The mood at the Van Nuys National Guard Armory was both celebratory and respectful on June 5 as hundreds of Operation Gratitude volunteers and special guests gathered to assemble care packages for Sailors and Marines assigned to Ronald Reagan Strike Group, and to witness a young Marine Corporal, recently returned from Afghanistan, receive a Victory Vegas 8-Ball Motorcycle promised to him on Christmas Day, 2010.
Operation Gratitude Volunteer Coordinator, Penny Alfonso summed up the day simply, “It was a day of laughter, tears, and patriotism.”
Cheek, the recipient of Operation Gratitude’s 600,000th care package, is a member of the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment and returned to Camp Pendleton earlier this spring after a deployment in Sangin, Afghanistan. During the deployment, the 3/5, also known as the “Darkhorse” Battalion, endured heavy combat and losses, including the death of Cheek’s best friend, 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Alec Catherwood, of Byron, Illinois.
Pandya told Cheek he was proud to represent Victory Motorcycles and speak on his co-workers’ behalf. “The motorcycle community has always cherished the ‘Freedom to Ride,’ a privilege guaranteed by the efforts and sacrifice of our heroes in the Military,” he said. “We all thank you for what you, and every member of the Armed Forces have done for those of us lucky enough to live in the United States of America,” he said.
Cheek expressed his heartfelt thanks for the motorcycle and for the dedication of the Operation Gratitude volunteers and supporters. Responding to a young woman who called him a hero, Cheek recalled the Marines who did not return from Afghanistan. “I’m no hero,” he said. “Heroes are those men who stood beside me in the Valley of Death and gave their lives for freedom.”
Operation Gratitude founder, Carolyn Blashek, said Cheek was the perfect person to receive this gift as a representative of all members of the U.S. Military. “Cpl Cheek was humble and incredibly gracious in accepting the Victory Motorcycle,” Blashek said. “He spoke to us straight from his heart, without a single written note, but with much passion, conviction, and great thoughtfulness. There was not a dry eye in the place.”
In commemoration of the anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s passing, Michael Reagan, his wife Colleen, and son, Cameron, along with representatives of the Reagan Legacy Foundation participated on the Assembly Line to create care packages for the 5,000 crew members deployed aboard aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, named in honor of the 40thPresident of the United States.
Reagan, the President’s son, read a letter he had received that morning from the Commanding Officer of USS Reagan, Captain T.W. Burke. “Care packages from home are always a welcome surprise and we appreciate everything that Operation Gratitude does to support our Military,” Burke wrote.
Care packages were also assembled and shipped to the crew of guided-missile destroyer USS Preble and guided-missile cruiser USS Chancellorsville, both currently serving in the Ronald Reagan Carrier Strike Group.
Councilman Dennis Zine presented beautiful City of Los Angeles Certificates of Appreciation to Cheek; Reagan; Victory Motorcycles; Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, accepted by Company Commander Captain Nick Johnson and First Sergeant George Melendez, and to Lt. Col. Angel Ortiz, the Commander of the California Army National Guard Armory where the majority of Operation Gratitude’s work takes place. Each certificate eloquently stated the recipients’ service and accomplishments deserving of recognition.
Thank you to everyone who came to celebrate this special day with us! Operation Gratitude volunteers will continue to assemble and ship its Patriotic Drive Care Packages through June. Join us in person, or visit our website for ideas about how you can participate from afar!