U.S. Navy sailor Braeden Schneider hadn’t seen his grandfather, Don McKinley, in more than a year when his ship in the Pacific got a message from the Red Cross. Don, a U.S. Army veteran, was terminally ill with stage 4 cancer and wished to see his grandson one last time before dying.
With the help of the American Red Cross’ Hero Care network, Braeden got clearance from his Command to go home and be reunited with his grandfather. It took 20 hours to get to Ft. Myers, Fla., where Don and Braeden finally embraced and had time to say goodbye.
Teresa Kowall has been a Red Cross volunteer for just over a year and started with her role in Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) in March doing family follow-ups for emergency communication messages.
In September, she made a routine phone call to April Love Ulfig, Don’s girlfriend, and had no idea that she had been a part of such a moving story.
“When we make these phone calls, we don’t have a lot of the bigger context of the situation, all we know is what’s in the case notes,” explains Teresa. She describes her conversation with April as pretty straightforward. “She was very thankful and excited that Braeden got leave to go home.”
It wasn’t until she saw it on the news later that she realized this was the family she had talked to. “It was really nice to find out I played a small part in such an important situation in this military family’s life.”
But Red Cross SAF volunteers play small parts like this every day that can make a huge difference to these families. According to Jaime Cruz, the SAF & International Services Specialist in the South Florida Region, these volunteers are the linchpin of the entire Hero Care network, which provides emergency and non-emergency services to military personnel, veterans and their families 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
Jaime says this wonderful story began long before April called the Hero Care network.
“All this originates at Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS) where enlisted men and women go with their families and learn about Red Cross SAF services, the Hero Care network, and sending emergency messages,” says Jaime. “The impact of those 20-minute presentations is immeasurable.” Volunteers are crucial to this effort.
Here in South Florida, Red Cross volunteers or Jaime himself go to the MEPS in Miami every Monday and Tuesday to give that presentation to newly enlisted military members and their families.
So, when Don’s family knew he was close to the end, they had the Hero Care number and knew what to do. The Red Cross took action from there.
A family can contact the national Hero Care hotline (1-877-272-7337) if they have an emergency situation and need to reach their service member. The Red Cross facilitates by getting the message to the service member’s chain of command so they can make a leave decision.
The Red Cross region or chapter where the family lives will also get the message and a local volunteer like Teresa will do a follow-up call to the family within 48-72 hours to make sure they heard back from the service member and whether leave was awarded.
In Braeden’s case, it all worked out in the best possible way. He got leave and was able to get home to Don in time.
Teresa was inspired to serve in SAF because she grew up in a military family and understands the hardships around it. Families are dealing with all kinds of things at home and have to power through.
“This is a real opportunity for people to understand the hard work and sacrifice that family members go through, the personal sacrifices they make to serve their country,” says Teresa. "These brief phone calls you make do matter and make a difference to these families. It’s nice to be a part of that.”
The Hero Care Network is available to active and retired service members, veterans and their families 24/7/365 by calling 1-877-272-7337 or by downloading the free Hero Care mobile app.
To become a SAF volunteer and support those who serve, visit redcross.org/SAF.
Written by Estefania Garcia