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Operation Gratitude celebrates its one-millionth package for US troops

Being deployed can be an isolating experience — thousands of miles away from home and without any of the comforts.

On the 72nd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched millions of American troops into World War II, thousands gathered at the Army National Guard armory in Van Nuys to celebrate a milestone for a nonprofit that looks to connect troops, veterans and their families with care packages that let them know someone cares.

Operation Gratitude, a San Fernando Valley-based group, sends more than 100,000 care packages filled with snacks, necessities and handwritten letters of thanks to armed services personnel, veterans, families left behind after the death of a service member, first-responders and caregivers each year, all assembled at the armory, where supporters applauded the packaging of the organization’s one millionth package Saturday.

“It doesn’t have to be from someone they know, it just has to be from someone who cares,” said Senior Chief Petty Officer David Danielson, who came to know the organization in 2003, when he was deployed to Iraq with the U.S. Navy. “I personally received letters from people that I am still in touch with now.”

Danielson grew close with Carolyn Blashek, founder of Operation Gratitude, and has remained a big supporter of the group. He nominated Blashek for the Spirit of Hope award in 2011, which honors civilians who have done something to help the military, named in honor of Bob Hope for his work with the USO.

The Navy honored her with the award.

Blashek founded the group in 2003, after an encounter at LAX with a service member about to deploy made her realize that not all of the men and women sent to fight had someone at home to connect with. She prepared the first packages in her garage, and has overseen its growth.

Hundreds of volunteers worked the event Saturday, manning carnival-like booths in exchange for donations to the nonprofit, setting up vendor tables and a memorial service in front of the traveling Vietnam War memorial. Most said the organization gave them a way to express how they feel for the men and women in the military.

“I was born an Army brat, and I have a thing about finding a way to say thanks to those who serve,” Diane Crowder, a three-year volunteer with the organization, said as she watched the festivities and celebrities gathered on stage to applaud the milestone.

“It’s the right thing to do, to honor our veterans and our seniors and those who are serving and we just don’t do it enough,” she said.

The organization depends heavily on donations to build the packages, which each have about $75 to $100 worth of goods.

Bea Abrams Cohen, believed to be the oldest female veteran, addressed a gathered crowd during the outdoor tribute ceremony, and spoke to the mission of the volunteers she’d met, and the needs of the community they serve.

“There’s a Hebrew word... ‘mitzvah,’ it means to do a good deed every day for someone who needs it,” she said. “Treat them with dignity, compassion. They need someone to talk to. Treat them like a friend.”

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