At this time of year, our thoughts often turn to those who will not be home for the holidays – the men and women of the armed forces serving their country far from home. Since its inception, the American Red Cross has been committed to supporting servicemen and women – working to keep members of the U.S. military and their families connected, not just at the holidays but throughout the year.
Then and Now
It is a tradition that began with American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, who provided humanitarian aid to soldiers during the Civil War. As a clerk working in Washington, D.C., Barton saw a need and set about filling it. She provided food, clothing and supplies to the sick and wounded soldiers, first behind the lines and later on the battlefield. In addition, Barton offered personal support to the troops by reading to them, writing letters for them and listening to their personal problems. Near the end of the war, she found herself writing to families who inquired about loved ones reported missing during the war, a practice that would eventually give birth to Red Cross tracing services.
Today, nearly 150 Red Cross employees and more than 15,680 volunteers serve members of the U.S. armed forces through 775 Red Cross chapter locations, five deployed sites in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kuwait, and on 61 military installations worldwide as well as with emergency communications centers in Washington, D.C., and Fort Sill, Okla.
Times have changed and the Red Cross has kept pace with them, but serving the needs of the U.S. military community – including more than 1.4 million active duty men and women, 800,000 members of the U.S. National Guard/Reserves and veterans from all arms of service – remains part of the organization’s core mission. Through its Armed Forces Emergency Services (AFES) programs, the Red Cross provides a variety of services to military personnel and their families both in times of peace and conflict.
Get to Know Us before You Need Us
U.S. soldiers at the Quantico Red Cross Station spend time learning about services offered by the Red Cross, reading the organization's “Get to Know Us before You Need Us” brochure, 2003.
(Photo Credit: Gene Dailey/American Red Cross)
Since 1996, record numbers of U.S. National Guardsmen and Reservists have been called to active duty. Unlike active duty military personnel, reservists and their families may not be as aware of procedures and matters related to deployment or the support systems that are available to them. The Red Cross “Get to Know Us before You Need Us” program, launched in 2000, reaches out to family and members of the U.S. National Guard, Reserves, Coast Guard and ROTC to let them know about the variety of Red Cross services available to them.
In support of these community-based military, the Red Cross helps families cope with deployment separations and special needs resulting from service in the armed forces. Community support for troops’ family members is crucial, so the organization maintains strong ties with other local organizations that offer additional assistance. The Red Cross provides help for financial emergencies, health and other supportive services, which includes referring families to other local agencies that provide various low or no-cost services within their communities.
Field Operations Division and Emergency Services
The AFES Field Operations Division manages the deployment of AFES workers for military operations and exercises around the world. The mobile staff provides emergency services to the military and their families worldwide, including helping families stay connected across the miles as well as disaster and health and safety services.
The AFES Reserve Corps fills temporary vacancies in mobile staff positions and serves at military installations and communications centers around the world, selecting a level of involvement appropriate to their availability and experience. Many members on the AFES team are former military members, who are familiar with Red Cross services having witnessed them in action before joining the organization.
Prior to deployment, AFES workers must meet physical and medical requirements. They are briefed in operations, security, communications and casework. Processed at Fort Bliss, Texas, or Fort Benning, Ga., they prepare personal legal documents, receive dog tags, uniforms and other gear. In addition, they are given cultural, anti-terrorism, self-aid and buddy care briefings. While deployed, AFES team members are confined to their assigned base, must adhere to military regulations, wear their uniforms and are on duty 24/7.
Jesse Cowart (left), manager of the Red Cross emergency communications center Washington, D.C., and Rick Davis, director for the Armed Forces Emergency Services Communications Centers, involved in a discussion at the state-of-the-art facility. 2003. The center runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week thanks to a talented staff dedicated to maintaining crucial communications. A staff referred to by Cowart as “an army of modern-day Clara Bartons.”
(Photo Credit: Gene Dailey/American Red Cross)
Working with local Red Cross chapters, AFES volunteers and employees deliver emergency communications. The organization’s emergency communications network enables the relay of reliable, verified information pertaining to situations necessitating emergency leave, deferment, compassionate reassignment and dependency discharges. After being contacted by a family member, Red Cross caseworkers verify messages as necessary – contacting hospitals, funeral homes or law enforcement agencies – and then they convey the messages to the service members' commanding officers.
Messages may include a child’s birth, a spouse’s illness or a relative’s death. These messages are delivered with care and consideration through the efforts of AFES staff members. For the happy occasion of a child’s birth, there are pink and blue announcements handed to the proud military parent. If a message is about the illness or death of a loved one, the message is conveyed with sensitivity and support.
During a family crisis, AFES also provides active duty military, retirees and family members with access to financial assistance for emergency travel, medical needs, burial expenses for an immediate family member or crucial living expenses such as avoiding utility shut-off or eviction. In these efforts, the Red Cross works with the appropriate Military Aid Societies of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force.
Red Cross Volunteer Jhonnie Bailey brings a book to SGT Jeremy Gilbert as his wife Andrea laughs at his comments at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., 2003.
