[MUSIC PLAYING] BRANDI GOMEZ: Hi. Welcome to our podcast, MakingCents, brought to you by Navy Federal Credit Union. I'm one of your hosts, Brandi Gomez, and I'll be taking your questions to the experts to help you make "cents" of your money-- pun intended.
Hi. I am Brandi Gomez, your MakingCents podcast host. It's May, which is dedicated to celebrating and observing Military Appreciation Month. And though Navy Federal Credit Union's mission is to serve our members, each and every day by providing the products and guidance they need to thrive along their financial journeys this month is even more special to us because we get to show our gratitude and really salute to our military service members and their families.
So whether you're listening as a service member, deployed on the front lines, serving in the reserves and at the ready for any moment to be called, or a family member like myself holding down the fort at home, your service matters, you matter, and we are so incredibly grateful for everything that you do.
My guest today is no stranger to service. James Johnson, a retired Major General with 30 years of military service in the United States Air Force and now the CEO of Operation Gratitude, is someone I've truly had the honor of getting to know over the past several months. And I am just so grateful that he can be with us here today. So thank you for your service, James, and welcome to the show
JAMES JOHNSON: Well, thank you, Brandi, very much. I would tell you that it's my privilege to know you. I've just been really impressed with how you lead in this space and how you represent Navy Federal Credit Union, so thanks for the invitation to join you today.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Thank you. Well, before we dive in, I do want everyone to get to know who you are, so I'd love for you to share more about yourself and really what brought you to Operation Gratitude.
JAMES JOHNSON: Sure. So as you said, I served in the military. My dad served for about 20 years in the army, and so I was used to the culture of the service. as you highlighted families are so important to the service of the military members. And so our family traveled around all over the world.
And I got used to that and as I was graduating from high school and thinking about what next, I thought about service. Joined the Air Force, traveled around the world with my family, my son. While I was still in the service, I was fortunate to watch my son join. He's now in the Air Force serving overseas.
And after I retired, I knew that I wanted to do something related to non-profit work, to continue that sense of that in that spirit of service, that there's this working on something that's much larger than myself or the folks that are working in this space. And it was really because I was working on a nonprofit board that I was fortunate to learn about Operation Gratitude, this opportunity with Operation Gratitude. And so last summer, I joined this wonderful team that's dedicated to honoring the service of our military members.
BRANDI GOMEZ: That's amazing. A lot of the transitioning service members we talked to often hone in on that connection to service, wanting to have that meaningful purpose in their life. So we sure are happy that you found it in Operation Gratitude. And for those that maybe are not as familiar, Navy Federal, we've been working with you guys for the past several years and it's been so special to us, not only our members, but also our team members, to create those meaningful moments.
But some may be not fully familiar with Operation Gratitude, so can you tell us a little bit about the mission and really when did it get started?
JAMES JOHNSON: Sure. So really, our origin story, I believe it starts right after 9/11. And our founder, Carolyn Blashek, was looking for a way to serve, as many of us were looking for what can we do for our country at that crisis, at that moment in time. And she went down to sign up to be a service member. She went down to a local recruiter and said, I'd like to join the military, and they said well, you're in your 40s, kind of outside our demographic, small children at home, and they sent her on her way.
But Carolyn is not easily deterred, so she went and found a place where she could serve which was always her intent, and it was at a military lounge at LAX. And while she was there in 2003 as our country had gone into Iraq, there was a service member who was home for his mother's funeral, and he was in distress because not only was he there for his mother's funeral, but his infant child had passed before that, and his wife had left him.
And so in that moment, he was talking to Carolyn and said, I'm getting ready to go over to the war in Iraq. I don't think I'm coming back, and I don't think anyone cares. And it was really-- that's the seed that was planted with her that we have people that raise their hands to serve, and that they may think that service doesn't matter to others. And she wanted him to know it does matter, and I think Carolyn really represented all Americans, and he represented all service members when she went home and just started thinking, I've got to send some care packages to let them know that I care.
So she started with four-- four care packages in our living room at the dining room table, and shortly after that, friends and family started to help donate items and help to package and assemble these care packages, and soon the care packages were streaming out onto the front porch and into the driveway and people were filling out the five pages of customs forms to get these things. She was standing in long lines in the post office and trying to explain to people why she had all these mammoth boxes.
And she literally started that way, on the shoulders of volunteers. And for the first 10 years, really all volunteers. And that's when they were able to send over a million care packages in that time frame. So that's that first 10 years, and then since then, we've eclipsed that and now having sent over 3.5 million care packages in the last almost 20 years. Next year will be our 20th year.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Absolutely incredible. That's 20 years. That is just such an impact that you have, and to know that it all started based upon her own personal passion for doing this work, I think that's why we've seen you all just grow to where you are today. And you mentioned the care packages-- my husband's been deployed a few times and I have two little ones at home, so I always get them together to get his favorite things, whether it's the sour gummy worms or we color pictures for him.
