Two and a half years ago today, I joined more than 1,500 volunteers at my first Assembly Day as the CEO of Operation Gratitude. The thing that made me most proud that day was standing shoulder to shoulder with our diverse community of volunteers spanning five generations from ages 1 to 100.
A few days later I wrote my very first email to you. I promised that I would “give my last full measure every day” to honor that moment and all of you, and I pledged to replicate what I was part of in Los Angeles in other communities across the country.
We did that in cities like Jacksonville, Washington DC, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Nashville, Cincinnati, San Diego, and Los Angeles every month. What we saw there, and in dozens of other cities where our volunteers expressed gratitude and made meaningful connections with the military and first responders, was the same. People who believed in America and wanted to make it better came together, and with their actions forged bonds and strengthened communities.
We have a responsibility to LISTEN
Last week I told you we would actively listen and we did.
We listened to leaders in the community, in the military, and law enforcement; we listened to experts on diversity and race issues; and we listened to you.
While it has been difficult for me to find the right words to express my sadness and anger about events surrounding the horrific and senseless death of George Floyd, I am going to take the advice of a fellow Marine who told me not to be afraid to make mistakes, to speak from my heart, and to let my empathy for others shine through.
So I am writing this now as a father, as a 20-year Marine veteran, and as an American who is sad and angry, but one who is still hopeful and wants to be part of change. These are emotions I felt again this past Saturday when I went to DC with my wife, Laura.
After parking at the Iwo Jima Memorial and walking down the hill past Arlington Cemetery. I couldn’t help but think of all the men and women from all walks of life who lay to rest there. As we crossed Memorial Bridge, I thought about my friend, Kevin Shea, and so many like him who paid the ultimate sacrifice fighting for the freedoms we enjoy as Americans. As we rounded the corner of the Lincoln Memorial, we saw thousands of people gathered at the foot of the steps exercising those very freedoms.
We continued from the steps along the Reflecting Pool where more than 250,000 Americans had assembled nearly 57 years ago to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. describe his dreams of freedom and equality arising from a land of slavery and hatred. We stopped at the World War II Memorial to pay our respects, standing before 4,048 gold stars, each representing 100 Americans who died in the war. In front of the wall lies the message, “Here we mark the price of freedom.”
Continuing down 17th Street we stopped at Lafayette Square on the north side of the White House. Standing in front of the building where I worked for my first 6 years out of uniform, I saw another thing that will stick with me forever.
For as far as our eyes could see thousands of Americans, representing every race, color, ethnicity, religion, sex, gender identity and expression, disability, national origin, ancestry, political beliefs, veteran status, and all ages, had come together peacefully in our nation’s capital, because they, like our volunteers, believe in this country and want to make it better, too.
We retraced our steps back to the Iwo and saw tens of thousands more Americans pouring into the city from every direction. And then it happened — in the midst of this sea of humanity passing face after face — I saw my oldest son walking with his girlfriend. Despite the masks, as soon as our eyes met, we recognized each other as father and son.
He was there for the same reason — to listen and to figure out what he could do as an American to make our country better.
As we walked over the bridge toward Arlington House and past the identical headstones, row after row, perfectly aligned, the same sadness and anger came rushing back. I couldn’t help but think of my children, those I served with during my time in the Marines and the men and women from all walks of life who fought and died in service to our nation, and our belief in America.
What is taking place in our country and what I witnessed firsthand in D.C. this weekend is further proof that Operation Gratitude’s mission to forge strong bonds and strengthen communities is more important than ever.
We have a responsibility to TAKE ACTION
We have a responsibility to help bridge divides that exist, which takes more than talk or platitudes posted on social media — becoming part of the solution takes action.
Action means continuing to actively listen and genuinely trying to understand, knowing that we must do better in highlighting some of the underlying causes for the civilian-service divide. These include the difficult realities of racial discrimination and injustice, otherwise, we will never accomplish our ultimate goal – a nation and communities united. This week, we are holding the first of our roundtable discussions for community leaders and I look forward to taking their feedback, along with yours, to effect change and take meaningful action when we bring communities together in the future.
Action means continuing to express gratitude to all who serve and protect our nation with honor, courage, and commitment by providing Care Packages and bulk deliveries of essential items and handwritten letters of support. This week we will be shipping hundreds of thousands of items and letters of gratitude to more than 10,000 COVID-19 Frontline Responders across the nation.
Action means continuing large and small service projects across the country, whenever possible. At each of these service projects, just like that first Assembly Day, I attended as CEO, Operation Gratitude will build a diverse and inclusive volunteer community where Americans come together and feel welcome while they express gratitude to those who honorably serve the country they love so much. We will also continue to grow our #VirtualVolunteerism moveme
Our country needs more of these actions right now, not less — and we will not stop.
My pledge to you is the same now as it was two and a half years ago.
I will give my last full measure to lead Operation Gratitude in a way that honors you, our volunteers, and those who serve our nation with courage and commitment.
My job is to ensure every one of you is respected, empowered, and appreciated for who you are and what you bring to Operation Gratitude. I promise that I will do my best to take action every day to forge bonds, bridge divides, and strengthen communities.
Thank you for your continued support of Operation Gratitude and our mission.
With Gratitude and Semper Fidelis,
Lieutenant Colonel, USMC (Ret.)
Chief Executive Officer, Operation Gratitude