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Red Crosser making home away from home
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Denise Lynch
April 17, 2007

The roles that American Red Cross staff take on in providing services to members of the military and their families abroad are varied in description and execution, but the core meaning is the same – to keep soldiers who are serving their country connected with family in times of emergency.

Interestingly enough, the Red Cross Armed Forces Emergency Services (AFES) workers are themselves often deployed to serve far from home and family. This gives them insight into what the troops abroad experience and creates a bond in that shared experience.

A man on a mission

Someone well aware of the sacrifices and personal rewards of being a Red Cross AFES worker is Ken Romero. The Colorado native first became involved with the Red Cross through his mother, who was a Disaster Services specialist. Ken was first a volunteer at the Mile High Chapter in Denver and then took a paid position at the chapter when he was preparing for college.

“I started working during the Gulf War and quickly learned all about AFES,” says Romero, who studied psychology and sociology at Metropolitan State College of Denver in the meantime. “I always felt that starting at the chapter gave me greater insight into what our mission meant to family members who were not always familiar with the military lifestyle.”

That was more than 15 years ago.

“I still remember telling my chapter co-workers that one day I would be going to all the places where we send these messages,” Romero recalls, speaking of the emergency communications that the Red Cross delivers to members of the military serving overseas or their family members back home. Messages can include urgent news regarding a family member’s health and welfare or exciting news such as a birth announcement.

And, go he did. Ken has traveled around the world with and for the Red Cross.

“As part of the AFES mobile staff, I work on different U.S. military installations, such as in Europe, Japan, and South Korea,” he explains. He also accepted assignments in Kosovo in 2000, Kuwait in 2003 and Iraq in 2003, 2004 and 2006.

Home is where his heart is

During a period when Ken was living overseas, he met a woman named Rie in Japan and the two began dating.

“My friends will attest that I told them on the first day I met her: ‘She's going to be my wife’,” Romero recalls, who, again, was true to his word. He and Rie were married on New Year’s Eve 2002. “Our two-year long distance courtship between Japan and Korea turned out to be an exercise for our married life together.”

At the time of their wedding, Romero was working as a Red Cross station manager at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. The newlyweds were on their honeymoon in Estes Park, Colo., when Romero received the call for his first deployment to Iraq.

“Rie was a new bride, a new resident in the U.S., a mother-to-be and about to be alone for the first time in her life in our new home. Topped with my first deployment to Iraq, this was not an easy time, to say the least, but we survived it,” he admits.

Romero was able to return home in time for the birth of his son Alexander.

“We now have three deployments under our belts. The deployments do not get any easier over time, but reunions certainly have gained strength,” he acknowledges. “Less than a year after my second deployment, we welcomed daughter Miha into the world. The military affectionately uses the term ‘reunion baby’.”

When not deployed, Romero calls home a small military community, Rota Naval Station, in Southern Spain, where he delights in the time he shares with his wife and two children. He grants, however, that he has missed special events. “Our time apart has meant some personal sacrifices, like missing a lot of ‘firsts’ with our children, such as their first steps and some first words.”

There are some things Romero refuses to miss. “My now 3-year-old son has hair past his shoulders because I don't want to miss his first haircut,” he explains. “My dad's been a barber for more than 40 years, and a hair cut holds extra special memories.”

With most of his family in Colorado and his wife’s family in Tokyo, Japan, Romero considers himself fortunate to have such supportive relatives, explaining that they have had “numerous visitors since we moved to Spain.”

“I am truly proud of my wife and both of our families for their support,” he readily acknowledges. “Right now, I have the easier job – living and working in a combat zone is nothing compared to caring for two young children at home. We know ours is just one story among thousands from military families that endure even more hardships…my family and all other families deserve so much credit for their support.”

Celebrating with those Who Serve

In Ken Romero’s own words, an excerpt

Celebrating all the winter holidays in Iraq has been memorable, joyous and something that will always hold a special place in my heart. However, I really feel like I have put my own holidays on hold for the moment. It has had that Christmas-in-July feeling, with all the right trimmings in place, but you knew it just was not the same.

I couldn’t help but think of my own family, even as I celebrated with literally thousands of other soldiers, marines, airmen and others who were away from their families as well. Yet it is the shared experience of being away from home that makes you so grateful for the men and women who are here serving their country, and literally putting their lives on the line every day for the thing they miss the most – home.

