Over the years, the Red Cross in Oregon and Southwest Washington has been extremely fortunate to work with countless volunteers who offer a wealth of expertise, commitment and a strong desire to help others. Throughout our year-long centennial celebration in 2017, we will be publishing stories that highlight our volunteers and the work they do and have done in our community over the years. Today we celebrate Linda Jager, a Service to the Armed Forces volunteer who has worked with the Red Cross for more than five decades!
Jager, a Portland-native, was hired for a one-year tour with the Red Cross in Vietnam in 1969. She was one of five young women who were assigned to work in Pleiku, a city about 300 miles northwest of Saigon. Pleiku was strategically important because it was the primary terminus for a military supply logistics corridor.
Linda fondly remembers her time planning activities for service members. “My first program was on the ‘Wild West’ and our job was to bring a bit of fun and diversion into the servicemen’s daily routines. There were six activities and each one was patterned after a game, stunt or quiz. Our goal was to hear laughter and see smiles from these battle-weary men."
According to Linda, the programs took weeks of preparation since the women had to create their own scripts and props. The programs Linda and others provided to servicemen overseas in Vietnam were not unlike those provided by other groups of Red Cross women volunteers, known as the Gray Ladies, throughout World War I and World War II. The Gray Ladies were domestic volunteers who visited returned servicemen in veterans hospitals and provided them with recreational services such as game playing and letter writing. The Gray Ladies, officially known as the Hospital and Recreation Corps, were a great relief to servicemen who had returned home from war in need of extended medical care.
“I will never forget the men at those remote firebases when they saw us disembark from the helicopter with our props clutched in one hand…as we ran from the chopper,” Linda recalls. “They’d wave or give us the peace sign. Some would shout out how many days they had left in [serving in the] country.”
While most of the activities that she helped organize for servicemen were presented at recreation centers and military sites, Linda would occasionally visit hospitals, serve lunch at military camps or just visit with people, trying to take their minds off of the war even for a short amount of time.
"My experience in Vietnam with the Red Cross changed my life," states Linda. It set her on a path to obtaining a teaching degree and continuing her work with U.S. troops. In fact, Linda spent 35 years working for the Army and then the Air Force, all in roles that supported soldiers while they served overseas and after they returned home.
When she retired in 2012, Linda returned to the Red Cross in Portland where she has volunteered for the Service to Armed Forces (SAF) division ever since. As part of the SAF division, Linda helped the Cascades Region catch up on communication needs of service members overseas. With activation of National Guard and Reserves in the region, one of the new missions of SAF is to help soldiers' employers prepare for the departures in addition to helping families before during and after deployment.
Linda connects with various organizations on behalf of the Red Cross to ensure they are aware of returning soldiers’ needs as well as attending events such as Stand Downs, during which the Red Cross provides supplies and services like food, shelter, clothing, health screenings and counseling to homeless veterans.
"What has changed the most is who we serve,” Linda states, reflecting on her many years of work with the Red Cross. “When I first started, it was all about helping the individual soldiers. Today is about the whole family, including extended family members as well as employers! The Red Cross is providing a more holistic assistance program."
Linda wants to make sure American soldiers come home proud of what they accomplished - not worried about how to pick up the pieces of a life left behind. "Because of the Red Cross, these service members come home knowing where to go for resources that will help make and keep their family intact and how to use their benefits, find a job and take advantage of all that is available to them." Linda smiles as she mentions that veterans receive free fishing licenses from the state of Oregon; many don't know that! Even this seemingly token benefit can make a huge difference in helping a family return to normalcy.
Linda’s story is just one of many that makes up the vibrant history of the Red Cross and the communities we have served over the past 100 years. In 2017 we look forward to sharing more stories like Linda’s that show just how integral the Red Cross is to the community we live in and care about.