By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
About a year and a half after Sept. 11, a conversation with a despondent soldier rekindled the desire of the mother of two college students to do something to show troops that somebody cares.
That chat with a soldier motivated her to establish “Operation Gratitude,” a nonprofit organization that provides care packages to deployed troops.
“At that time (the Sept. 11 time frame), there were very few organizations in which a civilian could be involved in supporting the military,” Blashek said during a telephone interview from her home in Encino, Calif.
She had obtained a job in a military lounge at Los Angeles International Airport in December 2002. In March of 2003, during the build up to the war in Iraq, she was alone in the lounge one day when an enlisted soldier walked in. “He was very agitated and very upset,” Blashek recalls. “He’d been in the military for about 20 years. He asked to speak to a chaplain.”
Blashek said she offered to call a chaplain, but the despondent soldier told her he didn’t have enough time to wait for a chaplain because his flight was leaving soon.
He spoke to her instead.
They sat down, and the soldier told her that he’d just buried his mother, his wife had left him, and his only child had died as an infant. “He said he was going back into a war zone and, for the first time in his career, he didn’t think he’d make it back,” Blashek said. “But it really wouldn’t matter because no one would care.
“That was my motivation when I decided to start Operation Gratitude,” she recalled. “It was just realizing that so many people were going to be deployed and face combat. I thought to myself, ‘How do people survive that?’ They have to believe that someone cares about them and wants them to come home.”
Blashek sent her first four packages on March 19, 2003, the day Operation Iraqi Freedom kicked off. “Now I’ve sent 111,409 packages in three years,” she said.
When her community found out what she was doing, many people wanted to jump on the bandwagon. “Within a few months, my living room was filled with donated items from people all over this area in southern California,” Blashek said. “I still had to pay for the postage. But every time I’d think I was down to my last dollars, a check would amazingly appear. Operation Gratitude just started to sustain itself.”
Blashek did all the packaging and mailing by herself until August 2003, when the California National Guard’s 746th Quartermaster Battalion armory in Van Nuys contacted her. The armory had received a large donation of sunscreens and offered Blashek some for her care packages.
At the armory, Blashek met Army Staff Sgt. Elizabeth Cowie, who also was sending care packages to deployed troops.
The two women decided to join forces. Cowie told Blashek that if she would move her operation to the armory, they could expand it and have volunteers to help. She offered to handle the logistics and Blashek could handle getting donations of items and money.
“We decided that between the two of us we’d probably have about 1,000 names, but we set a goal of 1,500 names and said we’d send something to every person,” Blashek said. “We figured Veterans Day weekend would be perfect because that would give us about six weeks before Christmas to get the stuff over there.”
Word spread about what they were doing, and on Veterans Day weekend that year 300 volunteers showed up to help. “We didn’t even know them; they just appeared,” Blashek said. “We ended up sending more than 3,000 packages that weekend. It really snowballed. People overseas started to hear about what we were doing, so I started getting a lot more requests for packages.”
Donations kept rolling in, and Blashek and Cowie kept sending packages. By January 2004, they’d sent nearly 8,000 care packages to the troops.
The phenomenal growth of Operation Gratitude made them realize that the operation was too big to keep sending packages every week. They decided to have two drives each year. The next drive was Memorial Day weekend of that year. They called it the “Patriotic Drive.”
Blashek said care packages will be prepared on three weekends this year: May 20-21, which is Armed Forces weekend; May 27-29, Memorial Day weekend; and June 17-18, Fathers Day weekend.
“It’s a perfect military-civilian partnership,” Blashek said. “It’s really wonderful when we do these events at the armory because all the soldiers are there. Now, many of the soldiers who had helped us are now deployed and are getting packages. Many of them who had been deployed and got our packages are now back and helping us out. It becomes a very emotional thing with these guys going around thanking the volunteers and talking about what it felt like actually receiving a package.
“My goal from the start was to put a smile on their faces, let them know that people appreciate and care about them,” she added.
Blashek said Operation Gratitude gives every American a chance to express their appreciation to the troops. “Thousands of volunteers and supporters say how appreciative they are to have an avenue to express their thanks to the troops,” she said.
“I designed it initially in such a way that any American could participate,” Blashek said. She explained that individuals don’t have to spend money to help, they can simply write letters. “That always ends up being the most precious gift in the care packages,” she said.
Cowie said it means a lot to her to be able to give something back to fellow soldiers sacrificing so much for America’s security. “At times it’s a little overwhelming to know a little gesture we’ve done here has made such a huge difference for soldiers in Iraq, Afghanistan and other places around the world,” she said. “As a soldier, you want to be there helping them. But knowing that I can’t, this is the least I can do.”
She said she particularly remembers a letter from a soldier whose convoy was hit by enemy fire in Iraq. “He didn’t know how he was going to make it through another day,” she said. “Our package was sitting there waiting for him. He opened it, and it reminded him of why he’s there and gave him that courage and motivation to continue on another day.”