By Gordon Williams
The move into new offices by the Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) unit at Joint Base Lewis-McChord (JBLM) near Tacoma, WA, is actually something of a homecoming. The new offices are in a handsome red brick building that housed the Red Cross on-base from 1944 until the early 1990s.
Adrienne Bolton, an SAF regional program specialist, isn’t sure why the Red Cross left the building a quarter-century ago. It was put to other uses for a while and then left vacant for a time. It was still vacant when Bolton and Sarah Jacob, also a regional program specialist, first inspected it a few months ago. What Sarah does remember from that visit was finding it dusty and thick with cobwebs. “It was so bad, a spider got in my hair,” she recalls grimly.
The building is clean now, and the Red Cross has a facility on the military base that is a night-and-day improvement over the space they had been using in recent years. The just-vacated SAF offices were small and cramped — far too small for the Red Cross to provide all the services to the military they wanted to provide.
Worse still, access to the building was up a long flight of outside stairs — with another set of stairs inside. The new offices are handicapped accessible — which the old offices clearly were not.
Access to the new building is at ground level. Once inside, the new offices are spacious and inviting — able to house many more of the services that the Red Cross SAF team is tasked with providing to its military clients. “We finally have room to bring in the community,” says Bolton. “We want them to come in and see and feel that we care.”
Service to the Armed Forces is hardly a new function for the Red Cross. In fact, it dates back to the establishment of the American Red Cross by Clara Barton in 1881. Barton — known as the “Angel of the Battlefield” — not only tended wounded soldiers during the Civil War but bolstered their morale by writing letters they could send to their families.
SAF today serves active-duty and retired military and their families. Probably the best-known SAF service is emergency assistance — linking military personnel and their families when there is an emergency. “More than 110,000 military families reach out to the American Red Cross for emergency assistance each year,” says the Red Cross SAF web page. An online tool at www.redcross.org/Hero Care Network even lets military families communicate emergency messages 24/7 by computer, tablet or smart phone.
And the Red Cross offers a wide range of services to the military beyond emergency assistance. There is, for example, resiliency training to help both those on active duty and their families cope with the special stresses of military life. The new facility offers enough room that the Red Cross can partner with other organizations to host community events. There will be weekly coffee-and-cookie socials — open to anyone in the community who cares to drop in and visit.
The joint base, created in 2010, joins together the Army’s Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base. Fort Lewis itself opened in 1917, and the Red Cross began functioning at the base in 1918. “This marks 100 years for the Red Cross at Fort Lewis,” says Bolton. The anniversary will be celebrated on March 28, at a Recognition Day observance to honor the many volunteers who are part of the SAF team.
Bolton says more than 100 volunteers help carry out the SAF mission at JBLM — doing everything from case work to filing and general office work. Some volunteers assist at the Madigan Army Medical Center — the base medical facility.
There is always a need for volunteers to serve as patient escorts at the hospital. “Patient escort provides some of the best opportunities to interact with Madigan patients,” says Bolton. There are also medical professionals who contribute their time and talents to the Red Cross. “We have a hand surgeon and an opthamologist who serve as Red Cross volunteers,” Bolton says.
Both Bolton and Jacob have strong ties to the military. Bolton’s husband was in the Army for 12 years and Jacob’s father was an officer in the Coast Guard. Beyond what the SAF does in the States, it also has a range of facilities in military installations overseas. Jacob recently finished one six-month deployment at Camp Arifjan, a military base in Kuwait. She is already scheduled to do a six-month deployment to a U.S. military facility in the East African country of Djibouti.
For now, Bolton and Jacob will concentrate on getting the new facility at JBLM up and running. With more space and easier access to work with, the base SAF program can greatly expand the number and types of programs it can offer.
And the old-new SAF building offers still another benefit — an opportunity to work in a structure that is not only handsome and functional but also has a bit of history attached. “Built in 1944, this Greek Revival Building housed the American National Red Cross Field Office,” says a historical marker. “Part of the Fort Lewis Garrison Historic District, this building is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places.”