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Valley Mom Gives Troops a Lift by Mail

Encino volunteer puts together packages of goodies at her own expense and sends them to military personnel overseas.

May 18, 2003|Karima A. Haynes | Times Staff Writer

Carolyn Blashek is truly a committee of one.

The lawyer-turned-stay-at-home mom has single-handedly sent 100 packages in the last two months to U.S. troops serving in the Middle East.

Working alone in her Encino home, Blashek stuffs toiletries, games, books, batteries, toys and snacks into cardboard boxes before hauling them in her minivan to the post office. She spends about $150 for a load of packages during weekly trips to discount and drug stores.

Even as thousands of troops are returning from overseas posts, Blashek said she intends to continue to send the packages indefinitely to those who are still far from home.

"I know that over time, interest in the troops will begin to die out," Blashek said, standing among dozens of cartons piled high in her living room. "But we will always have troops overseas, and they need to know that they are not forgotten."

Blashek is footing much of the bill for the packages, which cost about $25 each for postage alone, sending as many as her budget allows. She refuses to tally her expenses because she doesn't want the bottom line to discourage her from continuing the project she calls "Operation Gratitude."

"I am not rich, but I want to keep doing this -- no matter what it costs," she said, adding that family, friends, schools, businesses and community groups have donated some items and money to her outreach effort.

Blashek's husband, Robert, an attorney, and children Jenna, 18, and Jordan, 16, pitch in occasionally, but for the most part it's a one-woman operation. Blashek said she wants to keep the effort small so that she can personalize packages and so she doesn't get bogged down in administrative duties.

Blashek, a native New Yorker, said her support for military personnel surged in the weeks after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when it became clear that a military confrontation in Afghanistan was inevitable.

Blashek, 48, who does not come from a military family, initially wanted to join the military reserves, but was "politely, but firmly" turned down because she exceeded the maximum age, which is 35 for the Army, Marines and Air Force, and 37 for the Navy.

Undeterred, Blashek signed on as a volunteer at the Bob Hope Hollywood USO at Los Angeles International Airport, where she offered encouraging words over sandwiches and coffee to troops bound for overseas posts.

As the nation's war on terrorism expanded to Iraq, Blashek felt compelled to do even more to express her appreciation and decided to send packages halfway around the world to troops whose names and units she found on a Web site maintained by a Florida-based armed forces support group.

A package addressed to a specific service man or woman bypasses the bottleneck of unsolicited packages that jammed U.S. military and post office delivery systems after the Iraq war began, according to Postal Service officials. The volume of mail shipped to Kuwait, for example, jumped from 21,000 pounds in October 2002 to 500,000 pounds in April.

Blashek shipped her first package in March to a predominantly female Army unit based in the Kuwaiti desert after she learned that they desperately needed feminine hygiene products, toiletries and snacks.

A month later, Blashek received an e-mail message from a female second lieutenant. "The ladies and some of the guys went wild over the shampoos, body washes, assorted lotions and soaps," she wrote. "Thank you, thank you. You are a wonderful friend of soldiers."

Retired Army National Guard Brig. Gen. Michael R. S. Teilmann, who heads the Bob Hope Hollywood USO, said many military personnel view such packages as more than just goodies in a box. He praised Blashek's effort as one that goes a long way to lift troop morale.

"When troops are out in remote places, they don't have access to news on a regular basis and rumors abound," said Teilmann, a Vietnam War veteran. "They hear about protest marches, the president getting lambasted, and they don't know if there is going to be a backlash when they get home, like there was after Vietnam.

"But when they get a care package from home -- and especially from someone they don't know -- it is an overwhelming realization that America is behind our armed forces," he said.

Every response from a grateful service man or woman overseas deepens her resolve to continue her one-woman operation, Blashek said. "I have this understanding now, on a very deeply felt level, how important it is to the troops to know that people back home do care for them."

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