By Gordon Williams, American Red Cross Volunteer
Mention the American Red Cross and the first image that may come to mind is red-vested volunteers giving comfort to disaster victims. But equally valid would be the image of a Red Cross volunteer, clutching a telephone, helping a member of the military weather a family emergency.
Responding to disasters is certainly a core competency of the Red Cross, but so is a function called Services to the Armed Forces (SAF). Working with the military has been at the heart of the Red Cross since battlefield nurse Clara Barton founded the organization in 1881. Jason Matheney, who directs the SAF program in the Northwest region, came to the Red Cross in 2019 after 22 years in the U.S. Army.
Under Jason’s leadership, SAF supports service members, active and retired, and their families in a dozen different ways. With 11 military bases in the region (Washington and Northern Idaho) and scads of retired veterans, there are always those in need of all the help SAF can provide.
That help comes in many ways, like the Hero Care Network, a program which helps unite deployed service members with loved ones when there is a death or other emergency in the family. SAF also hosts Hero Cafes to provide both companionship and practical advice to veterans. Resiliency workshops help service members and their families adapt to the rigors of military life. Healing arts workshops help mend veterans experiencing stress and trauma. And, Red Cross volunteers bring treats and cheer to residents of veterans homes and hospitals.
“One of our biggest programs involves Madigan Army Medical Center,” Jason says. That is the military hospital complex at Joint Base Lewis McChord (JBLM), near Tacoma. More than 200 Red Cross volunteers support Madigan–doing everything from manning the front desk to using their medical training to provide skilled care.
Jason’s full title is Regional Program Director for not only SAF but IS as well — IS standing for International Services. That, he says, includes such functions as restoring family units — work geared towards helping reunite family members around the world in times of global crisis. Finally, IS includes the role the Red Cross plays in teaching International Humanitarian Law –the rules that govern what is permissible and what is illegal in wartime.
Jason says he didn’t have to think very hard about his chosen career. When he was a young man growing up in Klamath Falls, OR, a knee injury abruptly ended his hopes of starring as a college football player. With that door closed, life in the military beckoned. “My dad was in the Army, in Special Forces,” Jason says, and military values were a big thing in his childhood household. In October of 1994, Jason enlisted in the Army. He trained as a paratrooper and eventually spent a dozen years at Fort Bragg NC, home of the 82nd Airborne Division.
He spent considerable time in Afghanistan, though exactly what he did there is still considered classified. He did see combat, but what he recalls most vividly is the humanitarian role he saw the military playing in Afghanistan. “In the midst of war,” he says, “I saw the United States helping to feed and house the local population.” Jason says he is particularly proud of the work he did in helping to open a school for Afghan girls.
That involvement in humanitarian work put Jason in close touch with another organization with a humanitarian mission– the American Red Cross. “I worked closely with the Red Cross in Afghanistan,” he says. That helped steer him to the Red Cross when he retired from active duty. He was already based at JBLM, which is where the regional SAF function is based. Jason first considered working in Red Cross disaster services, but running the SAF program was a much better fit.
Since on the job, Jason has been busy expanding SAF’s range of service offerings and extending its reach. Thus, SAF now has an office at Fairchild Air Force base near Spokane, in addition to the main office at JBLM. Jason says that in serving the region’s vast military population, “SAF runs 80 events a month across the Northwest region.”
There is always a strong demand for SAF services but adding the Covid-19 pandemic to all the other stresses of military life has added to that demand. Without the safety valve SAF workshops can provide, veterans could be faced fighting an isolating battle with mental health. Even when things seem to be going well, a family crisis can overwhelm all concerned. Jason calls casework (helping service members through an emergency) his team’s number one mission. “We may be asked to handle 20 or 30 cases a day,” he says.
Asked for an example of how SAF can help, Jason cites the case of a veteran in such deep distress that he was homeless and quite literally living in the woods. “We do a lot of work with homeless veterans,” Jason says. “In this case the man had been going through hard times.”
SAF worked with the Veterans Administration to find the veteran an apartment. He went through the SAF’s healing arts program, which is designed to help repair the traumatic wounds suffered on duty. “Six months later, the man has a real home to live in,” Jason tells us. “Thanks to the healing arts program, he is better able to cope with the stresses of his life.”
Are you interested in joining your local SAF team? Click here to learn more about the work of the American Red Cross Service to the Armed Forces teams and see how you can get involved to serve those who have served our country.