OBSERVATION POST VIKING, Iraq -- Lance Cpl. William C. James got the care package of the deployment.
He opened it to find he received a portable DVD player, DVDs, a flash memory stick and candies and treats to snack on. The real prize was at the bottom of the box – a free pass for a night’s stay in a Las Vegas hotel.
“It was a pretty good surprise when I opened the box,” said James, a 20-year-old rifleman from San Diego assigned to A Company, 1st Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment. “I would never have thought people would put things like that in a care package.”
He’s finishing up a seven-month deployment with Regimental Combat Team 5.
The care package was a special one not just for James, but for the organization that’s been sending care packages to Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen throughout Iraq. They’re called “Operation Gratitude,” and James’ package was the 150,000th box they mailed.
“All the things in the box hit right on time,” James explained. “My DVD player was on the fritz, so the new one came at a good time.”
James said he plans on making good use of the free stay in Las Vegas. With a birthday quickly approaching, he wants to cash it in at the 'city of lights.'
“I turn 21 the day our leave block starts when we get back from Iraq,” James said. “So getting the trip to Vegas is pretty convenient.”
Volunteers at Operation Gratitude tried to ensure every Marine in the battalion received a package and knew people back home cared for them.
“I hope they feel the love and energy that went into making their particular care package,” said Carolyn Blashek, the 49-year-old founder form Encino, Calif., and founder of Operation Gratitude. “I hope they understand that the packages, in total, represent the respect, appreciation and participation from all over our great country.”
Operational tempo throughout the battalion was at a constant high during the deployment. Receiving a friendly package broke the monotony that is deployment life.
“It was great to get the packages,” said Seaman Apprentice Adam D. Petree, a 21-year-old corpsman from Slidell, La. “It’s nice to know that people back home haven’t forgotten about us and what we are doing.”
Officials at Operation Gratitude said they send tens of thousands of care packages annually to military personnel serving overseas. It is a new organization which was founded in the aftermath of Sept. 11.
“I immediately knew that I had to do more to let servicemembers know I, and all Americans, really do care about them,” said Blashek after hearing a service member say he believed no one cared.
Blashek explained how she sobbed over the many young service members she met while volunteering at a military lounge in an L.A. airport. She was compelled to let all service members know they weren’t forgotten.
“Every military member serving our country and the cause of freedom makes us proud to be Americans,” Blashek explained.
James wasn’t the only Marine in the battalion who received packages throughout the deployment. All were welcomed and kept morale high.
“Companies like Operation Gratitude are good for the Marines and other servicemembers serving over seas,” said 1st Sgt. Lance V. Chwan, the 39-year-old A Company first sergeant from Little Falls, N.J. “Some Marines don’t have a lot of family and don’t receive packages. Programs like this let those Marines know that someone out there appreciates them.”
Operation Gratitude will move to a new facility in September. In their new home, they will have the flexibility to expand hours and volunteer base.
“Ultimately, my hope is to send a care package to every deployed service member during our two annual drives,” Blashek said.