We honor them today, Memorial Day, and every day we look around and appreciate all the freedoms we enjoy.
They weren’t free. Veterans fought and died for them. They still are. That’s why the e-mail from U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class James Stout is so important.
Stout hits a nerve in this country none of us should be proud of. We can’t look the other way and ignore it.
“I know we are old news and a lot of folks back home are tired of the news there (Iraq), but it is important that we not forget those who still serve,” Stout wrote.
Yes, the tanking economy is front and center on the nation’s mind. Yes, we have a new president-elect with new ideas. Yes, we need health-care reform and better schools.
Yes to a hundred things, but, please, don’t forget the men and women who still risk their lives for us, Stout asks. They are not home with their families today. They’re still in harm’s way, where Stout was until his luck ran out earlier this year on his third deployment.
“I had a run in with an IED – improvised explosive device – that has ended my military career and left me pretty banged and burned up,” he writes about his injury in Iraq.
“I have been in recovery and had a few reconstructive surgeries over the last months.”
This is the first time I’ve been able to use Stout’s name in print because he was worried that being too frank and honest with a newspaper reporter wouldn’t exactly enhance his career advancement in the service.
Stout’s the sergeant I wrote about for a Christmas story last year, in USA Today Weekend Magazine and in my column.
The story he told Carolyn Blashek, who runs Operation Gratitude in the San Fernando Valley, was a heartbreaker.
The holidays were coming and one of the men in his platoon was so down, he was contemplating suicide. He had no loved ones back home sending him letters or packages.
“He got back to his bunk one night and there was one of your Operation Gratitude boxes on his bunk,” Stout wrote. The boxes are individually addressed to each soldier by name.
“It was the first time in almost a year in Iraq that he had received anything with his name on it,” Stout said. “He opened it up and found all the goodies you had sent, along with three letters from school children telling him they were thinking about him and praying for him.
“He broke down and started crying. That’s when he admitted his suicidal thoughts. A few days later, he was in counseling and on his way to getting better.”
Blashek and I never heard back from Stout after she sent him the stories I’d written. Now she knew why. He had been in a hospital in Germany after being banged up and burned by an IED.
“It’s been quite a while but I thought I would update you on the soldier saved by your care package,” he began.
“His work attitude and leadership skills have so improved that he has since been promoted to sergeant, and is currently a squad leader. His platoon sergeant tells me he’s one of the best in his platoon.
“If you had taken this soldier over a year ago and put him next to the soldier he has become, you would swear it was two different people.
“And it was all due to the care package sent to a soldier by good people back in the States he had never met before.”
It gets tougher every year to motivate her own troops, Blashek says – the hundreds of volunteers and donors helping her fill the 70,000 care packages Operation Gratitude will mail to soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan this holiday season.
She’s been doing it for six years and mailed more than 300,000 care packages.
“It’s tough motivating even the best volunteers because nobody wants to talk about this (Iraq) anymore,” she said Monday.
“I waited until after the election to send out donation letters to meet our holiday goal because I knew it would get lost in all the election mail.
“I was stymied. I didn’t know what to write to motivate people anymore.”
Then a wounded sergeant on the mend wrote an e-mail asking, please, not to forget our troops still serving in harm’s way this Veterans Day.
They’re not old news.
Tax-deductible donations can be made by going online to www.operationgratitude.com or sending a check to Operation Gratitude, 16444 Refugio Road, Encino, CA 91436.