The Joy of being an SAF Volunteer Caseworker

By Victoria Shere, Hero Care Network Regional Casework Lead

They say that when people join the military, their families join with them.  Nowhere do I see this more clearly than when I talk to a family who has asked the American Red Cross for an emergency communication message (ECM) to be delivered to their service member.

As a Red Cross volunteer caseworker, I call families after our national Hero Care Center (HCC) has delivered the ECM to a service member’s command about a death, urgent or life threatening injury or illness, birth or other critical situation.  The ECM enables the command to make a decision on granting emergency leave based on Defense Department guidelines.

I place these calls to find out whether the service member was granted leave and whether there is any other way we can help the family, such as referrals for an emergency loan, counseling or childcare.

Let me tell you about some of my cases.

The wife of a service member stationed overseas asked for the service member to be granted leave in time for her emergency surgery within 48 hours. Her doctors recommended the service member’s presence because of the severity of the diagnosis with possible complications plus small children at home that needed to be cared for.  I provided child care and emergency loan resources for the family —Childcare Aware, the service member’s military aid society. The service member made it home within a few days of the message.

In another case, on a Sunday morning, a family from out of state asked for notification of a veteran’s father’s death. After contacting the VA and Long Beach Police Department, the veteran’s family had no information on the location of the veteran other than that he was homeless and living in the Long Beach area. I was able to provide the family with a “warm referral” to the U.S. Veteran’s Initiative in Long Beach.  That same Sunday, in the evening, they were able to send an outreach team to notify the veteran of his father’s passing.

The author, volunteering at the Red Cross Los Angeles Region headquarters, in West LA.

Sometimes, there is not a happy ending or one easy way to help. A service member stationed outside the continental United States was not granted emergency leave, and because of the mission, was not able to use her cellphone.  Her family had initiated the ECM because the service member’s mother was placed on suicide watch. After talking to the service member’s younger sister, the point of contact for the family, I emailed her resources for child care, homelessness prevention, and emotional support, like Military One Source and the Veteran’s Crisis Line.

I also place follow-up calls to veterans and retirees who have asked our HCC for critical community services such as financial, housing or veteran burial assistance, and unfortunately, food. One of the more interesting cases was from a family living in northern Los Angeles County whose air conditioner had broken down in the midst of summer heat waves.  The front desk at the Red Cross Angeles Region headquarters always has a list of local food banks available to anyone needing assistance but, in this specific instance, I was at a loss to find a nonprofit or government agency to provide financial assistance. The solution, suggested by Lauren Duncan, Director of Service to the Armed Forces and Veterans and International Services for the Red Cross Los Angeles Region, was Habitat for Humanity. Thankfully, they were able to make the needed repairs.

I feel honored to be thanked by families for making the follow-up call.  Sometimes I receive an email.  In one case, I got an emotional email thank you from a Marine who, on behalf of the service member’s mother, had requested that the service member be granted leave to see his father who was having major heart surgery.  The service member’s father had been the “comrade in arms,” the Gunnery Sergeant of the family friend.  The family friend was grateful that the service member, also a Marine, had been able to be with his father.

Regardless of the immediate response I get after providing assistance, I am grateful to the American Red Cross for the opportunity to express the care, compassion and resourcefulness that this volunteer position requires.

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