By Patricia Danflous

Today is your birthday. You’re thinking about presents, ice cream and the chocolate cake your mom makes every year just for you. It’s going to be a great day – next year. This year, you are serving your country in Afghanistan.

Then a package arrives. You recognize the red, white and blue U.S. Postal Service colors, your name and “Operation Gratitude.” There’s a big smile on your face as you pull out a deck of cards, socks, sunscreen, a crossword book, pencils and best of all, a hand-made card from a little girl in Iowa. It’s not a birthday card, but the simple “thank you for your service and be careful” makes your day away from home a little more special.

Hundreds of scenes like this take place around the world each month thanks to the time, care and volunteer energy of Operation Gratitude, a non-profit organization sending care packages and letters of support to each deployed service member whose name is received. The program also recognizes boot camp graduates, first responders and veterans of earlier eras under the banner: “It is never too late to say ‘thank you’.” Special “Battalion Buddy” stuffed animals are sent to the children of deployed troops.

Since its founding in 2003 by Carolyn Blashek, a volunteer who worked in the Los Angeles airport military lounge, Operation Gratitude has sent more than 2 million care packages.

Paula Hymel is one of Operation Gratitude’s 350,000 plus volunteers donating her ingenuity and crafts expertise to make life a little more pleasant for deployed military men and women. The Louisiana resident and administrative assistant specializes in donating handcrafted “Dear Hero” cards expressing appreciation to those defending the nation.

When Hymel learned about the program, it only took about a minute for her to “join up.” On weekends, except on Sundays during football season, she is in her own private foxhole making cards.

“Some cards are simple and I can complete them within 15 minutes, some may take several hours, and some I will re-make a few times over until they are just right,” she said. “We need to let our troops know how much we appreciate their service.”

Hymel begins each card with a similar process. She takes card stock, chooses coordinating patterned or solid paper layers, sometimes a combination and attaches buttons, ribbons, cutouts and other touches to form a concept with a patriotic theme.

“A card that I make could be the last letter from ‘home’ a soldier receives,” she said. “A thank you note, a bottle of sunscreen or a handmade scarf are simple material items to send someone, but it really comes down to ‘it’s the thought that counts’.”

Since its 2003 launch, Operation Gratitude boasts over 350,000 volunteers.

For more information on Operation Gratitude and how you can help go to:

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