I sat down to write this blog and share some reflections following two hectic and emotional weeks as the CEO of Operation Gratitude. I am filled with pride when I think of what we do every day as an organization and the impact we are making on so many lives.
Bridging the Divide – A Year in the Making
Our Assembly Day in New York City on September 5th and subsequent Care Package deliveries during the week of September 11th were a year in the making. It is hard to believe how much Operation Gratitude has accomplished over the past 12 months. We couldn’t have done it without the help of hundreds of thousands of grateful Americans across the country who believe in our mission.
A year ago, on September 11th, 2018, Operation Gratitude announced our vision to build bridges and strengthen communities nationwide. We kicked off with an initial delivery of 3,000 Care Packages to every Police Officer, Firefighter, and EMT in Jacksonville, Florida.
That vision was realized through several large scale service projects in 8 metropolitan areas. The Assembly Days at those sites produced more than 80,000 Care Packages for active duty service members around the world and First Responders across the country. The work and the actions of our team and our volunteers have exceeded all of my expectations.
In the first 7 of the 8 locations (San Antonio, Jacksonville, Washington DC, San Diego, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Nashville) we brought together more than 4,000 volunteers; delivered Care Pouches to every Police Officer, Firefighter, and EMT in each city, and were covered by the local news affiliates from all four of the major networks.
New York City – Never Forgetting Our Roots and Our Mission
When I started as the CEO 21 months ago, I pledged to never forget our roots or the main focus on our mission. At Operation Gratitude, we strive to say thank you to all who serve while providing every American the opportunity to express their appreciation in a hands-on way.
Last week in NYC, we were joined by our Founder, Carolyn Blashek, in the city where she grew up. Hundreds of New Yorkers joined Operation Gratitude in assembling 10,000 Care Packages and do precisely what our mission proclaims. That day we made saying “Thank You” to 5,000 deployed service members and 5,000 first responders possible.
This grassroots movement – inspired by 9/11 and started in Carolyn’s living room, was covered by Fox & Friends during three separate pieces including an in-studio interview on September 1st, a live remote from JetBlue Hangar 81 on September 5th, and an extended 9-minute interview on Fox Nation. These broadcasts have given us an opportunity to talk about the roots of Operation Gratitude, what makes our care packages so special, and why the work we do now is more important than ever.
With these 15 minutes of coverage on Fox News and an OpEd titled, How to Bridge the Divide Between Civilians and the Military, First Responders, which appeared in the Military Times on September 10th, Operation Gratitude reached more than 5 million viewers and readers over nine days.
Demonstrating Actions Speak Louder Than Words
I believe there is one driving reason for Operation Gratitude’s success and the media coverage we continue to earn both locally and nationally: We demonstrate every day that actions speak louder than words. While so many other organizations are talking about ways to honor our servicemen and women, we are out there getting it done in communities from sea to shining sea.
I say this with the utmost confidence, as I watched dozens of other organizations issue “calls to action,” while Operation Gratitude indeed acted to remember the fallen and to ensure our service members and first responders know that we, as a grateful nation, will never forget.
Actions = Impact on 9/11
On 9/11 and over the ensuing days, thousands of the Care Packages assembled in NYC were delivered to Service Members in harm’s way, as well as in-person to 800 Police Officers, Firefighters, and EMTs who were among the first to respond to the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon 18 years ago.
With those actions, we made a significant impact, as evidenced in this email that we received from a young airman named John, early in the morning on 9/11.
To all who work or volunteer with Operation Gratitude,
My name is John, and I’m in the Air Force, serving with my fellow Americans in the Middle East. Today is 9/11/2019, 18 years after the attack on our country changed the world as we know it. We’re missing our families and friends but know our work here matters to the world and for the safety of our nation. We received your care packages today- and the joy it brought to the faces of everyone I’m deployed with was just amazing. The letters of love brought tears to peoples’ eyes, and knowing they’re remembered and cared for is a gift that is priceless to the soul.
Today was my daughter’s first day of pre-school, and I was really in a low spot just missing her and all the special moments we won’t get to share this year because I’m away. This care package really lifted me up. Thank you so much, and if I could hug you all, I would.
It’s an honor to serve the greatest people in the world, people like you!
John B., USAF, Qatar
I can’t tell you how proud I am to read those words and to share them with the million grateful Americans who will volunteer in a hands-on way with Operation Gratitude this year alone. I felt that same pride last week when I spoke to 50 Police Officers serving in the Pentagon Force Protection Agency. You see, eighteen years ago on 9.11.2001, I was the Operations Officer for a Marine Artillery Battalion at Camp LeJeune, NC. I remember feeling two things that day.
First, as a father of three boys who were 6, 5, and 1 at the time, I felt scared. I felt afraid for them and scared for millions of families like ours.
Second, I felt helpless. I felt helpless as I stood next to several other Marines watching first responders in NYC and at the Pentagon fight the fires and the chaos. I also felt helpless as I watched and learned about so many of them losing their lives in the line of duty. I felt scared and helpless because there was nothing I could do at the time.
This September 11th and 12th, I was given the opportunity to finally act and do something that I couldn’t do 18 years ago. I was able to honor the service of every sworn police officer in the Pentagon Force Protection Agency and every Firefighters and EMT at the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority.
I can’t adequately describe in words how overwhelmed I was with emotion and pride to deliver those 800 Care Pouches on behalf of one million volunteers. Or what it felt like to represent hundreds of grateful New Yorkers who assembled the pouches last week as an expression of appreciation for Pentagon First Responders’ service on the 18th anniversary of 9/11.
Honoring the Fallen
On Sunday, September 14th, I honored a fallen hero and expressed gratitude on behalf of the entire Operation Gratitude family to my good friend Lieutenant Colonel Kevin M. Shea, USMC, who died 15 years ago in Iraq on his 38th birthday.
After saying a prayer for Kevin’s family and placing an OG coin at his gravestone, I walked back to the car with my wife and kids. I cried over and over again throughout the day, missing Kevin. I also couldn’t help but think that Operation Gratitude’s work is more important now than ever.
As our nation’s longest war continues, more than 200,000 service members still deploy each year, and, tragically, 16 service members, like Kevin, have died in Afghanistan in 2019 to date. The war is not over. What we do every day as an organization, along with our army of volunteers, continues to make a difference. This crucial impact is why, in 2020, we are expanding our community-building efforts by hosting 20 large scale Assembly Days in metropolitan areas across the nation.
Our strategic plan, called Vision 20/20, will be one of the most extensive campaigns of its kind in the country. We are taking action to bridge the civilian-service divide through hands-on volunteerism and acts of gratitude.
I’m very proud and humbled to be a part of Operation Gratitude, and through real action, to serve those who serve alongside grateful Americans everywhere. I hope you will join us, either at an event in your community or your own home. Click here to explore the many ways you can be involved or donate $15 to ship a Care Package to a Deployed Service Member.