(Photo Credit: Gene Dailey/American Red Cross)
Patients in military hospitals and their families also receive assistance from Red Cross workers, who might provide consultation, guidance, leave arrangements and information about government benefits. Companionship services that include shopping, letter writing and visitations and recreational activities might be provided as well.
Additional social services by AFES can include providing information, referrals, counseling, family support and assistance at the Board of Veterans Appeals. Red Cross chapters and stations assist family members as they cope with separation and the stress of returning home after a long separation.
While many AFES programs focus helping with urgent concerns, personal tragedies or emergency situations, some services are less dire but still important for maintaining the health, well-being and morale of those separated from loved ones. One simple, but meaningful service provided by AFES teams, harkening back to Barton’s work, is the management of 24-hour canteen service – offering snacks, books, games and videos to troops.
Red Cross programs also extend to those who have completed or retired from military service. Its Veterans Association Voluntary Service (VAVS) maintains volunteer services for veterans in 146 Veterans Administration (VA) health care facilities nationwide. Volunteer services vary according to the abilities of chapters to meet the needs while sharing of responsibilities with other voluntary services.
At VA facilities across the country Red Cross volunteers can act as patient advocates, assist with feeding and provide other services such as helping plan events and activities or working at the admissions, information and library desks. More than 2,000 Red Cross volunteers are there to assist the more than four million veterans in VA medical facilities that provide health services across the nation. Since 1946, VAVS volunteers have devoted some 700 million hours of service.
At the Heart of AFES
At the heart of Red Cross AFES services are the hearts of the AFES workers and volunteers.
“AFES duty takes an unbelievably dedicated person, a person who wants to take care of brothers and sisters in arms,” said AFES Executive Director Joe Moffatt. “We each bring different knowledge, different skills, and we bring neutrality to the soldiers, offering a place where they can go, step back a bit, enjoy a cup of coffee, think about home.”
A retired Army officer himself, Moffatt knows the importance of Red Cross canteens, and the welcome respite they offer to troops.
“And respites are few and far between in places of combat,” he said. “The caring, feeding, servicing of our soldiers is very important, and dear to my heart.”
Moffatt speaks from experience, not just as a purveyor of Red Cross services but a beneficiary of such caring.
“My brothers in arms took up a collection to get me home for a family situation,” he explained. “I can never forget that, and I can never repay them.”
Recently two AFES teams deployed to Iraq and Kuwait. Before leaving in October 2006, they exchanged stories and thoughts about previous tours, recalling how much the troops appreciated their presence, efforts and care. One team included Donald “Butch” Brown. According to Brown, who has been on more than a dozen deployments, service personnel respond to Red Crossers because “AFES people really care about the troops and believe in the cause.”
“The young troops really appreciate what we do – it makes us feel good,” said Brown. “The Red Cross has been with the troops the entire time – affecting entire families, friends, neighbors, the community. This is what Clara Barton started.”
Another AFES member, Cassandra Wyatt was raised in an Army family and is a member of Butch’s team.
“My dad always said, ‘Take care of the guys’,” she said. “I really believe in the military. They all join for different reasons, but when you’re there, you’re all family. It’s about being able to make a difference, helping them, listening.”
More than 125 Years Later
More than 125 years after Clara Barton drove a wagon-load of supplies to a field hospital in the middle of the night earning her the title of “Angel of the Battlefield,” American Red Cross workers continue the tradition of caring for the men and women serving in the military.
During its fiscal year 2006, Red Cross AFES handled more than 661,000 emergency communications for military families worldwide; exceeding 135,000 emails and serving more than 192,000 families and 1,300 disaster cases. Financial assistance exceeding $5.3 million was provided to more than 6,300 uniformed service members, their families and veterans in coordination with the Military Aid Societies.
In that same one-year period, more than 909,000 U.S. National Guard, Reserve, ROTC and other community-based military members and their families were briefed about procedures and matters related to deployments and the support available through Red Cross outreach via the “Get To Know Us Before You Need Us” Program.
While the Red Cross is congressionally-chartered “to provide volunteer aid to the sick and wounded of the Armed Forces in time of war” and provide other voluntary relief and communications, the organization is not a government agency and relies on donations as its primary source of funding for these and other programs. Thanks to the generous support of its donors, the American Red Cross can bring a little home to those who are far from theirs not just during the holidays but all year long.
During this season of giving, if you would like to learn more about the programs and services the Red Cross provides to military members and their families or how you can help support those who are serving their country far from home, visit the organization’s public Web site, RedCross.org.
Denise Lynch is a volunteer writer for the American Red Cross. Leigh-Anne Dennison contributed to this article.
The American Red Cross is not a government agency. We rely on the assistance of caring supporters like you to deliver our critical services. You can support U.S. military members and their families through the American Red Cross as we provide assistance and comfort. Your gift will support the nationally coordinated Red Cross services provided to military families across the country and to American service men and women located throughout the world. Please make a financial donation to Armed Forces Emergency Services by calling 1-800-RED CROSS or 1-800-257-7575 (Spanish). Contributions may be sent to the American Red Cross Armed Forces Emergency Services, P.O. Box 91820, Washington, DC 20090. Internet users can make a secure online contribution by visiting www.redcross.org.