And you can always just tell when he's received that box because there's such a boost in his morale and the way just you could tell there's a light after he feels like he's a little bit closer to home, so this work does matter. Can you tell us a little bit about what are the impacts of these care packages? It may seem like a simple gesture, but I have to say, personally, I've seen that speak volumes just in our family.
JAMES JOHNSON: Yeah. Yeah, I think it's-- we get a lot of feedback from those service members who have received our care packages because the care package-- there's a lot in that care package. From the very beginning, it's been a very thoughtful approach to what this gift should look like as it arrives for a service member, and so today there are items from corporate America because companies across America want to say we're behind you, we care about what you're doing and thank you for serving in this sort of meaningful way. Products like the coffee products we have in there, or sweet and salty snacks, or hygiene items.
But then there's the other things in these care packages kind of in the soul of this box, the heart and soul hand knit items, whether it's a knit cap or scarf, whether it's a paracord bracelet, like the one I'm wearing today, or it's a handwritten letter. And ultimately, that handwritten letter, we think, is so significant in that care package and we get so much feedback about all the contents of the care package, but I think it's really that handwritten letter from a grateful American that really resonates with our service members, whether it's a child, a three-year-old, or whether it's a former veteran or an elderly person who just wants to say thank you because they have an appreciation for the life we live in our society today that is founded on all those who've served and sacrificed before.
And so when these service members receive these care packages, what we receive back from them, the feedback, is how all those things matter to them, and very often they highlight the letters that really speak to them. Especially if you're going to be in that deployed environment for a while, and you kind of go through the edibles and all of that, and then you have the hand knit item and the letter. It speaks volumes to those recipients. And thank you, by the way, for your husband serving. I recently got a chance to see him on LinkedIn and see just the wonderful things he's doing just to serve.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Definitely. He enjoys every second of it, and I'm with you in that those letters, I think, are the favorite part for him. And our team members, as you know, part of military appreciation month will be taking part in writing letters, and I know every single year it's such a highlight to them just to be able to take that time and really show gratitude to those serving for us.
I'm curious. So what is the farthest you've ever sent a care package?
JAMES JOHNSON: Well, really the furthest we've sent it is into the Middle East. And we do send them East and West, so whether we're sending it over into Asia or into the Middle East, I think it's in my mind, we circle the globe. So there isn't a place-- there is no place we won't send a care package.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Are there any interesting things that you've seen in a care package?
JAMES JOHNSON: Yeah. Two things. Well, there's an interesting thing, and then there's interesting outcomes. So one was that in the early days of Operation Gratitude, one of the volunteers was feverishly putting together the care packages. As we get in there, there's a lot of-- you just get excited and you get going.
And toward the end of the day, she realized, I don't know where my cell phone is. And I think Carolyn was there that day and said to her, maybe you dropped it in a care package-- jokingly-- and so she never found it.
And then one day she received a call months later, and it was from the gentleman who was deployed to the Middle East that received that care package with her cell phone. And of course, the battery was dead, so he waited until he got home, charged the phone saw her number, gave her a call, and returned it, but that's definitely one of the stranger ones that showed up in a care package.
We also do, in the care package now and then, we'll have just kind of surprise things, whether it's funny socks or something like that that might be in a care package. And interestingly enough, some of the care packages will have a Beanie Baby, and what we found was you would think, well, these adults are receiving these Beanie Babies, how's that going?
And it's interesting. I think we see a couple of different reactions. One is that oftentimes they're used as mascots and they're traded between units or service members, but the other one is that in the places where our service members are deployed, oftentimes there's an opportunity to make friends with those people in those communities. And oftentimes it may be a child.
And I can remember back in Afghanistan, there was a story of an individual, a soldier who had provided a Beanie Baby to a small child, and then in the days that came, the child would warn the service member about places that they might not want to go for IEDs or other things, and so that was that's another thing that's in our care package that might be unique.
One of the outcomes I'd highlight is recently interviewed on a radio show where the interviewer had written a letter to a service member, and because of that letter, they're now married, and so there are some really great outcomes.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Oh, my goodness.
Talk about a love story.
JAMES JOHNSON: It's beautiful. It really is.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Absolutely. And, I mean, just the cell phone story itself, I can't imagine losing my phone and then actually getting to hear from the person that I mailed the package to, that is so--
JAMES JOHNSON: Right? It's really great.
BRANDI GOMEZ: So neat. So Operation Gratitude has been around for nearly 20 years now. And I have to think, and I'd love to hear your perspective just from serving yourself that these packages, or just any letter, it makes such a difference. But the way we've been able to support our service members now, even through digital aspects is so advanced from back in the day, so can you tell me why is this important now and what have you seen as far as changes from the way we used to support service members?
