From the days of the Civil War, the American Red Cross has played an important part in keeping troops and their families connected. In the 100+ years that have passed since Clara Barton helped wounded soldiers write letters to their families, the manner in which the Red Cross helps maintain communications has evolved, but the spirit remains the same.
The American Red Cross Charter of 1905 provided the official foundation for what is now known as Service to the Armed Forces. Part of the duties outlined in the charter include providing communication services between Americans and the U.S. Armed Forces.
From World War I to Vietnam Communication services were put into full use during World War I, when the American Red Cross administered base hospitals in the U.S. and throughout Europe. A generation later, World War II made communication services vital once again; as part of “Home Service,” the American Red Cross participated in 42 million communications between troops and families. These services continued during the Korean War, and were expanded to include a free "first call home" for the wounded to contact family members.
During the war in Vietnam, the American Red Cross handled more than 2.1 million emergency communications between servicemen and their families. In addition, the Red Cross began a new program around the holidays called “Voices from Home,” which made it possible for troops thousands of miles away to hear their family’s voices.
Families who wished to participate in the program would record messages—usually a few minutes in length—at small recording studios. Thousands of these tape recordings were delivered to troops overseas. It was widely believed that the tapes helped boost morale, as separated families and servicemen often remarked that hearing a loved one’s voice was the closest thing to being reunited.
A New Era in Communications The late 20th century brought advances in technology that enabled the Red Cross to increase its capacity for emergency communications. In addition to providing these services during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, American Red Cross staff have provided emergency communications in Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq, and are presently working in Kuwait, Afghanistan and Djibouti.
In another effort to provide troops a touch of home during the holiday season, the American Red Cross began its Holiday Mail for Heroes program in 2007. In a world increasingly dominated by paperless communications, Holiday Mail for Heroes provides a special, tangible sign of Americans’ well-wishes and thanks during the holiday season.
Holiday Mail for Heroes has delivered millions of greetings from the American public to service members, veterans and their families around the world, and will celebrate its sixth year running in 2012.
“I’ve been a lot of places around the world...the Red Cross is always there. What always amazes me is that no matter where we are in the world, the Red Cross can get us a message.”
— Mark Guillemette, 21st Combat Support Hospital, Fort Hood, Texas.Red Cross Home Service Correspondents in Washington, D.C., help relay messages between troops and their families in 1943. Photo: Eric Schael, Life Magazine. On July 18, 1966, Sgt. Ted Hansen, U.S. Air Force, helps Mrs. Harold Lambert and her three children record a message for the husband and father serving in Vietnam. Photo: Ruth Lynn. Sp/4 Jerry S. McDaniel (left) and Red Cross Assistant Field Director George Torrance, stationed near Phu Loi, South Vietnam, in 1968. McDaniel reads a message from his family in Memphis, Tenn., sent via the American Red Cross telecommunications system.