By Kate Huntley
In March 2022, American Red Cross Los Angeles Region COO Gerald Thomas packed his bags to deploy to the region of the Russo-Ukrainian War in the organization’s largest deployment operation since 9/11.
During an international crisis, local Red Cross and Red Crescent chapters to the affected regions will sometimes request the help of the American Red Cross, a request that triggers our complex international deployment system. On average, the American Red Cross sends 20-30 Red Crossers abroad to respond to international disasters annually. Because local chapters have their own volunteers and localized systems, the Red Cross primarily sends specialists and highly trained staff to support local response efforts.
With his 21-year career in the Marine Corps and operational background, Gerald understood that his knowledge could greatly support the Service to the Armed Forces and International Services (SAF/ISD) teams. In an interview, Gerald recounts that the SAF/ISD teams “had to quickly ramp up their systems to accommodate deployment workforce that increased 250%” when conflict ignited in February.
The goal of the deployment operation was to support Operation Atlantic Resolve, a mission that “provides rotational deployments of combat-credible forces to Europe to show our commitment to NATO while building readiness, increasing interoperability and enhancing the bonds between ally and partner militaries,” said Gerald. Brigades of National Guardsmen from Puerto Rico and Maine, for example, were deployed in Europe during part of Gerald’s deployment.
The deployed Red Cross SAF forces primarily offered support to Forward Operating Sites across Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Lithuania. The American Red Cross has a congressional obligation to facilitate communication between the United States and its military personnel using emergency communication messages. These communications are delivered to soldiers by the Red Cross and contain messages from their families. Having been the recipient of a Red Cross emergency message, Gerald understood the importance of being able to communicate with one’s family and return home in times of crises.
While preparing to deploy to a region with a massive humanitarian and refugee crisis, it is difficult to imagine the array of emotions that a deployed Red Crosser might experience. The best way to deal with anxiety related to deploying, Gerald explains, is to gather information and build situational awareness. Weeks before deployment, Gerald began sitting in on briefings to understand the operational situation. Because his role might have taken him anywhere from the Horn of Africa to Lithuania, he also prepared by packing for several different climates.
Having deployed several times in the past, Gerald noted that there are certain concurrent themes that run through each experience. He acknowledges that nothing will go according to plan, so flexibility and resilience is critical. Uncertainty is a constant, and it is helpful to overcommunicate in these instances and take the unknown as it comes. Ultimately, patience is the underlying key for success when needing flexibility and managing uncertainty.