Volunteers are the heart and soul of the American Red Cross mission. They deliver relief in the wake of disaster, teach lifesaving classes, and in the case of Red Cross volunteer Steve Peth, LTC U.S. Army., Ret., help care for wounded, ill and injured servicemen and women at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the largest military medical center in the U.S., located in Bethesda, Maryland.
VOLUNTEERING WITH THE RED CROSS In 2006, just a couple years after he retired, Peth decided to volunteer with the Red Cross at Walter Reed, the first destination in the continental U.S. for caring for the wounded, ill and injured armed forces from global conflicts.
Gaining respect and trust from both the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces station at the hospital and Walter Reed staff, Peth manages a group of Red Cross volunteers for the Department of Rehabilitation at Walter Reed which includes twelve specialized clinics. The group has grown from a handful of individuals to 55 dedicated volunteers under his leadership.
In addition to managing the volunteer group, Peth spends one day a week at the Military Advanced Training Center Physical Therapy (MATC PT) clinic that specializes in the treatment of lower limb amputees. At the clinic, Peth assists physical therapists in helping to set up and clean equipment, change sheets and replace linen supplies, and fetch water for patients.
“As far as I can remember, every Tuesday, I can expect to see him,” said First Lieutenant Eric Zastoupil, a graduate of West Point Military Academy who lost his lower left leg in Afghanistan.
“(We) create an intimate relationship because they see us at our worst,” said Lt. Zastoupil about the Red Cross volunteers. The two comrades, Peth and Zastoupil, discuss a range of topics from travel to cars to their personal military experience.
Peth’s military career spans 26 years. During the Vietnam War, he served as an Army Medical Evacuation Pilot (Dust Off) where he earned a Silver Star, two distinguished Flying Crosses and the Air Medal for Valor.
“The most rewarding thing I ever did in my life was when I was 22 years old – evacuating people from the battlefield,” Peth said.
That’s where he first came to know the Red Cross. He recalls loading up Red Cross Donut Dollies on his helicopter to take them to fire bases. Donut Dollies was an affectionate name given to the Red Cross women who served overseas and made donuts for the U.S. Armed Forces, bringing along a touch of home.
“I always had a lot of respect for the young ladies that went over there to do that,” said Peth.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE AT WALTER REED From his own combat experience, Peth believed he could be of particular help when it came to his fellow military comrades during retirement. Peth was wounded in Vietnam and received a Purple Heart.
“I knew what it was like to be in the hospital and to go through the healing process so I thought if I volunteered at Walter Reed I would be someone who could relate a little bit better to the patients, especially the soldiers and marines,” said Peth. “That was something that I would like to do – serve in any way I could.”
At Walter Reed, wounded military members and physical therapists alike are grateful for Peth’s presence.
“Steve is my right hand man when it comes to the Red Cross,” said Army Captain Bradley Ritland, the officer in charge of physical therapy at the MATC where Peth volunteers. CPT. Ritland helps oversee the entire road to recovery for the wounded, ill and injured amputees at Walter Reed.
Although praise for Red Cross volunteers was not limited to Peth – “Everyone I have worked with I have been extremely impressed with,” said Capt. Ritland. “They certainly make a difference.” Capt. Ritland emphasized that Red Cross volunteers are an excellent resource, acting professional and compassionate while providing an extra set of hands that allows more time for one-on-one patient care.
But Peth is, in part, responsible for that too – he personally interviews each applicant to make sure they are a good fit for his volunteer group.
“You need special people to work with some of those various clinics. You have to have people who are focused on the patients and staff, not themselves,” said Peth who takes pride in the group he has assembled.
“Unbelievable the volunteers that I have,” said Peth. “I have kids in high school all the way up to retired PhDs – the whole spectrum.”
When asked what is the hardest part of his volunteer experience, Peth responded with a smile.
“The commute,” he said. Peth leaves at 5:00 a.m. to travel more than an hour to Walter Reed on his volunteer day so that he can help set up the MATC PT clinic.
“Honestly, I enjoy being with the servicemen and women,” Peth continued. “Once I’m here, nothing’s hard.”
Learn how to volunteer with the Red Cross.