May is Military Appreciation Month. This month, the American Red Cross highlights its commitment to serving the U.S. military community at every step – from the time a service member takes the oath to navigating life as a veteran. You can find American Red Cross support of military communities across the globe at military hospitals, on overseas installations and in communities across America. Here are the stories of four Red Crossers committed to helping military families.
Lallita Maharaj: Helping Deliver Emergency Messages to Deployed U.S. Troops
Lallita Maharaj, a Red Crosser from New York, is currently deployed to Romania. She says that giving back to the military both during this historic deployment and in her role back home in New York is tremendously fulfilling.
“My interactions with soldiers are meaningful moments. I feel blessed to support troops in this capacity,” Maharaj said.
Maharaj is one of the more than 24 personnel currently deployed by the American Red Cross in support of the Ukraine crisis specifically to support the emergency communication needs of U.S. military members through the Red Cross Hero Care Network, a Congressionally-chartered program that connects service members and their families in times of need.
Maharaj says that one particularly profound moment during this deployment came when a young service member received an emergency care message about her ailing father. “She didn't know that her father had taken a turn for the worse and the life expectancy was not good,” Maharaj said.
“We were able to deliver that message and ensure she got on the next flight home to say goodbye to her father before he passed away. She was grateful to the Red Cross for making the process easy for her.”
Maharaj says that serving in Romania has been tremendously fulfilling and she’s enjoyed creating morale activities, sorting donations and just talking with soldiers. She’s set up "Tea and Talk with Lallita" where service members can come and share how they are feeling or just check in, grab a snack and feel connected. During a recent Tea Talk, she visited with a 20-year-old service member who was having a particularly hard time. “He said that it was nice to be able to chat and get some stuff off his chest, knowing that someone was there to listen and give a hug,” she said.
“As the Red Cross, we do so much to support the military. In my role, I’m happy to be a part of that,” she said.
Dr. Inge Guen: Art Program Shows Wounded Warriors Beauty in Creation
“Pablo Picasso said, ‘Art brushes away from our soul, the dust of everyday life,’” said Dr. Inge Guen, a clinical psychologist and leader of the Red Cross Creative Arts Program at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.
The art program at Walter Reed is one of many resiliency programs that the Red Cross provides at military and veteran hospitals around the world.
In this role, Guen works with wounded warriors as they recover from their injuries and prepare for the challenges of the future. She says that when she gives injured service members a blank canvas they are often uncertain of how to express themselves.
“So many of our patients say, 'I'm not an artist, I don't know what to do. I could make everything wrong.' I say, ‘no.’ Look at Pablo Picasso, because he distorts the face totally and it is still perfect,” she said.
“After one hour, you have no idea the beauty they can create. Their self-esteem rises and the interaction among the patients becomes intimate and personal. They are laughing with one another. After one hour, we have brought sunshine into their heart.”
“Our role here is to heal — heal the soul.”
“Warriors and soldiers, they are sensitive people. They have seen devastation. They have seen death. They have seen amputations. They have seen families torn apart. The pain is still there. The Red Cross comes in and embraces them and their pain. The Red Cross comes in and does everything to make these patients feel happy and relaxed. The Red Cross is so powerful,” she said.
Walter Roberts: Incarcerated Veteran Program Provides Dignity
“Veterans who are incarcerated are one of the highest risk groups that you'll ever work with and one of the most ignored groups around,” said Walter Roberts, an American Red Cross volunteer who works with veterans within the Missouri prison system.
Long after veterans return home from combat, Roberts says their trauma and injuries can cause mental health issues that make a large percentage of them suffer alone in silence. Within the U.S., many veterans suffer from substance use disorders, mental health conditions and severe trauma. Researchers say a connection isn’t too clear, but some of those suffering from mental health issues like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) end up incarcerated.
A licensed clinical counselor by trade, Roberts leads resiliency workshops within prisons that teach life and coping skills. Most days, he’s accompanied by his therapy dog, Choppy. He says she serves as a great tool to break the silence and the tension that are present within a corrections facility. “Choppy adds a special element to make everyone comfortable to share in these workshops,” he said.
With classes that focus on resilience and tools to prevent depression, the program aims to help veterans build skills to face future challenges.
“As a humanitarian organization, the Red Cross tries to avoid a lot of the barriers that get in the way of our ability to reach out to others. The Red Cross allows us to see individuals as human beings and to drop some of the labels that prevent us from engaging with others,” he said.
Kristen Routh: Mental Wellness Tools Strengthen Military Families
As a military spouse, Kristen Routh knows the ups and downs of military life first-hand. In her role at the Red Cross, Routh is responsible for the coordination, development and oversight of the psychoeducational mental health programs for military families. She says that stress and uncertainty are common in military life and Red Cross resiliency programs make a difference and support the entire military community.
“We teach effective coping tools and connect families to the support they need,” Routh said.
The Red Cross offers reconnection workshops, coping with deployment seminars and mind-body classes to help families adjust to life's challenges in healthy ways. Available for service members, children, families, caregivers and veterans, these workshops are free and confidential and are conducted by licensed mental health professionals.
Routh says her personal experience allows her to bring both empathy and empowerment to the role of helping military families. Those challenges have included multiple moves, having limited communication with her own spouse and dealing with uncertainty. “I’ve lived on a separate continent and navigated the uncertainty of world conflict knowing that my spouse's deployment could be on the horizon,” she said.
She says that the Red Cross is uniquely positioned to help military families around the globe both in person on bases and through virtual offerings.
“Red Cross volunteers are familiar with military life and the unique challenges and needs of service members and their families. This allows our volunteers to serve in empathetic and informed ways.”
Routh says that she’s motivated each day knowing that she can make a positive impact in the lives of military families. “I've experienced and observed the difference a supportive community makes in the lives of military families, and I'm honored to be part of programs that are strengthening family resilience,” she said.