JAMES JOHNSON: Yeah. I think what's important is that, very often, because we're our lives are so busy that we might not recognize or realize that we have service members who are deployed every day. We have sailors and Marines underway somewhere in the world, every day. We have soldiers that are boots on the ground somewhere in the world, away from their home for extended periods of time that are deployed, or airmen flying far from their flagpole in places that potentially they could be in harm's way at any time, in a short period of time.
And I think that's just important for us to remember that our country will always need service members, and those service members will always need to know that we appreciate what they do, and what they do matters, as you said earlier. And so I think that's really important.
When I was in a deployed environment, I actually never received a care package from Operation Gratitude. I did receive care packages, and I think we talk about some of the things that we think are important in care packages, but it's also one of the reasons why I joined Operation Gratitude because we still have a lot of work to do. We've done amazing things, I think, miraculous things when you think about what was accomplished by one person, and then on the shoulders of all these volunteers for these many years.
But we actually still have a long way to go. I think for us, as we look at-- we sent about 250,000 care packages last year, but for us with our vision that all who serve will believe the American people care, that means that all means everyone who graduates from basic training or boot camp and they're beginning this journey that's so important, we will send them a care package. We want them to know that we appreciate the fact they raise their hands and they're going to embark on something so important.
If individuals are deploying, we want every one of those individuals deploying to receive a care package to know that we're there with them while they're away. We want every one of them, if they're injured or wounded in the line of duty to get a care package. And if they're separating or retiring, get a care package. Or we send care packages to the veterans who are into their post service period, we want them to know that they're never-- that service will always be appreciated because of what the gift they gave us for freedom that we have today.
But that means not 250,000 care packages. That's actually over a million care packages a year, so our work is still out in front of us and I'm excited because there are so many people like you that are dedicated to spreading the word about the opportunity for volunteers to contribute to care packages getting into the hands of these recipients.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Yes. There definitely is a lot more work to be done, but you all are definitely helping us reach those goals. I know that care packages are not the only thing the Operation Gratitude does, but what are other ways that we can get involved or help? Maybe we can't put together a care package, but what other things can we do to help?
JAMES JOHNSON: This is what I really love about Operation Gratitude, and again, one of the things that attracted me to this organization is there are so many different ways that you can get involved with uplifting the spirits of those who are serving. If you go to operationgratitude.com, you'll find all the ways that you can volunteer, either as an individual or as groups.
We have plenty of volunteers who come to us as a part of a classroom in a school classroom, or it's a church group. It might be a scout troop. It could be employees in a company. So we have, whether it's individuals that come to our website, or groups that come to us that want to participate, what they find is they can do something as simple as a letter. Whether it's writing a letter or even having a child color the letter you wrote. Sometimes we think, well, they won't be able to write. Maybe they could color on something you wrote or color something on their own.
Then there's also the paracord bracelet, which is sort of this multi-functional tool that is this parachute cord that we send and we give you the instructions on how you can actually make this bracelet that it's a wrist multi-functional tool you wear on your wrist that service members-- you can quickly, within seconds, take it apart and actually use a tourniquette or for tying something down.
And then there's also the knit-- we call them handmade with love. And they're knit items, whether it's a hat or a scarf, and so joining us on our Facebook site Gratitude in Action, there are other communities of people who are contributing to those care packages. Because all of those things will go into our care package, which then sends that really special message to folks.
And then there's also the way that people can contribute just to donate resources to ship the care packages. So $25 ships a care package anywhere in the world for us, which is really important. So there are a lot of ways for people to join us on the journey to uplift the spirits of those who serve.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Yeah. I mean time, treasure, talent. It all amounts to supporting an incredible mission. What would you say is something that you need the most right now?
JAMES JOHNSON: Yeah, I think letters are always really important. And then financial resources to ensure that all those care packages-- as we're on this journey to get over a million care packages sent, I think that's really important. As people are watching in the news, we have service members who have recently deployed and we continue to see folks that are going into Europe in a way that's important to us as Americans and that's additive to all those other service members who are already deployed and deploying every day to other places around the world.
So I think it's across the board, there are those opportunities at our website, but letters and then those financial contributions are really important.
BRANDI GOMEZ: It's definitely something that I know our team is really looking forward to. So I alluded to it a little bit earlier, but we're donating-- Navy Federal is donating-- $50,000 to Operation Gratitude, which is-- money's a number, and it's an amazing thing that we're able to do. But I think what we're most excited about from a team member perspective is we actually get to put together care kits, and we're assembling and we're getting to gather again.
