VAN NUYS – Sherman Oaks resident Judy Ihrig doesn’t have any family members serving in the military, but she remembers all too well how the returning veterans of the Vietnam war were treated: badly.
“I never want to see that happen again to anyone, any soldier serving in any group,” said the 58-year-old Ihrig. “This has nothing to do with your politics; it’s about supporting the young men and women who are out there, defending us and protecting our rights.”

Ihrig was among hundreds of volunteers Saturday who filled the California National Guard Armory here, assembling and filling care packages destined for military personnel serving all over the world.

Shortly after 12:15 p.m., a cheer rose from the assembly line: The 100,000th package had been filled.

But even as Operation Gratitude founder Carolyn Blashek announced the milestone, a voice shouted from the back, “Let’s go for 200,000!”

“I’m very happy,” Blashek said. “But until I have an Operation Gratitude package in the hands of every single service member who’s deployed, I’m not going to be satisfied.”

The nonprofit, all-volunteer Operation Gratitude, founded in 2003, sends care packages and letters to U.S. troops in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Guantanamo Bay and Kosovo, as well as those on military ships all over the world.

At Saturday’s drive, those volunteers filled boxes with items ranging from T-shirts, socks and packages of snacks to letters from schoolchildren, disposable cameras, Beanie Babies, batteries, deodorant and CDs.

Some of the items, like the Beanie Babies, are for troops to share with children in the war-torn countries in which they are deployed, said Marty Martin, 49, of West Los Angeles, whose son, Jason, 23, is an ensign in the U.S. Navy.

Other items, like a tube of Chap Stick, merely provide a little taste of America with a familiar brand.

Most of all, though, the items are a tangible sign that people care, Martin said.

Jason Martin, who will soon be heading back to Iraq, agreed: “Even when it’s from someone you don’t know, if they’re supporting what you’re doing, it’s a boost.”

The lucky recipient of the 100,000th care package – Blashek won’t say who it is, or where he or she is serving – will get an extra-special surprise.

The package features two tickets to a 2006 NASCAR Nextel Cup Series race donated by sponsor Checkers/Rally, the official burger of NASCAR.

The lucky serviceman or woman who gets the package also will get free Checkers/Rally food for one year, plus a two-night stay at the San Francisco Hilton, two nights at the Harrah’s and Harveys at Lake Tahoe, and a digital camera.

Ken Lecheminant Jr., general manager for Star Chrysler Jeep of Glendale, brought a load of items donated to the dealership, part of a nationwide effort by Jeep.

“I’m proud to be an American when I see stuff like this,” said Lecheminant, who spent five years in Vietnam as an Army helicopter gunner. “I know how important it is to get something from home, to know that people care.”

Lisa M. Sodders, (818) 713-3663

[email protected]

How to help:

Operation Gratitude continues its efforts from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. today at the National Guard Armory, 17330 Victory Blvd., Van Nuys. For more information, or to volunteer, visit www.operationgratitude.com or call the hotline at (818) 789-0563.