The face of the American Red Cross’ wartime mission could be conveyed through countless images of volunteers greeting wounded warriors on flight lines, offering comfort to troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan and providing much-needed support to family members back home.
But while these images offer a snapshot of the organization’s focus on individuals, the numbers impart the true magnitude of the Red Cross’ wartime support.
In fiscal 2010, the Red Cross provided more than 597,000 emergency communications services for nearly 150,000 military families, and nearly $6 million in immediate financial aid to 5,000 families. And thousands of volunteers -- including service members, veterans and military spouses -- offered comfort and support to wounded and ill troops and their families in hospitals worldwide.
“If someone is at their wits’ end and not sure where to turn, we want them to know they can turn to the Red Cross,” Peter Macias, communications director for the Red Cross’ Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) branch, told American Forces Press Service. “We will do everything we can to help.”
American Red Cross military support dates back more than a century, when Red Cross founder Clara Barton began her humanitarian work on the battlefields of the Civil War in 1861. Barton cared for the ill and wounded, provided a conduit for emergency communications and reconnected families with military loved ones.
The Red Cross mission remains exactly the same 150 years later, Macias said. Although technology has sparked remarkable advances, the Red Cross has stayed the course of Barton’s original vision: rapid and accurate emergency communication services, care for the ill and wounded and service to military families.
To carry out its mission, the Red Cross has a network of more than 1,500 offices around the world -- including sites in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait -- with thousands of volunteers from a variety of backgrounds, Macias said. He’s seen retired flag officers serving alongside military spouses, and college students alongside Vietnam-era veterans. “All share the common desire to serve their country in some capacity,” he said.
Many volunteers work to maintain the Red Cross’ 24-hour, seven-day-a-week global communications network so troops and their families can be connected in the event of a crisis, such as an illness or death, or even a birth back home, Macias said.
Family members simply contact a Red Cross call center to connect with a military member, whether stationed across the country or halfway around the world, he said. The call center will take the information and quickly track down the service member. In the process, the call center worker will speak to family members and medical professionals to verify information and ensure the accuracy of reports.
“This enables the commander to make a decision about emergency leave with verified information,” Macias explained. “A service member can realistically be at a loved one’s bedside within 24 to 48 hours.”
In turn, service members also can benefit from emergency communications services, he said. If a deployed soldier receives a phone call with news of a family member’s serious illness, for example, he can call the Red Cross to request further information from an impartial source. A call center worker will talk to family members and medical officials and provide the service member with validated information so he can make an informed decision about leave.
Another pillar of the Red Cross mission is care for ill and wounded service members and veterans. Volunteers are in place to support combat-wounded troops at nearly every stage of their journey home, Macias said.
Volunteers stand ready at Landstuhl, Germany, where nearly every combat-wounded troop makes a stop before returning to the States.
“They’ll give them a blanket, shaving kit, a toothbrush, whatever is needed to make them more comfortable,” Macias explained. Many of these blankets, he added, are hand-knit or hand-sewn by caring people back home.
Ill or injured service members who are flown to Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility Washington are met by Red Cross volunteers, including a retired Vietnam veteran, who do everything in their power to ensure a wounded warrior’s comfort. One troop, Macias recalled, asked a Red Cross volunteer for a root beer float. “I don’t know how she did it, but this woman, who is in her late 80s, got him that root beer float,” he said.
Red Cross volunteers also are in nearly every military and Veterans Affairs hospital nationwide, Macias said. Some volunteers push carts of DVDs, candy and cookies down hospital halls. They ask each service member if there’s a particular need and, when identified, they’ll do everything in their power to fill it, he said.
“We’ve purchased [interactive game systems] to help with morale and to assist with the physical recovery of a wounded warrior if prescribed by a doctor, along with clothes and personal items,” Macias said. The Red Cross also maintains a library of books in hospitals for patients and visitors alike, he added.
Also in hospitals, volunteers offer therapy programs, including the popular pet therapy program, Macias said. As an offshoot of that program, volunteers in Kuwait found a German shepherd and now bring the dog to greet troops as they process in or travel home. “Their faces light up when they see him,” Macias said. Other therapy programs include gardening, art and even radio-controlled aircraft therapy, Macias said. A volunteer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here, for example, helps soldiers develop manual dexterity by building and flying radio-controlled aircraft. The volunteer serves as an inspiration, he added, since he has ALS, a progressive motor neuron disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The programs are tailored not to the whims of the instructors, but to the needs and interests of the wounded warriors, Macias explained. “It’s a true partnership with the medical team to find out what support is needed,” he said.
Also aimed at wounded warrior care, the Red Cross offers the Casualty Travel Assistance Program, which helps immediate family members travel to the bedside of a wounded or ill loved one. The program provides travel expenses and a stipend to cover meals and lodging for seven days, Macias said.
The military also offers immediate family members travel assistance, Macias pointed out. The Red Cross program is designed not to replace, but to supplement that support by helping additional family members, such as a brother or sister or grandparent, travel to a loved one’s bedside.
The program also helps the military to fill potential gaps for family member travel to memorial services or funerals. In this case, the Red Cross can provide immediate family members round-trip airfare and a stipend to cover two days of lodging and meals.
The Red Cross offers many other services to military families as well, Macias said, including its well-known CPR training and babysitter course, which many bases require young caregivers to take if babysitting on a military installation.
“This is a great course for older brothers and sisters to take too,” said Debbie Vanderbeek, senior associate with Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces. Many military children and teens are asked to take on additional childcare responsibilities when a parent deploys, and the babysitting course can help to ensure they’re equipped to do so, she explained.
Additionally, the Red Cross can use its network of aid societies to help families who may find themselves in a financial bind, Macias said. And if the issue falls outside of the Red Cross’ realm, volunteers will refer them to someone who can help, he added.
To address deployment challenges, Macias encourages families to take advantage of the Red Cross’ Coping With Deployments class, which provides resilience strategies for military families. The course can help adults identify issues in themselves, significant others or in children. The class is open to all loved ones, including significant others, siblings, cousins, close friends and others, he added.
“We consider it psychological first aid,” he said. Licensed mental health professionals conduct the course at sites across the country, some on and others off base, Macias said. People can call the Red Cross for a course schedule or can gather a group and request a course. If a course isn’t being offered in a specific location, the Red Cross will fly in a mental health professional to conduct one, Macias said, which can be helpful to families of the Guard and Reserve. The Red Cross has more than 8,000 volunteers with mental health expertise, including more than 100 who specialize in military issues and family support, he added.
Macias also highlighted a new program for families that’s projected to roll out nationwide this summer. The Coming Home Series is a series of classes for service members returning from deployment and their families. The five-module class teaches them how to manage anger, reconnect with loved ones, build communication skills, better support their children and identify and deal with post-traumatic stress. A team of mental health professionals worked closely with the Defense Department to develop the content, he noted.
Like Coping With Deployments, this course will be offered on sites nationwide, but also may include an online component at some point, he said. However, “We believe the interaction with others and face-to-face support is one of the strengths of these programs,” Macias said. To ensure privacy, all courses are confidential, without self-identification or roll calls, he said. The big-picture goal, he explained, is to offer families an effective and impartial support system that’s available to them at any time, night or day.
“It’s an honor to serve the men and women who are serving us,” Macias said. “We want service members, veterans and their families to know we’re here as a 24/7 avenue of support.”