Carolyn Blashek founded Operation Gratitude in 2003 — the year the Iraq war started. The volunteer-based organization sends care packages to the troops, that include handwritten letters and handmade scarves.
Blashek, who has two children, says she was inspired to start the organization by the idea that a service member thousands of miles from home might feel forgotten.
This year Operation Gratitude sent out its 600,000th package.
'Sometimes We Feel Forgotten'
The first thing you notice about Blashek's kitchen are the pictures of men and women in uniform, mostly camouflage. They adorn the cupboards and one entire wall. The kitchen counter is covered with mail. The first letter she opens is from a Marine in Afghanistan.
Everyone was so excited when we got the packages. We read through all the letters, shared them together and we were all just so happy.
The thank you letters she receives are handwritten — sometimes on lined paper, a single piece of stationary, even a torn piece of cardboard. The message is nearly always the same.
You have no idea how much one little box filled with random goodies can brighten a service member's day.
Dear Operation Gratitude: On behalf of myself and my entire air traffic control detachment here in Afghanistan I want to thank you for all the wonderful care packages we have been receiving. Not everyone here receives mail that often and sometimes we feel forgotten.
Blashek has kept all these thank you letters, so many they fill a back room.
"One was a letter I got from a soldier that he wrote back to me saying, 'At the end of the day I had eaten the food and watched the DVD, but there was a letter from a little girl in Michigan that meant so much to me that I folded it up. I put it in my helmet and it goes with me everywhere I go,'" Blashek recalls.
This year, the headquarters for Operation Gratitude is a National Guard armory in Los Angeles where on a recent day hundreds of volunteers were preparing to ship the holiday packages. One corner of the armory looked like a post office annex.
Linda Barber, a longtime volunteer, is in charge of the letters. The ones in crayon and bold print stand out — maybe it's the glued-on sparkles. Barber, 72, says the letters from the kids often begin "Dear Soldier."
Army Staff Sgt. Matthew Gomez received an Operation Gratitude package in 2007 while serving in Afghanistan. He's still on active duty and stationed at the armory.
"It's just a good feeling to know someone else is thinking of you. Not a lot of us received mail or packages that came in the mail over there," he says. "For soldiers, it's a big deal, receiving something from back home."
A Stitch And A Prayer
Every year, thousands of volunteers back home knit and crochet handmade scarves to go into the troop packages. One of those people is 98-year-old Joan Mazzarelli. She has platinum hair, a pixie smile and on her lap, is a pair of knitting needles.
Since March, Mazzarelli has knitted or crocheted 527 scarves and hats for what she calls her boys and girls in the war. There was another war being fought overseas when she first began this task in 1940, during World War II.
"I knitted not only scarves, but socks and gloves, everything for the soldiers," Mazzarelli says.
She had a beauty shop back then and would knit in-between customers. These days she knits about 14 hours a day.
Mazzarelli says the thank you letters she receives today are not that different than the ones she received 70 years ago.
I just want to thank you for including your special gift of a handmade hat. I'm reminded of my grandma's crocheted hats she made for my sister and I when we were kids.
But, as much as she loves knitting for the men and women deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, Mazzarelli says she wishes they were home.
Until then, she'll continue knitting. For her, knitting is an act of service, a prayerful meditation.
"A prayer with each stitch," she says.