The e-mail to Carolyn Blashek arrived Tuesday from Sgt. Natosha Monroe, a mental-health specialist stationed overseas dealing with combat stress.
The holidays are coming – the worst time of year for so many troops who miss their homes and families, Sgt. Monroe wrote to the founder of Operation Gratitude in Encino. That’s why Sgt. Monroe and her staff sergeant were brainstorming recently about some morale-boosting things to do this season.

“He has tried to improve morale, but is becoming frustrated with some failed efforts,” she wrote.

“A month ago we received some USO packages to distribute, but there weren’t enough to hand out to … the basically brand-new soldiers who have just gotten out of training and are away from home for the first time in their lives.

“I have seen the smiles on the faces of so many troops who have received your packages. They’re known around here as ‘the good ones’ because they seem to have items in them that soldiers truly need and appreciate – especially the DVDs, which really help pass the long hours.

“I would sincerely appreciate it if Operation Gratitude could offer that same smile to our soldiers. It might be the only bright spot for them this holiday season. Thank you so much.”

After reading the e-mail, Blashek did what she often does when she hears from the men and women overseas she has made smile with her special care packages.

She cried a little, then got back to work. More than any year since she started Operation Gratitude from the living room of her Encino home, this Veterans Day may be one of her greatest challenges.

From a few dozen care packages mailed out that first year to specific soldiers who were not receiving packages from home, Operation Gratitude has grown from one woman to hundreds of volunteers.

The grass-roots effort is on target this year to top a three-year total of 100,000 care packages sent to troops overseas. That’s a lot of smiles.

But Blashek wasn’t smiling Tuesday. Like a lot of charitable organizations that rely on the good hearts and generosity of the public, Operation Gratitude has seen its supplies and donations dwindle this year.

“We got slammed by the hurricane,” she says. “Many donations that had been promised us were sent instead to the people in New Orleans devastated by Katrina.”

There is no malice in her voice, only concern. She knows the victims of Katrina needed those supplies, but so do our combat troops who could use a morale boost and a few smiles from home this holiday season as the Iraq war lingers on.

As it stands now, though, it’s going to be tough for Operation Gratitude to meet its goal of sending 30,000 more care packages to the troops – like those in Sgt. Monroe’s unit – this holiday season.

So she sends out her own e-mail to supporters Wednesday, and keeps her fingers crossed that people still care.

“I am desperate,” the founder of Operation Gratitude begins in her note. “We have almost no DVDs for the upcoming holiday drive. I cannot disappoint all those troops.

“Do you have any suggestions on how we can obtain more DVDs of TV shows and movies for the 30,000 packages we will be sending?”

If you do, let her know.

The holidays are coming. It’s the worst time of year for so many troops who miss their homes and families.

Dennis McCarthy’s column appears Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday.

Dennis McCarthy, (818) 713-3749

[email protected]

HOW TO HELP

More supplies and volunteers to help pack boxes are needed for Operation Gratitude Holiday Drives set for Veterans Day weekend – Nov. 10-13 – and Thanksgiving weekend – Nov. 25-27 – at the California Army National Guard headquarters, 17330 Victory Blvd., Van Nuys, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information,┬ávisit www.operationgratitude.com.