As more than 2000 volunteers, corporate sponsors and other special guests looked on in surprise, founder Carolyn Blashek hand-delivered Operation Gratitude’s milestone 750,000th Care Package to its special recipient, a decorated combat veteran and wounded warrior, Sgt. Eric Rodriguez.
No one was more surprised than true American Hero Rodriguez.
As fate would have it, his was the 750,000th name on Operation Gratitude’s Master List started in March, 2003. Rodriguez, 29, who grew up in Los Angeles and joined the U.S. Marine Corps at 17-years-old, straight out of high school, believed he was invited to the armory to speak about the morale-boosting impact care packages have on deployed troops. While that was true, there was an additional reason Operation Gratitude invited him — to honor this brave young man in person.
Before the surprise was revealed, Blashek introduced Rodriguez by briefly providing details about his life-changing injuries. While in Afghanistan on his eighth deployment in January 2011, he stepped on an improvised explosive device and was severely injured, ultimately losing his right leg and undergoing numerous surgeries to save his left leg.
“Today, less than a year later,” explained Blashek, “Sgt. Rodriguez is not just walking upright with a prosthetic, he skis, surfs, and competes in Wheelchair Basketball, football and rugby, and after one more surgery, plans to stay in the Marine Corps, return to Afghanistan with his Scout Sniper platoon and ‘finish up business.'”
Joining the “Milestone” celebration were friends and sponsors of Operation Gratitude who presented their special 750,000th Celebration Gifts to Rodriguez (pictured, left), his wife, Tania, and their daughter Camila.
Here is a full list of all the items generously donated for the 750,000th Care Package:
–Handmade scarf by Carol Baumgartner
–Handmade quilt made by an Anonymous Crafter
—Kellytoy.com: Special huge Operation Gratitude Battalion Buddy “Chum” for Camila
—NBC-Universal: Four tickets to Universal Studios, including Front of the Line passes.
—Disney: Four 3-day Disneyland Resort Park Hopper Tickets and a three-night stay at the Disneyland Hotel.
—Alacer Corp.: A one-year supply of Emergen-C
—Upper Deck Sports: A framed and autographed Wayne Gretzy poster and a painting of the Golf Masters: Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods.
—Los Angeles Lakers: Three tickets one row behind courtside for the Lakers vs. Utah Jazz, and presentation of the Official Game Ball to the Head Referee at Center Court.
—Los Angeles Kings: Four Hero of the Night tickets, including dinner, parking and on-ice recognition.
—Los Angeles Dodgers: Four tickets to the opening game at Los Angeles Dodger Stadium as Veteran of the Game, along with special hospitality, plus a personal invitation by Dodger great Al “The Bulldog” Ferrara to be his guest at another game.
—UCLA Volunteer Center: UCLA hats and t-shirts plus two tickets to the 2012 Rose Bowl Game.
—Rachael Ray Show: Two tickets to a live taping of the show, plus roundtrip airfare and hotel. Sgt. Rodriguez will be invited onstage to eat the meal Rachael prepared for that show.
—David Nelson & the Buffalo Bills Football Team: A trip to the Buffalo Bills training camp, including roundtrip airfare; hotel; hospitality at the training camp; private “Meet and Greet” opportunities with players and team merchandise.
—Kathy Ireland Worldwide and Life Style Designer Kathy Ireland: A Hawaiian Dream Vacation, including roundtrip airfaire on Hawaiian Airlines from Los Angeles to Oahu; Limousine service to one of Kathy’s Oasis World Estates Resort Properties; Romantic Dinner at Chai’s Island Bistro; an Island Tour; and an assortment of Kathy Ireland Home products, including jewelry, home decor, china and crystal furnishings. In addition, if Sgt. Rodriguez and his wife would like to renew their vows, Kathy will arrange the ceremony and provide Tania a wedding gown from kathy ireland Weddings 2be, a Mon Cheri Company. Additional gifts from Kathy include CDs and autographed books from Janet Jackson and a copy of Elizabeth Taylor’s best-selling book, My Love Affair With Jewelry.
Last but not least, Blashek announced a gift from Target made in honor of Rodriguez and wounded comrades — a $15,000 donation to Operation Gratitude, a $100 gift card to Sgt. Rodriguez plus 349 additional $100 gift cards for other Wounded Warriors.
Operation Gratitude volunteers were honored to work alongside Sgt. Rodriguez, as well as many other special guests: Commander Jerry King, the 89-year-old leader of the local Jewish War Veterans post who presented Rodriguez with a 50th Anniversary World War II Medal, Actors Sean Astin, Kevin Dobson and Erik Estrada, Actor/Comedian Tom Connolly, plus Los Angeles-area politicians (Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, City Controller Wendy Greuel, City Councilman Dennis Zine), members of the Motorcycle community, and dozens of school, church, scout and civic organizations.
The ceremony began with the National Anthem performed by music duo Rogers & Bos — Matt Rogers and Bryon Bos (pictured, right) — who also closed the event with a performance of “Coming Home,” the theme song to Lifetime Television’s popular show of the same name. Rogers, a finalist on American Idol, is the host of the TV show, and Bos composed the theme song.
Significant check presentations were made by Merrell Down & Dirty Mud Run ($61,000); Cinnabon, Inc. ($50,000); Los Angeles Association of Health Underwriters ($12,000); Ride to the Flags/White Heart Foundation ($8,000), and Alacer Corp., the makers of Emergen-C ($5,000).
Blashek, who started the organization in 2003, provided staggering statistics about what the 750,000th package represented:
~ 6 Million pounds of product
~ $7.5 Million of postage
~ 37.5 Million individual items
~ $75 Million worth of product
sent to the troops through Operation Gratitude since its inception.
The Salvation Army of Southern California kept volunteers supplied with morning coffee and bottled water. During the lunch hour, volunteers were treated to a delicious meal generously provided by Al’s Chicken and the Rotary Clubs of Lancaster, Granada Hills and Northridge/Chatsworth. Corporate Sponsor Alacer distributed samples of its Emergen-C products, more than two million packets of which have been included in Operation Gratitude packages since 2004.
With the delivery of its 750,000th package, Operation Gratitude formally ended its 2011 Holiday Drive, having assembled 150,000 care packages for U.S. Service Members, Wounded Warriors and Military Children this year. Blashek reminds supporters, however, that with 200,000 service members still away from home and in harm’s way, our mission continues, along with the need to raise funds to pay assembly and shipping costs — approximately $15 per care package.
“Between requests from units deployed to Afghanistan and ships at sea, the need to fulfill those requests continues,” she says. “Plus, the Battalion Buddy and Wounded Warrior programs are on-going, year round, with new requests coming in every week.”
Tax deductible financial donations to pay the $15 per package cost to assemble and ship the packages are still accepted online or by check addressed and mailed to:
P.O. Box 260257
Encino, California 91426-0257
Online credit card donations (tax-deductible) can be made here: DONATE NOW. Please consider a “Recurring Donation” to help us send care packages every month.