Last week I wrote about the significance of the royal blue t-shirt worn proudly by 120 of our longest-serving and most dedicated volunteers. Our Blue Shirts helped build Operation Gratitude from its humble beginnings into a grassroots movement that now represents more than one million volunteers across the country.
One of those Blue Shirts is also OG’s first-ever Ambassador — Air Force Vietnam Veteran, Bob Donovan, who has represented Operation Gratitude at hundreds of events in Southern California. With his words and with his actions, Bob has helped Operation Gratitude achieve its mission. He has forged strong bonds and built bridges between the civilian, military, and first responder communities.
By sharing stories about our founder, our history, and most importantly our impact in countless conversations — at service projects, luncheons, care package deliveries, ceremonies, and parades — Bob Donovan has impressed upon every person he has met the importance of saying thank you to those who serve our nation.
What better person than a Vietnam Veteran, who never heard the words “thank you” during his career in the military, to explain why simple acts of gratitude make a difference? Who better than a Blue Shirt who has experienced the magic of OG at dozens of Assembly Days to describe how Operation Gratitude gives every American the opportunity to express appreciation to our men and women in uniform in tangible ways?
In those conversations Bob did something else — he told his own story and stories about fellow service members and veterans. He talked about the sacrifices military families make. He described deployments, extended separations, frequent moves, and the unimaginable loss of a loved one. In the process, Bob built bridges by creating understanding and empathy for what it means to serve in our military.
Through his storytelling, Bob not only encouraged other Americans to say “thank you”, he also inspired them to go a step beyond by making more meaningful connections with service members and their families who feel disconnected from their communities. He helped close a divide that many people have been talking about for two decades.
Additionally, Bob has worked to forge strong bonds between civilians and first responders, too. His role as the original OG Ambassador expanded, and with his appearance on the Today Show, he made an impact nationally, helping us build bridges between police officers and their communities last year.
This started, as it often does, with a simple “thank you” to Officer Jason Medina serving with the Washington DC Metropolitan Police Department 3,000 miles away. Bob and Jason now communicate with each other routinely.
I often think about why Bob serves with Operation Gratitude. Is it to give back and say “thank you” to service men and women who have followed in his footsteps? Is it because he wants others to experience what he has for years as a Blue Shirt — for them to find their own sense of purpose and belonging to a community of patriots who join in service to their country and one another? Or is it to build bridges and ensure our nation’s service members and veterans feel connected to their communities, never experiencing the disconnectedness, disrespect, and lack of gratitude that he felt as a Vietnam Veteran?
My guess is Bob’s motivation to serve with Operation Gratitude is the same as mine. It is all of the above. And it can be that way for all of us.
I’ve never asked other Blue Shirts like Army Veteran, Jack Knight, or Navy Mom, Melinda Vaughn, why they choose to serve with Operation Gratitude either.
Jack traveled 8,000 miles singing his “Hero Song” to thousands of first responders at hundreds of police and fire departments across the country. In doing so, he not only said “thank you,” he also helped Operation Gratitude start our First Responder program in 2017 and bridge divides that exist between civilians and the brave men and women who serve and protect our communities as police officers, firefighters, and EMTs.
I often wonder why Melinda Vaughn comes to our FOB every day to serve, too. Is it to have a sense of purpose and feel part of the community of volunteers who come to the FOB to receive, log, and sort the items we receive each day? Is it because she wants to give back and say “thank you” to men and women like her son, Bill, who served in Iraq as a Navy Seabee when the war first started? Or is it to build bridges and understanding about the sacrifices men and women like Bill make in service to our nation and the issues they sometimes face when they come back from war?
Again, it’s likely all of the above. My guess is Melinda wants her son to be appreciated and understood. She wants her son to feel connected and a valued member of his community. When Melinda told me about her cousins, Loren and John, who served for decades as high-ranking officers in the Navy, her Uncle Ralph who was shot down over Belgium and a WWII POW, and her Uncle Loren who also fought for our country during WWII in the Pacific and later served as a Volunteer Fire Chief, I didn’t think to ask her the myriad of reasons she gives back with Operation Gratitude.
But there is one thing I do know for sure. Like Bob Donovan, Jack and Melinda find their sense of purpose, give back in a hands-on way as part of our community of volunteers, express appreciation to all who serve, and ultimately build bridges EVERY time they serve with Operation Gratitude.
This week we have a wonderful opportunity for you to do all of the above, too! You can give back in a hands-on way, say “thank you,” and help us build bridges between civilians and Vietnam Veterans, like Bob Donovan. Starting today you can handcraft tangible expressions of appreciation for this forgotten generation of veterans.
Think about the impact you will make for veterans like Bob and the Navy Veteran pictured below, who cried tears of joy when I placed a paracord bracelet on his wrist two years ago. Look at the expression on his face when he realized one of our volunteers hand-made the bracelet in the colors of the Vietnam Paracord Bracelet just for him.
At the end of the competition on March 29th, National Vietnam War Veterans Day, thousands of beautifully made paracord bracelets will pour into our warehouse. In turn, Operation Gratitude will honor the service of Vietnam Veterans across the country with fellow volunteers who will place the bracelets you make on the wrists of true heroes. Can you think of a better way to say “thank you” and build bridges?
I hope you take this opportunity with Operation Gratitude to give back in a hands-on way. I hope you will be part of our important efforts to express gratitude to this often forgotten and the under-appreciated era of veterans who served during Vietnam. I hope your heart is filled with joy and a sense of purpose as you get more involved and become part of our ever-growing community of volunteers. And I hope you know that, together, we will go a step beyond saying “thank you for your service” — ultimately building bridges that will strengthen the resolve of those who serve our communities and our nation.
Like our Blue Shirts, Bob, Jack, Melinda, and me, you have an opportunity to do all of the above if that is what you want.
The truth is: whatever your reason is (or what your reasons are) for serving with Operation Gratitude, I’m very grateful that you do… Because I know together, we will continue to make a difference for more than a half-million service members and their families each year.