By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
May 5, 2008 - Carolyn Blashek was determined to answer her nation's call to duty following Sept. 11, 2001, but recruiters from every branch of service offered the same sad refrain: "You're too old." Disappointed, yet undaunted, Blashek refocused her efforts and started a nonprofit organization to support those young enough to wear the uniform. To date, her Encino, Calif.-based Operation Gratitude has stuffed and shipped 324,062 care packages to deployed U.S. troops.
Blashek's organization was one of two America Supports You home-front groups honored at Chrysler headquarters here today for the automaker's Military Appreciation Month kickoff. America Supports You is a Defense Department program that connects citizens and corporations with military personnel and their families serving at home and abroad.
Following the event, which featured remarks by the car company's chief executive and Defense Department officials, about 200 Chrysler employees inside the headquarters' main atrium swarmed tables lined with magazines, videos, snacks and mini footballs. With the efficiency of an assembly line, they crammed the items into $10 mailing boxes and sealed them in preparation for shipping abroad.
Michele Junod, who works in Chrysler's material and cost management division, volunteered at station one, where the goods were first laid on box bottoms. Junod, a first-generation American of German descent, said her parents credited U.S. troops with saving their lives during World War Two.
"They fed them, they took care of them, they moved into my mother's home," she said of the welcomed American servicemember occupiers. "Actually, my mother's Communion dress came from a parachute from a U.S. soldier.
"I am very grateful and very proud of what we do," she added. "I hear a lot of crap in the paper, but I know personally what soldiers did for my family, so if they could do that for another family in this world, I'm all about it."
As might be expected, the most popular articles abroad are DVDs, CDs and flash drives for storing and uploading pictures of loved ones back home, according to servicemembers on the receiving end. Ironically, though, the Beanie Babies that Blashek sent somewhat as a lark proved the most vital items in the box.
"We got a letter from a Marine that said, 'We took the Beanie Babies and gave them out to the children in the community, and they told us where the IEDs were hidden,'" Blashek said, referring to improvised explosive devices, the deadly makeshift bombs responsible for many U.S. servicemember deaths and injuries.
The other America Supports You group present today was Freedom Calls. The group, which employs sophisticated communications technology to connect deployed troops to families back home, was represented in two rooms here with video teleconference setups.
As the crowd milled about following the ceremony, Freedom Calls representatives ushered people into chairs in front of a dual-panel screen. One on screen, participants here could see a real-time video of themselves. On the adjacent panel sat four soldiers, live from Baghdad.
On two leather couches sat Staff Sgts. Bryant Maude and Angela Younger Embree, Pfc. Leslie Deas, and Capt. Rory Bradford, Army public affairs personnel deployed from Fort Riley, Kan.
The exchanges were somewhat stifled at first, but then became free-flowing as curious onlookers sauntered into the conference room. The gregarious Bradford spoke highly from Baghdad of the video technology.
"People have witnessed two births over this thing, a couple marriage proposals -- one soldier here even managed to serve jury duty," he joked, as the spectators in a room thousands of miles away laughed.
Younger Embree said the technology is especially important for troops with young children, who hear of violence in the Iraqi capital, and are unconvinced of their parent's safety until they see visual evidence.
"Especially with all the violence going on in Sadr City now," Bradford added, referring to the restive Baghdad region that has been the epicenter of recent clashes.
Some troops with access to the video conference centers in Iraq manage to talk with their families for about five minutes per day, Bradford said. With the help of Chrysler, Freedom Calls hopes the technology on the U.S. side proliferates, with free centers eventually spreading to Chrysler dealerships across the country. Having provided 2 million minutes so far, the organization is off to a good start.
Back in the atrium, Chrysler volunteers were closing in on their goal: preparing 500 care packages for shipment to Michigan servicemembers. Though troops who receive these boxes won't be quite as lucky as the soldiers who opened the organization's 250,000th and 300,000th care packages -- which each contained keys to a free Jeep from Chrysler -- the payoff delivers an intangible gift in addition to the goodies.
"It's giving them a touch of home," said Robert Nardelli, Chrysler's chairman and chief executive officer.