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Volunteers Help Wounded on Road to Independence

Red Cross volunteers Steve Peth, Occupational Therapist Joe Butkus

Occupational Therapist Joe Butkus, with the assistance of Red Cross volunteers like Steve Peth, help wounded servicemen and women at Walter Reed regain their independence.

I am grateful that I have a chance to be a small part of their lives and truly appreciate and value the thanks that they convey to me. They demonstrate that our nation’s future will be in good hands.

At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, the largest military medical center in the U.S., American Red Cross volunteers arrive each work day to help those wounded and injured regain independence through occupational therapy.

Within the Department of Rehabilitation at Walter Reed, seven services are dedicated to occupational therapy which helps active-duty amputees and others develop, recover and maintain their daily living and work skills, from everyday tasks to getting back on the road.

Giving Care and Compassion

At the Walter Reed Military Advanced Training Center - Occupational Therapy (MATC OT), Red Cross volunteers help at patient treatment sessions. However, it can be tricky for a volunteer to figure out when to help and when to let wounded service members help themselves.

“This is something that we all have to learn ... Especially when they are amputees learning to be self-sufficient and your inclination as a volunteer is to try to do everything for them – that is exactly the wrong thing to do,” said Steve Peth, who manages the 55 Red Cross volunteers for this department. Amputees want to become self-sufficient.

Peth continued, “Whenever I have some little problem, I just think to myself, ‘My God, look at what these guys do up at Walter Reed.’”

Joe Butkus, an occupational therapist at the MATC OT, said the volunteers are a great benefit that the staff relies on. The volunteers assist in setting up equipment and talk with patients to help them relax. While the job may appear menial, it helps the therapist focus on the patient by taking care of more basic tasks.

“We really just want to thank the Red Cross for everything they do here,” said Butkus. “They are a huge asset.”

Getting Back in the Driver’s Seat

The driver rehabilitation program at Walter Reed teaches active duty servicemen and women amputees to drive again. In 2011, the Red Cross donated two adaptive vans to Walter Reed to assess service members’ driving capabilities and identify specific equipment they will need when they purchase a vehicle. The two vehicles are furnished with special equipment such as right- and left-hand controls, ramps and a complete set of driving and steering aids to help someone drive with limited strength and range of motion.

Red Cross volunteer Thom Hirsch, a lawyer by profession, helps wounded servicemen and women maneuver through various state licensing laws and regulations to assist them in obtaining their driver’s licenses and car plates. Always ready to help out, Hirsch recalled his proudest achievement.

“(A) seriously injured Marine called me from the Maryland DMV after being turned away,” said Hirsch. “I texted him an applicable provision of the law and particularly ordered him to go back in line, demand to speak to a DMV supervisor, show her the law and tell her she can issue him the temporary license plate he needed. He did and she did. The Marine was extremely happy. I told him later what I didn’t tell him at the time – he faced the almost impossible obstacle of getting DMV personnel to change their position.”

Hirsch has volunteered at Walter Reed with the Red Cross for more than five years now. And today, the clinic’s fifth quadruple amputee is driving.

“It is hard to put into words what the Walter Reed experience means to me. What I see and do is both very sad and very inspirational. I just see so many very young people with their whole lives ahead of them not truly understanding yet what obstacles they are going to confront after they leave Walter Reed. But they are irrepressible and have such a will to live fully and contribute to our society,” said Hirsch.

He continued, “I am grateful that I have a chance to be a small part of their lives and truly appreciate and value the thanks that they convey to me. They demonstrate that our nation’s future will be in good hands.”

At Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, occupational therapy services also include Assistive Technology, Inpatient Care, Outpatient Upper Extremity Rehab, Recreational Therapy, and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).

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Tags: Walter Reed.
About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit or, or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.