Mail call: Sending love to troops abroad

Mail call: Care packages to U.S. service members from Operation Gratitude.

For military personnel far from home for the holidays . . . few sounds are more welcome than the words MAIL CALL. And dedicated volunteers here on the home front are working hard to make sure that none our troops anywhere in the world is disappointed. Our Cover Story is reported now by Tracy Smith:

For a few days every year, hundreds of volunteers crowd a National Guard armory in Van Nuys, Calif., making boxes bound for war.

They're packed with little bits of home: new toothbrushes . . . DVDs . . . Girl Scout cookies . . . hand-knit scarves . . . things that can make life in the combat zone easier, or at least bearable.

The name on the side says it all: Operation Gratitude.

When Tracy Smith asked if there were still a need for care packages since the U.S. has withdrawn troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, Carolyn Blashek - founded Operation Gratitude eight years ago - said, "There's absolutely still a need.

Carolyn Blashek began Operation Operation. CBS

"There are still hundreds of thousands of troops who are away from home, away from their loved ones - at all times of the year, but especially now during the holidays, and they deserve to be remembered."

You might expect this from a veteran or an Army wife. But Blashek is neither. She's a civilian who earned a law degree at Columbia University before becoming a full-time mom, living in the quiet security of an upscale L.A. suburb.

Then came September 11th, and start of the war in Afghanistan.

"I looked at my children - at that point [they] were then 14 and 16 - and I remember thinking, 'Well, this is a war that could go on. But I've already lived half my life and they're just starting out. So I don't want them to be the ones to have to bear this burden. Let me go right now.'"

So Carolyn Blashek did what very few mothers of two might do: She went off to join the Marines.

After being politely told that, at age 46, she was too old to enlist, Blashek wound up volunteering at a military lounge at the L.A. airport.

"I was in the facility by myself one afternoon," she recalled, "and a soldier walked in, very distraught.

"So we sat down, and he explained to me that he was just on emergency leave to bury his mother. His wife had left him, and his only child had died as an infant. He had no one left in his life. And he said to me, 'For the first time in my 20-year career, I'm going to war. I know I'm not gonna make it back, but it doesn't matter because no one would even care.'

"This conversation made me think: What will give them the strength to do what they have to do to survive? And I realized, well, a lot of it has got to be the belief that someone at home cares and wants them to come home, what will give them strength."

The next day, Blashek started making and sending care packages to troops overseas . . . paying for everything out of her own pocket. Her house became a staging area, and she enlisted her family's help, including her then-teenage son Jordan.

Carolyn Blashek's Operation Operation grew out of her sending care packages from her suburban L.A. home. CBS

"There was a good few-months period where our entire living room was stacked to the top with boxes," Jordan said. "Our entire front porch was covered. We have like a tiny little walkway to get through to the door."

Blashek said her family made sacrifices. "My husband has not had a home-cooked meal, well, I guess since September 11th, pretty much," she laughed. "That's why God invented take-out!"

She now has corporate partners who donate goods by the truckload, and a battalion of volunteers to help out.

Her operation is big, but not impersonal: Every box goes out with a handwritten note of thanks addressed to an individual soldier, sailor or Marine wherever they may be.

The joy of getting a piece of the world they left behind has kept soldiers going for centuries. During the Civil War, mail call was common, if somewhat erratic. As one soldier wrote: "These two weeks have contained all the horror and fatigue that war can furnish. Your letters are the one pleasure."