Hundreds of local first responders and military spouses are receiving care packages filled with tokens of appreciation thanks to an Air Force officer stationed at Fort Gordon.
Second Lt. Jared Clemens, of the 5th Intelligence Squadron, and several of his Air Force colleagues joined other community volunteers and Operation Gratitude staff for a morning of assembling care packages at Harlem Fire Department Station No. 2 on Wednesday. Operation Gratitude is a national nonprofit whose mission is to “forge strong bonds between Americans and their military and first responder heroes through volunteer service projects, acts of gratitude, and meaningful engagements.”
Clemens became involved with the program as an ambassador about three years ago while stationed in San Antonio, Texas. As the son of a retired police officer with a passion for serving others, Clemens said he was looking for a way to give back to the community – and he didn’t want it to end in Texas.
“I knew as soon as I got here that I wanted to reach out into the community and make an impact and express gratitude to those that are in the first responder community,” Clemens said.
Clemens arrived to Fort Gordon in December and began planning in January.
“Because of COVID-19, we’ve had to change the way that we do things, and so this was the first time assembling from start to finish, and then actually delivering the finished product,” Clemens explained. “I was looking for an adequate place to assemble.”
In order to maximize participation amongst members of the first responder community, Clemens said the ideal location was somewhere off the installation so that anyone who wanted to help could show up without having to go through the process of obtaining a pass. Through discussing his plan, one of Clemens’ Air Force colleagues, who is a part-time volunteer firefighter with Harlem Fire Department, was able to secure the space. From there, Clemens recruited a team of volunteers eager to serve outside of wearing their duty uniform.
On the morning of assembly, Operation Gratitude CEO Kevin Schmiegel, who is a retired Marine, joined Clemens and dozens of other volunteers to fill 2,700 care packages – 2,500 to be delivered that same day to first responders around the CSRA, and 500 to be given to Fort Gordon military spouses.
Each package included a handwritten note from a grateful American, a handmade paracord survival bracelet, face mask, hand sanitizer, snacks and other useful items.
Schmiegel said that while getting the care kits into the hands of their recipients is a big part of the organization’s mission, it’s only one aspect of what he and its staff hope to accomplish. The bigger picture, he explained, is bringing together all types of people who serve – primarily those in the military and first responders – in an effort to learn about and understand one another.
“What I see across the country is when people come together for a common cause, they forget what makes them different, and they realize what makes them the same,” Schmiegel said. “In the force of packing these care packages, they have conversations and they talk about the fact that their kids go to the same school, they share the same neighbors, and they share the same beliefs, fundamentally grounded in service, and that’s what we want to take out of today.”
It's a commonality that Air Force Master Sgt. Keith Cherry shares with so many who wear the uniform, and in time, plan on hanging it up. Cherry, who is retiring June 1 after 22 years of service, said he looks forward to serving the Augusta community, which he now calls home.
“It’s what we all are put here for,” Cherry said. “It’s not for selfish reasons. It’s to serve one another and show each other the same grace that we would want to experience.”
Expressing gratitude for everyone who came out to assemble care kits, Schmiegel also challenged each person to continue get to know others in their community while looking for additional ways to make a positive impact.
“You represent a community that gets service – all of you – but if we’re going to make a difference, we’ve got to do a better job of talking to civilians about what our time is like in the military and what it’s like to be a police officer,” Schmiegel said. “The only way to bridge divide and bring people together is by having conversations, and that starts with a ‘thank you.’ This is only one day… think about what you can do going out beyond here.”