Born a decade ago, Operation Gratitude approaches a milestone as it brings a taste of home to military personnel overseas

The distraught soldier’s words shook Carolyn Blashek to the core as she sat in the lounge for military personnel at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), trying to comfort him but not sure how.

He had no one, he told her. He’d just finished an emergency visit home to bury his mother. His wife had left him earlier, and his only child had died as an infant. Now, all alone in the world, he was about to return to a war zone where, if a sniper or roadside bomb struck him dead, he didn’t care. Nobody cared, he said.

That was in March 2003, when Blashek worked as a volunteer at the Bob Hope Hollywood USO at LAX, serving food and making travel arrangements for members of the United States military. After hearing the soldier’s tragic story, she vowed to do more to show her support for those serving overseas and started sending packages of gifts and letters to deployed soldiers.

Initially, Blashek, now 58, conducted this work from her home. A decade later, those efforts have become a nationally recognized organization called Operation Gratitude. Based out of the Army National Guard armory in Van Nuys, the nonprofit sends more than 100,000 care packages every year to service members, veterans, first responders, children of deployed military personnel, wounded soldiers and their caregivers.

On Dec. 7, Operation Gratitude will celebrate a major milestone: the assembly of its millionth care package. It is believed to be the first military support organization to accomplish this feat, according to organizers.

Blashek said the growth of the organization and hitting the 1 million mark is a humbling experience and testament to the dedicated work of thousands of volunteers. She said she wishes the soldier who spoke to her that day at the airport could now see what those tragic words inspired.

“My dream all these years has been: If only he would show up again so he could see what he helped start and that people really do care.”

Blashek said the millionth package will contain a special surprise. For other milestone events — such as the 100,000th and 750,000th packages — the organization has included perks ranging from keys to a new car to special delivery by a senior member of the military.

Carolyn Blashek, seen here delivering a care package in Iraq, started Operation Gratitude in 2003. Photo courtesy of Carolyn Blashek

If Operation Gratitude is proof of anything, it’s that tens of thousands of Americans care a great deal about fellow citizens risking their lives in combat overseas and about the veterans of past conflicts. All but a handful of people involved are volunteers, including more than 15,000 in the Los Angeles region and countless more across the country, Blashek said. They donate money and goods, organize fundraisers, make craft items, write letters and assemble packages.

Over the years, the organization has been the regular recipient of collections and other assistance from numerous area synagogues, including Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills. Rabbi Jonathan Hanish said sending care packages to people defending America overseas is a good way for congregants to show their appreciation.

“We have to realize we live in the United States, and we’re both Jews and Americans,” he said. “As Americans, we need to support our soldiers who are in other parts of the world.”

Each package contains about $100 worth of donated snacks, entertainment and toiletries. A typical package might hold items such as trail mix, energy bars, beef jerky, Girl Scout cookies, books, CDs, DVDs, playing cards, shampoo, toothpaste, lotion and clothing. The boxes also contain a handmade item, such as a knitted hat or lap blanket, or a paracord strap, also known as a “survival bracelet.” And there’s always an accompanying letter of thanks written by a volunteer. Cash donations cover the approximately $15 cost of assembling and mailing each package.

Blashek said the packages provide recipients with comforting reminders of home. But far beyond that, they constitute a physical message of support to U.S. service members from the American people.

“Once they’ve opened it, they recognize immediately that this took a lot of work, this wasn’t just a few people,” Blashek said. “They expect to get something from people they love, their families, but not from the rest of the country. Many say our packages illustrate to them why they do what they do. We’re giving them the encouragement to keep going.”

Terri Mulein, who organizes Mitzvah Day for Temple Kol Tikvah, said every year children from the synagogue’s religious school donate leftover Halloween candy and write letters to service members overseas for Operation Gratitude. She said she personally opposes war, but she still thinks it’s important for the community to recognize the efforts and risks taken by people volunteering in the military.

“I think it’s important for children and the community at large to show our appreciation,” she said. “[Service members] are over there and isolated from their home community, and getting little things like [a package] in the mail could cheer up a bad day.”

While Operation Gratitude sends packages to service members of all faiths, Blashek, who attends Ohr HaTorah in Mar Vista, also helped establish a similar initiative for Jews, Project MOT, in 2008. This organization sends packages with Jewish holiday items to deployed Jewish military personnel.

Rabbi Mordecai Finley of Ohr HaTorah knows how meaningful it can be to receive an unexpected gift package while deployed overseas. As a young man, Finley joined the U.S. Marines and spent 13 months on the unfamiliar shores of Okinawa, Japan. He vividly remembers how grateful he felt when, just before Passover, he received a package from a Jewish organization back home with holiday foods such as matzah and gefilte fish, along with a personal note.

“I was amazed, just amazed, that there was some organization in America that had my name and took the time to put the package together,” he said.

Finley praised the efforts of Operation Gratitude and the devotion and energy of Blashek. He said he often talks to his congregants about the importance of cultivating gratitude as part of their inner life. Operation Gratitude allows people to express their thankfulness to those fighting for our country, he said.

“It’s a tangible way of saying thank you for your service.”

DATE: Dec. 7
TIME: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
PLACE: Army National Guard armory in Van Nuys
DETAILS: Event will include live entertainment, children’s activities, food, the American Veterans Traveling Tribute and celebrity guests.