“By hook or crook we have to find them.” That’s what American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) Pacific Division Director Clark Swenson says in describing the very important mission of SAF staffers.
That mission is to pass emergency messages such as information about a death, serious illness, or birth of a baby. It’s the mission of SAF to locate the soldier, sailor, marine, or airman stationed far away from their loved ones in places many of us couldn’t find on a map, such as Afghanistan, Kuwait, or Djibouti and deliver the good or bad news.
In a recent speech on the U.S.S. Hornet Clark described a particular case he was involved in while serving a five month forward deployment with the Red Cross in Afghanistan.
“The wife of a service member had undergone a fairly routine surgery,” Clark said. “Her husband, serving at Camp Leatherneck near Kandahar, knew she was having the surgery. What he didn’t know that she unexpectedly died on the operating table.”
The service member’s 18-year-old daughter called the Red Cross frantic for help reaching her Dad. “Please find him,” the daughter begged the caseworker who took the call at the Red Cross national call center, just one of the approximately 300,000 calls received there annually.
Unfortunately, she didn’t know the unit her father belonged to, only that he was at Camp Leatherneck.
“That’s like saying I know he is in Sacramento but I don’t have an address or phone number” said Clark.
Working with military unit representatives across the 1,600 acre Marine Corps base, each time he called another contact the answer generally was “he’s not in this unit but let me make some calls.”
Clark said the helpful attitude is typical even though Clark is not allowed to reveal the nature of the message except to the service members unit.
“In Afghanistan, as other theaters of war, the Red Cross is a link for service members to their families at home. The Red Cross is the trusted mechanism to get emergency information about loved ones, and every service member knows it,” he said. “They know they can depend on us.”
Clark has been a SAF worker for about six years, following service in many other Red Cross jobs starting more than 30 years ago as a volunteer. He said when the SAF job in Afghanistan opened up he immediately volunteered.
“I felt like I needed to go there,” he said, adding that his youngest daughter, 28, cried at first, but she and Clark got into a regular habit of Skyping and she felt better about the deployment.
SAF workers are a mix of civilian staff, like Clark, and active and reserve military members. The civilians are deployed to a forward area like Afghanistan for five months. Military workers follow the rest of the military in the length of their deployments, which varies depending on where they are stationed.
Clark said he and his fellow SAF staffers are proud and honored to perform their duties. “We serve the military,” he said. “We touch lives. It’s a privilege to be a part of that.”