How Operation Gratitude ensures that no service member is forgotten

How Operation Gratitude ensures that no service member is forgotten

By Michael McConnell

The makers of 5-hour ENERGY® have donated more than 1.5 million bottles to support the organization’s mission

James Johnson remembers the first time he received a care package from Operation Gratitude. He was an active-duty U.S. Air Force officer, officer, deployed to the Middle East.

Johnson was touched by the handmade, knitted items — mixed in with the snacks, candy, and personal hygiene products — that his box contained.

“Anytime you receive something like that, you recognize it’s a gift from someone,” he said. “Someone took the time to send it to you.”

Operation Gratitude CEO Jame s Johnson is a retired Air Force major general. He says the organization’s volunteers have an important mission.

He never forgot the gesture. After retiring from the Air Force as a major general, he took a position as Operation Gratitude’s chief executive officer.

For almost 20 years, volunteers and employees of the California-based charity have assembled care packages for active-duty service members and first responders. These parcels, typically stocked with manufacturer-donated goods, are shipped to U.S. troops stationed around the world. They’re also sent to health care workers, police, firefighters, and military families.

Operation Gratitude is not the only organization that sends care boxes to military members and essential workers. But what makes it unique, officials say, are the handmade items, cards, and handwritten letters that volunteers include in each package. It’s common for a box to contain a knitted scarf, hat, or bracelet along with a personal note explaining its significance.

They’re “Things that are from the heart,” Johnson said. “I think it’s pretty significant … and the way it’s put together in terms of the volunteer base that supports us. None of this happens without volunteers.”

That “base” of Operation Gratitude volunteers includes thousands of people in small towns and big cities across the country. They knit, sew and assemble the care packages by hand. Whether working alone in living rooms or as part of larger groups at churches or in warehouses, their goal is the same: to ensure recipients’ sacrifices are not forgotten.

“It’s a simple but powerful mission,” Johnson said. “It’s more than just saying the words ‘thank you.’ It’s actually showing that in the way the care package is assembled … through volunteer hands. There are things in there that are meaningful to people.”

Operation Gratitude volunteers often include handwritten notes and personal items in the care packages they assemble.

In addition to handmade items, the care packages include products from some of the best-known consumer product brands, including makers of candy, gum and canned foods.

Living Essentials, the makers of 5-hour ENERGY products, are among the program’s top corporate supporters. Living Essentials has donated more than 1.5 million bottles to Operation Gratitude since 2016.

“It’s a really strong message to me that this company cares about these service members,” Johnson said. 

In 2020, almost 619,000 veterans, hospital workers and first responders received the group’s care packages.

How it all began

In 2003, Southern California resident Carolyn Blashek was a military lounge volunteer at Los Angeles International Airport. She met a soldier there who told her that after losing his mother and child and separating from his wife, he didn’t think anyone would care if he died in combat. 

At that moment, Blashek decided she had to do something to ensure that no soldier ever felt that way again. 

Operation Gratitude was born. 

From a makeshift operations center in her living room, Blashek sent her first four care packages to a base in Iraq. What started as a personal mission is now one of the biggest military charities in the U.S., with a large processing and assembly center in Chatsworth, California. In the last 19 years, Operation Gratitude has sent care packages to more than 3.3 million veterans and first responders.

Johnson said it’s vital work. 

“We are meeting a need,” he added. 

For information on supporting Operation Gratitude’s mission, visit OperationGratitude.com