By Gordon Williams

Life in the military can be stressful at the best of times. That is why the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program offers resiliency workshops aimed at helping those on active duty, veterans and their families cope with the stress.

The COVID-19 pandemic has obviously made military life even more stressful, while face-to-face workshops violate the dictates of social distancing. The solution, says Lauren Snow, SAF program specialist in the Red Cross Northwest Region, is a new Virtual Resiliency Workshop module.

Snow says the focus of the virtual module, developed by SAF staffers and volunteers, is “on stress-management and relaxation techniques.” Sessions will be live and interactive, and will last 60 to 90 minutes. Each session will have up to 12 participants.

Participants, led by trained and licensed mental health facilitators, will explore managing the stress of isolation, responding to the special needs of children, honing the communications skills needed for highly stressful times, getting healthy sleep and practicing relaxation techniques. Snow says one part of the workshop, called “emotional grit,” will help participants recognize the signs of dangerous depression within themselves and in others.

As you read this, Red Cross volunteers are training to deliver the new module. Snow says she hopes to offer the first virtual workshop by mid-April. It will be available to all service members, their families and veterans throughout the Northwest Region. All workshops, whether virtual or in-person, are free.

The Red Cross has had close ties to the military since Clara Barton, a Civil War battlefield nurse, founded the organization in 1881. Because of the huge military population in the Northwest, SAF is a major Red Cross function for this region. As Snow points out, the veteran population in the region is the third biggest in the U.S., topped only by Washington DC and San Diego.

Jason Matheney is SAF program manager for the Red Cross Northwest Region. Headquarters for the SAF program is Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM), the sprawling joint Army-Air Force base near Tacoma. Snow is based at JBLM, as is the other regional SAF program specialist Yaleidy Torres.

Snow ticks off the issues that typically send people to seek relief at resiliency workshops. She cites the long periods of separation that deployment can bring, while moves from one duty station to another can be highly disruptive. All this can lead to feelings of isolation, depression and a breakdown in communication between husband and wife and between parents and children. At the extreme, deep depression can heighten the risk of suicide.

Lauren Snow, at a SAF event in 2019

And now, of course, the coronavirus has added a whole new level of stress to the mix. Snow mentions the “heightened stress as deployment homecomings are delayed, families can no longer travel back home to be near support systems or loved ones, and supportive programs for veterans are cancelled.”

Before the pandemic hit, Snow says, the SAF program had nine in-person workshops scheduled in March and April; all those workshops had to be cancelled. “I am thrilled that we will be able to offer these individuals a way to still participate in a workshop,” she says.

Leading the Red Cross workshop team, says Snow, are 14 SAF facilitators — six at JBLM and the rest at various Red Cross chapters around the region. All 14 are volunteers and all are licensed mental health professionals. All are trained to run resiliency workshops, both in-person and virtual.

When it comes to the Red Cross presence in the military world, the workshop team is just the tip of the iceberg. Snow says the regional SAF program will have 150 to 200 volunteers at any given time,

Madigan Army Medical Center at JBLM relies on Red Cross volunteers with medical training to flesh out the hospital staff. “They would tell us what they need, and we would recruit volunteers with the appropriate professional credentials,” Snow says. Red Cross volunteers staff the counters at the hospital pharmacy. As you would expect, the demand for Red Cross volunteers with medical training is on the rise as the virus strains existing resources.

Best known role for the SAF program is its Hero Care Network, which supports military families during emergencies. So far, says Matheney, COVID-19 has not brought much of an uptick in demand for hero care, but that is likely to change soon. “We are anticipating an increase in financial assistance within the next 45 days,” Matheney says.

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