By Gordon Williams
American Red Cross chapters pick directors based on the industries and institutions that are vital to the communities they serve. That is why Raed Gyekis has served on the board of the Red Cross South Puget Sound and Olympics chapter for the past three years.
To give him his formal title, he is Air Force Colonel Raed Gyekis — commander of the 225th Air Defense Group of the Washington Air National Guard. The unit is headquartered at Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM) near Tacoma. Gyekis’ Red Cross chapter is also based in Tacoma.
Nor is JBLM the only military facility within the chapter. There is Navy Base Kitsap, the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, the nuclear submarine base at Bangor WA, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center at Keyport WA and the Naval Hospital at Bremerton WA.
So the military plays a huge role in the eight-county area served by the South Puget Sound and Olympics chapter. And the Red Cross has had close ties to the military since battlefield nurse Clara Barton founded the organization in 1881. A major Red Cross function today is Service to the Armed Forces (SAF), which provides assistance to members of the military — active and retired — and to their families.
Gyekis’ role on the chapter board is to help make sure the military and the Red Cross function together harmoniously.
We asked Daniel Wirth, executive director of the South Puget Sound and Olympics chapter, to list some of the things Gyekis’ Guard unit has done for the community. Wirth mentioned “national guard missions handing out food at food banks, fighting wildfires, supporting police officers during Seattle protests and tracing Covid-19 contacts.”
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Just being part of the chapter has been taxing this year. It only came into being earlier in 2020 when the South Puget Sound chapter in Tacoma merged with the Kitsap and Olympic Peninsulas chapter in Bremerton. The challenge has been to integrate all the Red Cross functions in an entity that stretches from Chehalis to the Strait of Juan de Fuca. That challenge has been made more difficult by Covid-19. Executive Director Wirth also had to step away from the chapter for a time to serve as Red Cross incident commander at a California wildfire.
We asked Gyekis what he gains from being on the chapter board. “It gives me another chance to serve,” he said. Gyekis has followed a decidedly offbeat path to his current assignment. While he is an officer in the Air Force, there was a time when he was an officer in the U.S. Army.
He was born in Pennsylvania. At 18, he applied for admission to the University of Washington in Seattle. When the school accepted him, he moved across the country to a city he had never seen. He won a Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) scholarship, and emerged in 1997 as an officer in the Army. He spent 10 years in the Army, piloting Kiowa Warrior helicopter gunships. He flew combat missions in Kosovo and Iraq.
In 2007, he left the Army for a job at Microsoft. “Coming back to Washington allowed me to be a full-time husband and father,” he says. He joined the Washington Air National Guard (WA ANG) at the same time, as a Joint Terminal Attack Controller in an Air Force Tactical Air Control Party (TACP) unit. Since returning to active duty with the Air National Guard, he has led troops on the battlefield in Afghanistan and led Guard units at landslides, earthquakes, floods, fires and now the epidemic in Washington.
Gyekis’ military command, the 225th Air Defense Group, is part of the Western Air Defense Sector. It is one of two commands that patrol U.S. skies on the lookout for hostile aircraft and other threats from the skies. He was recruited for the Red Cross three years ago by Brig. General Jeremy (Java) Horn, then commander of the Washington Air National Guard and now head of security for Alaska Airlines. “Java has been a great mentor to many,” Gyekis said. “He pointed me in the direction of the South Sound Red Cross, knowing it would be a good fit.”
Since then, his Air National Guard units have helped their communities in numerous ways. “Food banks were mostly staffed by retirees — older people who were at high risk from the virus,” Gyekis said. Air and Army Guard units, working alongside Red Cross volunteers, took up the slack — packaging and handing out food at food banks and warehouses across the state.
Beyond that, Gyekis said, “Guard units helped fight this summer’s epidemic of wildfires. They also supported civil authorities during the civil unrest by helping safeguard citizen rights to safely exercise their First Amendment rights, and they have worked hard to secure the state election system against cyber attacks. They even helped make sure virus relief checks reached recipients safely when state workers found themselves overwhelmed.”
Being a senior officer means Gyekis is the hands-off commander, rather than a worker on the line. “I don’t get my hands as dirty as I would like to,” he said. When he was promoted to his present Air Guard job last September, it was with this endorsement from his commander, “He knows how to build people who win.”
And the Red Cross South Puget Sound and Olympics Chapter is proud to have Gyekis “winning” for them.