Operation Gratitude – 900k and the March to a Million

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There are a few places on this planet where I feel absolutely comfortable. One of them is the National Guard Armory in Van Nuys, CA. I don’t know what it is about that wonderful place, but my shyness and social awkwardness don’t seem to exist there. It must be all the love. It’s literally bursting from the seams in there.

900,000!!

900,000!!

If you’re a regular on the blog then you know about my love for Operation Gratitude. If you’re a newbie then let me explain what Operation Gratitude is really quick. It’s an organization started by Carolyn Blashek in the wake of 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan  When she tried to join the military and was told that she was above the age limit, she couldn’t stand by and do nothing so she started putting together care packages in her home. Those humble beginnings have grown into an Operation that has now sent more than 900,000 care packages to troops deployed around the world. We have officially started our March to a Million.

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Now a little background as to how I got involved. I’m a proud Navy Brat and sister of a Marine and several years back I decided that I wanted to do something to support the military and their families. I collected a ton of unused Christmas cards and got everyone I know to write letters and notes in them. I collected more than a hundred and then realized that I had no idea where to send them. I started calling Army-Navy Recruiting Offices and finally a Soldier answered and told me about Operation Gratitude. I called the phone number he gave me and Carolyn answered. Turns out he had given me her home phone number. Carolyn was so warm and kind and told me where to drop the letters off. I asked her what else I could do and she told me about their upcoming Package Assembly Day. I never looked back. The 2nd time I volunteered I was lucky enough to pack the 350,000th package, a moment that I will never forget for as long as I live. I told my Nerd BFF Geek Outlaw about it and he began joining me about a year after I started. I’ve volunteered many times since then, collected hundreds more Christmas cards, and learned to crochet so that I could make scarves for the Winter Drive. It brings me more joy than I could ever express. Now that I’m in San Diego and my schedule is insane, it’s much harder to get up to Van Nuys but I drove up this past weekend for the last packing day of the year.

HNG Opgrat prep

Photo by HNG fan Shaun

I have a bad wrist so I like to get to the Armory early so that I can get a spot putting the items into the boxes. It also gives me a chance to talk to all of the people who walk around the assembly line and arrange the contents as we fill them. And I get to dance to the music which is not only fun, but makes it easier on my back. After saying hello and giving Carolyn a big hug, I settled into my spot along with Geek Outlaw and his Dad. For the morning shift I was put in charge of the Oxy products and was dubbed the “zit girl.”  For the afternoon shift I was moved to another area of hygiene, toothpaste and dental floss.

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Picture posted on facebook

Right before we started for the day I posted a picture on the facebook page and invited anyone in the area to join us. Shaun saw that picture and, still reeling from the tragedy in Connecticut and his personal connection to it, decided that volunteering was exactly what he needed. That, and wearing a red shirt under his sweatshirt. He joined Geek Outlaw and I for the afternoon shift. It was awesome to hang out and chat with him, he now knows more about me than any other fan!

HNG and Shaun

There are always a few celebrities that show up and this year was no different.  The first one who came by was Michael Reagan, oldest son of President Ronald Reagan, along with his wife and daughter. I didn’t recognize him at first, but Geek Outlaw’s Dad did and when I heard his name I perked right up. I asked him “Michael, do you know Dean Minnerly?” He looked surprised and said “Yes!!” I told him that Dean was my step-dad and he couldn’t believe it. Each time he came around we chatted a little more. As I mentioned in my interview with him, Dean was a Karate instructor prior to becoming a Foley Artist. Michael’s son was one of his students and he used to hang out with the Reagan’s and go out on their boat with them. They haven’t been in contact for a number of years though. So I told Michael I was going to take his picture and text it to Dean. This is that picture.

HNG opgrat Michael Reagan

Michael Reagan

Dean was flabbergasted and asked if I could get Michael’s contact info but by the time I got that message we were in the middle of the ceremony and Michael was speaking to the crowd. He left right after and I didn’t see him again. So Michael, if you ever read this, Dean wants to reconnect with you.

The next celebrity to come by was Erik Estrada of CHiPs fame along with at least ten Playboy Bunnies.

HNG waiting for Erik and the Bunnies to catch up with the rest of the line

HNG waiting for Erik and the Bunnies to catch up with the rest of the line

He was so incredibly nice. You could tell that he really wanted to be there and was genuinely excited to meet and hang out with the Soldiers who were present.

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HNG and Erik Estrada

Joe Mantegna was there along with at least fifteen other crew and production people from Criminal Minds. Dean works on the Law & Order shows so we exchanged a few joking jabs back and forth each time they made the rounds.

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Geek Outlaw, Joe Mantegna, and HNG

After lunch, Geek Outlaw, Shaun, and I reclaimed our spots on the Assembly Line.

"My spot!" says Geek Outlaw

“My spot!” says Geek Outlaw

A few minutes later Carolyn came up with a little boy named Charlie (that’s him behind Geek Outlaw) and asked Geek Outlaw and I to watch him and show him the ropes. We’re responsible adults so we said no problem! After chatting with him for a few minutes (seriously, he was so cute and sweet), Carolyn came back and told me “By the way, he’s Jon Cryer’s son.” You probably know Jon Cryer best from Two and a Half Men. I’ve never seen that show so I know him as Duckie from Pretty in Pink. Jon was a client of my previous boss in LA so I had spoken to his wife before on the phone. The line started back up and the next thing I know, here comes Jon. I said “Hey Jon, we were put in charge of your kid, he’s really cute.” He smiled and said “Well I certainly think so! I think I’ll join you guys.”

HNG and Jon Cryer

HNG and Jon Cryer

He took a place on the Line and was put in charge of the 5 Hour Energy’s. Having had that job before, I know how filthy your hands get, so I told him I had a hand wipe with his name on it once we stopped for the day. He was also really nice and even danced with me when “Stayin’ Alive” came on over the speakers. I told him who my old boss was and he got a big smile on his face and told me to tell him that he said hi, which I did. Tada! Two sets of old friends reconnected by me and Operation Gratitude. I was kind of on a roll that day.

Then, of course, there was Santa (Santa’s a celebrity! 😉 )aka Supervisor Jack, the nicest man you will ever meet and a fantastic singer…

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…and Captain Freedom…

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…but the real celebrity that day was Spc. Samuel M. He was the recipient of the 800,000th care package; recently back from his latest deployment in Afghanistan. The recipients of the milestone care packages always get a few extras. On Saturday Spc. M. was presented with a custom motorcycle made by Torque and Orange County Choppers. I know absolutely nothing about motorcycles but even I knew that it was a special bike. It was really gorgeous.

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Regardless of how you may feel about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the brave men and women of our military are the reason we have the freedoms that we do and they need to be supported by those of us back home who take advantage of those freedoms. You don’t know their names but they are sacrificing and sometimes dying for you. The least we can do is send them a little piece of home. I’m proud to have contributed to that effort in my own very small way.

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Thanks again to Carolyn and the Blue Shirts for all that you do and for making Operation Gratitude feel like a home away from home.

To learn more and find out how you can help, visit the Operation Gratitude website HERE.

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