Kevin M. Schmiegel is a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who now serves as the CEO of Operation Gratitude. Paul D. Cucinotta is a retired Marine Corps colonel who now serves as the COO of Operation Gratitude. Danielle C. Tenconi is an Army spouse and the vice president of marketing and communications at Operation Gratitude
Last week, Operation Gratitude was honored to join forces with Dr. Jill Biden, retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin and his wife Charlene in our nation's capital to assemble care packages for 20,000 deployed troops during the global pandemic.
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In the coming weeks, hundreds of those troops will respond with emails and photos expressing gratitude for the support they received from the tens of thousands of grateful Americans who dedicated more than 100,000 service hours to help fill those care packages with hand-knit scarves, handmade paracord bracelets, and handwritten letters of appreciation.
We will hear from service members like John, who sent this email from the Middle East last month: "Today was my daughter's first day of preschool, and I was really in a low spot just missing her and all the special moments we won't get to share this year because I'm away. This care package really lifted me up. Thank you so much, and if I could hug you all, I would."
John's note is just one of tens of thousands of emails and letters that our organization has received since 2003 from deployed service members who beg to differ with the opinion expressed by Andrew James McCormick.
Similarly, McCormick's experience and resulting viewpoint differ dramatically from our six decades of collective service as Marine veterans and an Army spouse, as well as the vast majority of the three million service men and women we have impacted over the past 18 years.
Critics such as McCormick may have never met, or may not understand the motives of, even one of our millions of volunteers or our founder, Carolyn Blashek, who started this grassroots movement with a few friends around her dining room table. If they had, the naysayers would realize that those care packages were never about trying to provide "necessities;" they were (and are) about sending a message of personal support and thankfulness -- not for the policy that put those troops there, but for the individual service member -- appreciating their and their family's courage and sacrifices.
The failure to recognize the intent of sincere Americans who want to express their gratitude in a hands-on way exacerbates the widening gap between our military (whose members feel increasingly disconnected from their communities) and the citizens they serve.
We have served alongside service members and their families who have endured multiple deployments, frequent moves, tragic losses and injuries, and a host of other challenges associated with military life. We agree that a care package on its own isn't the answer. Yet, our recent experiences have demonstrated time and again that the process of creating and delivering care packages provides an opportunity to bridge the civilian-military divide, and the words "thank you for your service" are far from hollow.
We have watched grateful Americans say those simple words as they handed a care package to a service member, veteran or first responder, and that recipient fought back tears as they humbly said, "No, thank YOU. I'm just doing my job."
We have seen this bridging occur at more than 300 service projects, community events and in-person deliveries of our care packages all over the country. We felt the impact and saw what it looks like when people from all walks of life were brought together around an assembly line or at a delivery.
Inevitably, there was an awkward silence and the room was quiet. Then it happened, like magic. The volume in the room started to rise. People in and out of uniform started to laugh, swap stories, and have meaningful conversations about what it is like to serve in the military or as a first responder. In those conversations, they also realized that they had the same neighbors, their kids went to the same schools, and they shared the same values rooted in a deep passion for service and strengthening their communities.
Our hope is that McCormick, and anyone who shares his viewpoint about care packages, will consider attending one of our future community-wide service projects, such as those we've hosted in Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Philadelphia; New York City; and Los Angeles. We welcome them to take part in the direct delivery of our care packages by our volunteers to service recipients, so they can talk to both and see firsthand the magic of bridging divides.
If it is too difficult to do this in person because of COVID, they can delve into the 1,718 pages of emails on our website from deployed service members and veterans, or we can send them copies of the countless handwritten letters we've received from care package recipients since the earliest days of our organization to today.
We can also introduce the critics to a legion of volunteers who have lovingly knitted and crocheted hundreds of thousands of scarves and hats and handwritten more than 10 million sincere letters of appreciation. We can set up interviews with hundreds of unit commanders, chaplains and community leaders who gratefully accepted care packages for the service members under their leadership. We can arrange for them to meet face to face with dozens of Vietnam veterans who received our care packages and heard the words "thank you for your service" for the very first time -- a moment they said they would remember for the rest of their lives.
Care packages are not kindling for burn pits. They are powerful and tangible acts of gratitude that start conversations and lead to meaningful connections -- those that build understanding, empathy and, ultimately, bridges between those who serve and the citizens they protect. We welcome all Americans to join us.
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