It also makes one grateful for one’s own family. Our Red Cross team volunteered to be here and when asked, I know we all would do it all over again. No matter where you are in the world, it can be difficult to be away from home. But, if you make the best of your situation, you can create an unforgettable experience.

The holidays helped serve as a pleasant distraction in an environment that is not ideal. However, serving on a deployment is conducive to making the most of each day, creating memories and bonds that can last a lifetime. It gives you more time to think about how much you will appreciate that next holiday meal when you are home again.

Making a home away from home

During his recent assignment away from his family and home in Spain, Ken Romero was team leader and station manager of a group of AFES workers in Tikrit, Iraq. Other members of his team were Mary Ellen Altenburger, also a station manager, and Assistant Station Manager Elizabeth “Libby” Worman, who was on her first deployment.

AFES workers are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week to send and receive crucial messages pertaining to the health and welfare of the troops and their families. They also provide various other services and operate a canteen where the members of the U.S. military can relax with a cup of coffee or soda, snacks and enjoy some spirit-raising camaraderie – maybe finding a little bit of home while away from home.

This deployment has included some historic and emotional occasions for Romero and his fellow Red Crossers including the winter holiday season and the conclusion of the Saddam Hussein trial.

“It is an awesome feeling to be connected to our shared generation’s history in the making,” Romero recalls. “When I heard about Saddam Hussein’s guilty verdict, I had a strange sensation knowing that I was actually in Iraq.”

Soon the winter holiday season offered a welcome distraction to the stress of daily life in a combat area and provided an opportunity to bring a little taste of home to the U.S. soldiers.

“At Thanksgiving I saw a turkey carved from what looked like butter while troops were taking photographs and videos to remember this time,” Romero remembers. “In December, I saw Chanukah lights on one lone table in a common area that I knew made someone’s day even brighter. I laughed when I saw a Christmas wreath on the front of a Humvee. I smiled at the lights strung in various hallways and the doors decorated with Christmas paper.”

Romero says he knew the Red Crossers were making a difference when he learned that the “Libby-inspired” paper snowflakes, which had been hand-cut from old magazines and were being used to decorate their office walls, were mentioned in a military staff meeting, urging troops to go and see them.

“On Christmas Day, Mary Ellen, Libby and I joined the troops for a holiday meal that included stuffing, turkey, prime roast and, of course, sweet desserts like pecan pie and ice cream. After we ate, we got to do what most people love to do during the holidays – give.”

“We had packages sent from the Red Cross national headquarters office, plus hundreds of phone cards. We love giveaways and love being able to speak to the troops. Mary Ellen had decorated a 10” X 12” box with snowman Christmas paper and a big Red Cross sticker. We filled the box with little slips of paper for the troops to draw for presents. We went from table to table, asking who wanted to draw from the ‘Red Cross magic gift box’ and everyone was a winner,” Romero explains. The slips corresponded to donated phone card and gift certificates to buy goodies at one of the local post exchanges.

A week later, Romero’s team quietly rang in the New Year with just a few soldiers in a common area while the traditional “Auld Lang Syne” played in the background. “We shared good year wishes with those around us as we headed off to a dining facility for a midnight snack and paper cups filled with sparkling grape juice,” Romero says. “We kept our celebration short because, even on New Year’s Eve, our work does not stop.”

Of course, New Year’s Eve is a “personal holiday” for Romero, who spent his fourth wedding anniversary apart from his beloved wife, Rie.

Focusing on the mission

“Staying focused on our assignment and the camaraderie among our peers makes our job easier,” he says. “Delivering good news, such as a message of a newborn, remains our solid favorite activity. It brings us joy to know we play a small role between service members and their families.”

Romero’s warmth, sincerity, dedication and enthusiasm are evident when he talks about his life, family, current deployment and relationship with this humanitarian organization.

“The Red Cross has been a part of my family for a long time now, and I am glad to share much of it, and of course there is always some of it I like to cherish myself.

Romero also has a son, Izaac, 7, from a previous relationship. Although he doesn't have the opportunity to see him as much, Izaac remains a big part of his family's life as well.

“My walls in Tikrit were decorated with pictures of all my kids and my wife. This was where, in part, I drew most of my daily strength to make the most of each day,” acknowledges Romero. “Army strong, family proud!”

To learn more about American Red Cross Armed Forces Emergency Services, visit the “Military Members and Family” section on RedCross.org or contact your local Red Cross chapter.

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.

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