COVID-19 has more military members seeking Red Cross help

By Gordon Williams

The volunteers who work with the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program are seeing a marked jump in requests for help since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

Jason Matheney, SAF director for the Red Cross Northwest Region, says requests for assistance have spiked from those in the military, their families and veterans. He says as many as 80 percent of the requests coming to the Red Cross Hero Care Network now involve financial hardship linked to COVID-19.

“A lot of people have lost jobs, so they are asking for financial assistance to help pay for food or housing,” Matheney says. “Maybe their car has broken down and they need help paying for repairs.”

Matheney — who retired after 21 years in the Army — assumed a surge in requests for help was on the way. “We knew it was coming,” he says. His team of Red Cross staffers and volunteer caseworkers got extra training to make sure they were ready when the surge hit. The Red Cross is recruiting more caseworkers to handle the demand.

The staff members and volunteers serve those on active duty, their families and veterans throughout the Northwest Region, which covers Washington and Northern Idaho. Active duty includes members of an activated National Guard or Reserve unit.

Headquarters for the regional SAF program is Joint Base Lewis-McChord, the huge Army-Air Force base near Tacoma. Most SAF volunteers live in Western Washington. But the Air Force has Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, and the Red Cross is building a caseworker team there. “We just added four new caseworkers in Spokane,” Matheney says.  

SAF delivers a variety of services to the military. The aim of the Hero Care Network is to help in emergency situations — a death or illness in the family, or a financial crisis brought in by a disaster or the loss of a job.

Requests for Hero Care assistance can be submitted online through the Hero Care app, found at the Apple Store or Google Play, or by calling 877-272-7337 to reach a Red Cross call center staffed 24/7 by trained specialists.

Matheney says half the calls for assistance come from service members on active duty, half from veterans. Once the request is submitted, a trained caseworker will take over. If it is a family emergency, such as death or illness, the caseworker will work with the service member’s unit commander to arrange emergency leave and transportation. If the request is for financial help, the caseworker will work with a partner organization to provide the assistance.

Typically, the partner organization will be one of the military aid societies. ”Each branch of service has a military aid society,” Matheney says. There is Army Emergency Relief, Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society, Air Force Aid Society and Coast Guard Mutual Assistance. These societies can provide grants or interest-free loans to pay bills.

There are now 17 SAF caseworkers in the Northwest Region, and they are trained to keep the conversation going until they understand exactly why the caller is seeking help. The Red Cross goal, Matheney says, is to provide the requested assistance within 72 hours of being called. “Caseworkers have to dig deep to find the resources,” he says, but in virtually every instance the resources are found. 

One such volunteer caseworker is James Naeher of Federal Way, WA — a veteran of 22 years in the U.S. Navy and a Red Cross volunteer for just over a year. He did career counseling after retiring from the Navy. He came to the Red Cross, as he puts it, “after retiring from retiring.” Naeher says he has always done a lot of volunteering, as far back as his Navy days. “The Red Cross had a lot to offer,” he says. Naeher typically works eight hours a week as a caseworker — from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Monday and Wednesday. His work begins when a call for assistance comes into the Hero Care Network reporting a family emergency or requesting financial help. Things must move quickly, especially in case of death or illness. Leave must be arranged with the service member’s unit and transportation must be arranged to bring the family together.

James Naeher, volunteering at an event in 2019

Naeher will then determine if there are other issues that need to be resolved. “We need to find out if there is anything else the Red Cross can do,” Naeher says. He finds the work stressful but gratifying. “We are helping people,” he says.  

The Red Cross has found a new way to help veterans, while tapping a new source for caseworkers. It is the Veterans work-study program. To qualify you must be a veteran enrolled in school under one of the GI Bill education benefit programs. You would work for the Red Cross 25 hours a week and earn a salary while going to school. “We already have 10 veterans signed up for the program, five at JBLM and five in Spokane,” Matheney says. They will flesh out the ranks of SAF caseworkers just when they are needed the most.

Learn more about Red Cross Services to the Armed Forces. Visit our website here.

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