WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Nov. 15, 2012) -- Six Americans
who've dedicated considerable time to U.S. service members received
the 2012 Spirit of Hope Award, Nov. 15.
Master Sgt. Brandon Lambert, Bill Dietrich, Don Wiegand, Surgeon General of the Army Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho, Kelly Hope, Ella Sinise, Peggy Rochon, Carolyn Blashek and Ross E. Roeder, participated Nov. 15, 2012, in the Spirit of Hope Awards at the Pentagon. Lambert, Dietrich, Rochon, Blashek and Roeder attended the event to receive the award. Ella Sinise attended to receive the award on behalf of her father, actor Gary Sinise. Photo
by Gregory L. Jones
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
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.
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
"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.
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
"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.
100,000 PACKAGES ANNUALLY
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,"
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
Blashek said care packages
include hand-made items, snack food, entertainment items,
hygiene products and even Beanie Babies.
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."
'THANK YOU' LETTERS AT TOP
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
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.
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.
HITTING THE SLOPES
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
"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.
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
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
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
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
Actor Gary Sinise, who was
nominated by the Department of Defense for his work with the
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.
By Army C. Todd Lopez
Army News Service
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