The Bob Hope USO lounge at LAX was empty the day a young soldier walked in and asked to speak with a chaplain. The volunteer on duty told him she’d call and see if there was a chaplain available to come out to the airport.

His flight was leaving in 45 minutes, he didn’t have time to wait. Could he just talk to her for a few minutes? Sure, Carolyn Blashek said. They sat on the couch and the young soldier poured out his broken heart to a 46-year-old mother with two teenage children.

He was on emergency leave from Iraq because his mother had died. His wife had left him soon after their only child died in infancy, and now he was on his way back into a war zone and wasn’t planning on coming back. There wasn’t anyone left who cared if he did.

She’d care, Blashek said. The American people would care. The soldier thanked her for listening, and left to catch his flight — leaving her sitting there wishing she had found the right words a chaplain would have used to ease the soldiers mind.

She did a lot of thinking on the drive home to Encino that night. After 9/11, she had tried to join the Marines to fight this war so her children wouldn’t have to. She was too old, the recruiter said. So, she signed up to volunteer at the USO, but after talking with that young soldier she began to question if she was doing enough.

“I needed to do more than just serve hot dogs to soldiers in transit to their duty stations,” Blashek said. “I needed some way to show him and other combat veterans that people do care.”

From her living room, with the help of two friends, Nancy Levy and Cheryl Zerah, she began assembling care packages, each with a letter from a child written to a specific person, not just “To a Soldier,” like other care packages. It had to be personal to be felt, that was important.

She called her care packages Operation Gratitude, and also included a letter inside asking for the names and military addresses of other troops who weren’t getting mail from home. Her efforts caught the attention of a general in Iraq who passed her request down to all his company commanders.

Carolyn Blashek with 1st Lt. Jordan Blashek -- Homecoming from 1st deployment June, 2012. (Courtesy Carolyn Blashek)
Carolyn Blashek with 1st Lt. Jordan Blashek — Homecoming from 1st deployment June, 2012. (Courtesy Carolyn Blashek)

It wasn’t long before she had a thousand names to put on her Operation Gratitude care packages — not long, also, before she began getting letters back from Iraq thanking her, and some that broke her heart.

“I had a young man in my platoon who never received anything at mail call,” wrote a staff sergeant. “He was estranged from his family and the only package he had ever gotten in an entire year in Iraq was labeled ‘to any service person.’ Not to him.

“One night he returned to the barracks and there was a package from your Operation Gratitude on his bunk addressed to him. He couldn’t believe it. He opened the package and began reading the letters from elementary school kids wishing him a safe return home.

“This soldier had been contemplating suicide he told me later, but that care package with his name on it and the letters from those kids made him seek out counseling, and reach out to his family back home to reconcile their differences.

“You’ve let an old sergeant bring one more of his soldiers back home safely, and for that I am forever in your debt.”

She thought of that young soldier in the USO lounge who never got to talk to a chaplain. In a way, her care packages were like a chaplain — lifting morale and showing our troops far from home that there were people thinking of them, people who cared.

It wasn’t long before Operation Gratitude outgrew her living room, and the packages were then assembled at the Army National Guard armory in Van Nuys by hundreds of volunteers who had read her story in the Los Angeles Daily News, and wanted to help.

Many were retired Vietnam, Korean and World War II veterans who knew how important care packages from home were. These old soldiers stood in assembly lines filling boxes and talking with teenage kids and their parents, spending a Saturday afternoon bonding for a good cause.

There were seniors, police officers, firefighters, nurses and a wide array of people from across the San Fernando Valley who were there because they cared. They were joined by returning Gulf War veterans who had received Operation Gratitude care packages themselves.

They wanted to meet Blashek, and tell her how much it meant to come back to their barracks at the end of a long day on patrol and see a care package addressed to them on their bunk.

It’s been 21 years since 9/11, and more than 3.5 million Operation Gratitude care packages have been sent to deployed troops, military children, wounded soldiers, caregivers and first responders.

Carolyn Blashek wanted to join the Marines but she was too old, so she formed her own army. They’ve been fighting this war with pens and paper, labels and cardboard boxes, and letters from schoolchildren.

And, they’ve been winning.

That old staff sergeant telling Blashek he’d forever be in her debt is not alone.

Information on Operation Gratitude and how to help: www.operationgratitude.com/

Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at dmccarthynews@gmail.com.

California

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