By: Gordon Williams, Northwest Region Volunteer
When Red Cross workers reminisce about past deployments, they tend to recall fires, floods, storms and earthquakes. When Susan Langfitt of Lacey WA recalls her most memorable deployment, it involved the 20-hour battle for Mogadishu, Somalia that became the basis for the movie Black Hawk Down.
Perched on a hilltop overlooking Mogadishu, Langfitt couldn't see the battle, but she could hear the sounds of gunfire. “We could see the tracers from machine guns,” she says.
In the end, the battle lasted nearly a full day before the Americans fought their way to a United Nations military base. Eighteen American soldiers died in the battle and 80 were wounded. Langfitt says that once the battle ended, her Red Cross team was inundated with requests from parents in America checking on the well-being of their military children stationed in Somalia.
“It took two of us to answer the messages,” she says. The Red Cross office in Mogadishu served coffee and tea to American soldiers who just wanted someone to talk to.
Langfitt’s service with the Red Cross began in July 1971, when she was hired directly off the campus of the University of Oregon. She was told she would be sent overseas to carry out a function called “supplemental recreational activities overseas” Otherwise known as the Donut Dollies. That meant creating recreational programs for Americans stationed overseas.
"They were like TV game shows,” she says. “We would fly to a firebase and present our shows to the troops to give them a respite from what they were doing.”
After two weeks of training, she was posted to the U.S. base at Phan Rang and then Danang in Vietnam. When American troops began pulling out of Vietnam, she was asked to complete her overseas tour in Korea. There she carried out the uniquely Red Cross function called Donut Dolly. The Dollies were women hired to bring coffee and donuts to military units in the field. Dollies served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Back home in the states, Langfitt made the most of her training in casework for the Red Cross Services to the Armed Forces (SAF) function. SAF plays many roles in supporting the military. Best known is the Hero Care Network which brings members of the military and their families together in times of crisis. The Hero Care Network handles about 150,000 cases a year, and caseworkers are at the very heart of the operation.
Susan's first U.S. posting was to Fitzsimons Army Hospital in Denver. Since then, she has worked for the Red Cross in every corner of the country, and with every branch of service, mostly doing casework for SAF. Along the way, she took time out to get a master’s degree in Psychology: Guidance and Counseling, using the Red Cross Educational Plan to help pay for tuition.
Her last posting, before retiring from the Red Cross in 2005, was at Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM) — the giant Army-Air Force complex near Tacoma. Her position as station manager for the SAF program also put her in charge of the services the Red Cross at Madigan Army Medical Center at JBLM . She had as many as 700 volunteers working under her command — the largest number of volunteers at any Red Cross facility in the continental United States.
“I was responsible for all Red Cross services at Madigan to include Casework, Health and Safety, Volunteers, Fundraising and Disaster," she said.
The volunteers at Madigan staff reception desks, move patients from ward to ward and work in hospital clinics . Some of the volunteers were medical professionals donating their skills to the hospital.
Occasionally her volunteers responded to disasters. The Red Cross had a “befrienders program” where volunteers run errands for long-term patients. Her staff ran a program that encouraged youngsters to refrain from smoking.
“We also did some fundraising to support our program,” she says.
Signing up with the Red Cross when she graduated college, and sticking with the organization until retirement, she spent her whole working life with a single employer. She is asked if she wishes she had broader work experience. “Not at all,” she says. “Who can imagine I could have had all the experiences I had in my life?”
During her career she was also stationed at Ft. Carson, Co, Puget Sound Naval Shipyard Bremerton, Wa, Kadena AB, Okinawa, and Saudi Arabia in support of Desert Storm.
Langfitt was always a paid employee of the Red Cross. But 90 percent of Red Cross workers are volunteers. Virtually all the workers she commanded through the SAF program were, and still are, volunteers.
“I could not have done all that I did without my volunteers,” she says.