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'Spirit of Hope' awardees find unique ways to thank troops

By C. Todd Lopez

WASHNGTON (Nov. 15, 2012) -- Six Americans who've dedicated considerable time to U.S. service members received the 2012 Spirit of Hope Award, Nov. 15.

Included among those six are Bill Dietrich, founder and executive director of the Two Top Mountain Adaptive Sports Foundation and Carolyn Blashek, founder of Operation Gratitude.

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The Spirit of Hope Award is named after entertainer Bob Hope, who served service members for decades though his work with the United Service Organizations.

"Bob Hope connected the civilian world to the uniformed world," said Surgeon General of the Army Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho, during the Nov. 15 award ceremony at the Pentagon. "Today we honor those who have done their best to walk in Bob Hope's shoes, in the finest tradition of American values. We are here to recognize their love and their service to our country."


Blashek, nominated for the award by the Navy, founded "Operation Gratitude" out of her home in 2003, just after the start of the Iraq war. The organization has sent over 875,000 care packages to individually-named deployed service members, their families, wounded service members, and first responders in the U.S.

"After September 11th, I wanted to join the military, but I was too old," Blashek said. "So I started volunteering at the military lounge at Los Angeles airport."

In March 2003, in a period just before the start of the Iraq War, Blashek said she had been working alone in the military lounge when a distraught Soldier came in asking to talk to a chaplain.

"There wasn't one, and I was a little panicked, thinking I couldn't handle this," she said. She grabbed the phone, offering to find somebody for him to talk to, but he said his plane was leaving soon and he asked instead to talk with her.

"He explained to me he'd been on emergency leave to bury his mother, his wife had left him, and his only child had died as an infant, and that he had no one left in his life," she said. "He said for the first time in his 20-year career, he was going to a war, but he knew he wouldn't make it back this time, and it didn't matter because nobody would even care."

That a Soldier preparing to go off to a war zone didn't think he had anybody back at home to care about his well-being was what drove Blashek to do something to prove him wrong.

"It was simply not okay for a new generation of service members to go into harm's way, with bullets flying, and not believe that people at home cared about them and wanted them to come home," Blashek said.

That day served as the birth of Operation Gratitude, Blashek said. She knew she needed to find a way to show deployed service members that Americans back home did care about them, even if they didn't know it yet.

"The way I showed I cared was to send care packages, filled with little goodies and letting them know that somebody was thinking about them," she said.


She started small, in her own home, unsure if what she was doing would ever amount to anything. But momentum built up around her efforts she said, and more came aboard.

"Little did I know it was going to mushroom into this enormous operation and organization," she said.

Since then, Operation Gratitude has sent out more than 875,000 packages. They send out about 100,000 of them each year. There are about 15,000 volunteers in California, and there are tens of thousands of others across the United States that participate in the organization by writing letters, knitting scarves, making bracelets, donating money, or purchasing items and sending them to Operation Gratitude.

Blashek said care packages include hand-made items, snack food, entertainment items, hygiene products and even Beanie Babies.

"It started as a kind of symbolic kind of thing for them to know people were thinking about them," Blashek said of the once wildly-collectable plush animals. "But they tend to give those out to the children in the conflict zone to win the hearts and minds."


Also in each box, included amongst the goodies, is one or more personal letter from somebody in the United States -- oftentimes from children.

"It goes on the very top of the package because it really is the most important thing," she said. "It's at least three or four letters -- to me that is the critical item. It's for two reasons. One, it is the message that we are sending: somebody in this country is thinking about them. Also, our main mission is to put a smile on a service member's face and let them know that people care."

Equally important, Blashek said, is that writing those letters provides for Americans who are not otherwise connected to those serving in conflicts overseas an opportunity to say thank you.

"The personal letters from the kids really are a way for any child, no matter what age they are, to understand that people are serving the country on their behalf and this is their way of saying thank you to them," she said.


Bill Dietrich was the Army's nominee for the 2012 Spirit of Hope Award, for his efforts in creating the Two Top Mountain Adaptive Sports Foundation, which helps both injured service members and injured civilians learn to ski.

Dietrich has been a ski instructor for 23 years now at the White Tail Ski Resort. And while there have been adaptive ski lessons taught at the resort since 1991, when it opened, it wasn't until 2007 when Dietrich was asked to become the director of the Adaptive Program that he decided a non-profit organization was needed to better fund the program. It was then, in the summer of 2007, that he founded the Two Top Mountain Adaptive Sports Foundation.

"My ski school director kind of challenged me to kind of build the program at Whitetail," Dietrich said. "We really didn't have any kind of organized adaptive program. So I took the challenge, had people tell me it couldn't be done -- and I love to hear that -- and made it happen."

The adaptive ski program works with anybody with any kind of disability, he said.

"We primarily work a lot with children with learning disabilities, and autism," he said. "And we have a double-amputee, a young man we are working with, that started skiing with us last year."


The resort is just a short distance from Baltimore and Washington, D.C., he said, and that makes it easy for wounded Soldiers at places like Walter Reed National Military Medical Center to take part in the program.

Being a chapter of Disabled Sports USA has also given inroads to places like Walter Reed. The Two Top program has had booths at the hospital in both the spring and fall to let Soldiers there know about the opportunities at Two Top Mountain Adaptive Sports Foundation. And wounded service members have flocked to the resort to pick up the sport.

During the first year, Dietrich said, it was just one wounded warrior and his wife who skied together for just one day. The next year, that number grew to 25 wounded warriors who participated. The following winter, it was 75 wounded warriors. And while last year that number dropped to 60, Dietrich said he knows the program is successful.

"We're one of the closest adaptive sports programs that offer skiing and snowboarding for our wounded guys out of Walter Reed and Bethesda," said Dietrich. "The fact that guys are coming back and becoming better shows the program is working."

Dietrich has been an avid skier since childhood. He said he wants, through his program, to pass his love of the sport on to wounded service members.

"I love the sport, and teaching anybody to ski is rewarding," he said. "Taking somebody out of a wheel chair and changing their life is incredible. You can't hide an honest smile. And I know I've done a good job when that service member is sitting there with a big grin on their face wanting to know when they can come back again."

Also included in this year's Spirit of Hope Awards winners are:

-- Actor Gary Sinise, who was nominated by the Department of Defense for his work with the USO;

-- Peggy Rochon, nominated by the Marine Corps for her work as the program developer as well as the director of the Wounded Warrior Unit Support Program for Hope for the Warriors;

-- Master Sgt. Brandon Lambert, nominated by the Air Force, for 115 hours of volunteer work at the Air Force Theater Hospital as Joint Base Balad, Iraq;

-- Ross E. Roeder, nominated by the Coast Guard, for his work as chairman of the Coast Guard Foundation.

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