- The Washington Times - Monday, September 29, 2003

With Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz announcing the likelihood of troops remaining in Iraq “right through the end of next year,” charities see an even greater need to send care packages to U.S. service members abroad.

“It is even more important now. Troops need to receive thoughts and sentiments,” said Carolyn Blashek, founder of Operation Gratitude, a nonprofit organization that sends packages to U.S. soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen. “The troops don’t so much need actual things as they need appreciation and support.”

Mrs. Blashek began sending packages at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March and has not stopped. To date, she has sent 546 packages and, with the help of teenage volunteers, schools and local businesses in Encino, Calif., she plans to send more than 2,000 packages for the holiday season.

Operation Gratitude was founded because Mrs. Blashek met so many people who wanted to help troops but did not know how. Mrs. Blashek has contact with officials and chaplains in the field who send the names of individuals who receive little mail.

She began sending packages by asking everyone she knew if they had family and friends in the military; now names and addresses are submitted through her Web site, www.opgratitude.com.

Before September 11 and the anthrax scare, citizens could send packages and letters addressed to “Any Servicemember.” But security concerns, transportation constraints and terrorism threats mean the military no longer will accept generic mail.

The changing demands created new outlets of support. The United Service Organization (USO) of metropolitan Washington started a care package program with NBC in fall 2001, and expanded it nationally in 2002. Approximately 150,000 care packages have been handed out to deployed troops, with most of the gifts distributed at U.S. bases. The Red Cross had given out 32,000 packages as of Aug. 12.

The Red Cross received such an overwhelming amount of donations that the military issued a directive to halt collecting donations. The Red Cross is now working with the Army Air Force Exchange Service to distribute gift certificates that service members can redeem around the world.

“This is a preferable way to send generic support,” said Stacey Grissom, Red Cross spokesman. “The ‘Gifts from the Home Front’ certificates are more efficient and easier.” Ms. Grissom advocated other ways to show support by helping service members’ families left behind, by doing yardwork or buying groceries.

A 20-year-old private first class in Baghdad wrote Mrs. Blashek to thank her for a package.

“When I saw the box and all the goodies inside I was so happy because I hardly get mail so I am really happy that someone cares about us soldiers,” wrote the soldier, who has been in the Army for nine months and was identified only by his initials.

A female solider in Kuwait wrote to say she would forward her package to soldiers in Iraq.

“They need the things more than I do. I always try to pass on packages to the soldiers up north that don’t get as much.”

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