And it's just there's so much excitement in the air when that happens, and it makes us feel like it's those meaningful moments that matter for us that I really encourage people to get involved in that way because it does make a difference.
JAMES JOHNSON: Well, I think Navy Federal is such a great example of how companies are showing that what service members do matters. And so, as you kind of opened up, I mean we've had a relationship for going on 10 years now with the employees that are serving in Navy Federal Credit Union, but in the last couple of years in particular, is really taking on taking on a new level of activity between us.
And I just I can't think of a better partner than Navy Federal Credit Union. What your employees do to contribute to those care packages getting in the hands of service members is fantastic. And we know that, for the employees, we talk about what the recipients receive from these care packages. What we've learned over time, too, is there's such an amazing thing that happens for the employees or the individuals that participate with Operation Gratitude.
Both at an individual level, there's this sort of well-being, this feeling of when you express gratitude there's something else that happens chemically in your own body, with the release of chemicals that are really positive. But there's also this aspect of team building that happens where, whenever more than one joined, there's something special that happens when you're in this common purpose that I think it's really exciting when we get together with Navy Federal Credit Union.
BRANDI GOMEZ: That's exactly it. We're very much a mission driven organization, like you are, and for us, what is so amazing about this and why I think it's going to be incredible this year is because you can volunteer from anywhere. So our branch team members from across the world are going to be able to take part in this, and that's just huge for us. Nothing-- there's no limits to what we can do now with volunteerism because of the creative ways you've thought of getting people engaged, so I thank you for that.
I would like to know just kind of closing out here what are the ways we can get involved, where can we find you? I know I personally follow you all on social media because I try to find those positive organizations to follow in my feed, so give us all the details for how to connect.
JAMES JOHNSON: Well, we follow you, too, just so you know.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Hey.
JAMES JOHNSON: It's exciting to be in this together. But clearly, OperationGratitude.com, our website is one of the places I would direct folks to go to see all the exciting things, not only that you can be a part of, but you can see some of the great work we're doing. And the other one is, any of the other social media opportunities, whether it's Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn-- we're on all those social media platforms and we just definitely encourage you to join us on the journey to be a part of saying thank you to all who serve.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Are you all on TikTok?
JAMES JOHNSON: We have done some work with TikTok as well. Yeah. So. I don't know if there's any place we haven't explored, but if we haven't, definitely let us know. We'll go there, too, because it is so important to us to be able to provide opportunities for grateful Americans to express that gratitude, and we'll go wherever we need to go to do that.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Awesome. Well Navy Federal just joined the TikTok game, so you'll have to give us a follow so we can find you guys.
JAMES JOHNSON: We definitely will.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Speaking of social members that are listening to this for Navy Federal, we do have an exciting opportunity for you all, in that we're part of military appreciation month, we're doing a social media contest where you can grab some craft supplies and create a sign that has yours or a loved ones years of military service and include the hashtag mission military thanks, and then take a picture with it. It can be a picture of you with the sign, you and your loved ones with the sign.
But then you'll upload it to NavyFederal.org/MilitaryThanks. And you'll not only be entered to win $1,000, but the winners will get $1,000 donation made to Operation Gratitude in your name. So amazing way for us to give a shout out to those who have served, and hopefully we'll see some really amazing pictures come through our social feeds.
JAMES JOHNSON: It's really fantastic. It's really great.
BRANDI GOMEZ: I cannot wait to see what our members come up with but--
JAMES JOHNSON: Exciting.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Yes. James, well, is there anything else you want to share with us today? I have enjoyed every second of this conversation.
JAMES JOHNSON: Well, that's kind of you, Brandi. I just want to thank you, one, for the invitation to join you and your listeners. I want to thank you and Navy Federal Credit Union for all you've done for this many years to really show that gratitude to those who are serving.
And so to anyone who else who wants to join us on this journey, I'd encourage them again to go to OperationGratitude.com. And we look forward to seeing you and staying a great partner, Brandi. So thanks again for this opportunity.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Thank you so much. Again, thank you to Operation Gratitude, to all of our military service members, veterans, and their families listening to this, and for all of the hard work you do every day to serve on the front lines and support those who are serving our country. It truly-- we wouldn't be able to do what we do without all of you, so I appreciate you and hopefully we will talk very soon.
JAMES JOHNSON: Thank you, Brandi.
BRANDI GOMEZ: Thank you.
NARRATOR: Navy Federal Credit Union is federally insured by the National Credit Union Administration. This podcast is intended to provide general information and shouldn't be considered legal, tax, or financial advice. It's always a good idea to consult a tax or financial professional for specific information on how certain laws may apply to your individual financial situation.
References to and participation with the military community does not constitute organizational endorsement. Navy Federal is an equal housing lender. Navy Federal Credit Union. Our members are the mission.