs, playing cards), and, most important, personal letters that express appreciation. Donations of funds and items come from individuals and corporations from around the nation and the world. Donated funds are used entirely for postage which is now $11 per package. Most volunteers come from the Los Angeles area, but some fly in from afar. Letters, which are screened, arrive from around the country; they are meant “to bring a smile to someone’s face” and “lift morale.” To encourage letter-writing, Blashek suggests contests and involvement of entire organizations and schools (“It is a wonderful experience for students and a perfect lesson that fits into so many things like civics, grammar, and social studies”). In some cases, military recipients correspond with school classes and have even visited upon their return to the States. Commanders in the field, who sometimes send requests for packages with lists of names of their troops, note the impact of Operation Gratitude. Major General Mark Hertling in Iraq has said, “It wasn’t the gifts or the cards or the notes that made such an impression…It was the realization that someone cared about our soldiers as individuals.” Blashek envisions continuation of Operation Gratitude “to show support and respect for the military in a direct, personal, and hands-on manner” as long as Americans are deployed anywhere in the world.#