April 18, 2014

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War keeps Red Cross phones busy with family

Tony Perry
Los Angeles Times
SAN DIEGO — The woman on the phone sounded young and very scared.
The doctor, she said, had just scheduled her for a biopsy.
A year ago, she found the lump on her left breast, and the doctor had declared it benign. But so much was different then.
A year ago, her husband, a soldier, had been with her. Now he was in Iraq.
To make matters worse, she said, the grandmotherly neighbor who had volunteered to accompany her to the hospital no longer could. She had just had an emergency mastectomy.
“I have no family who lives here,” she told Red Cross caseworker Jesi Betancourt, who answered a toll-free number distributed to military families. “I need my husband for support. Please help me. Please.”
The request and the plaintive tone were familiar ones to Betancourt and the rest of the staff in this American Red Cross office, which has become a clearinghouse for the pain and anguish of those with loved ones serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In this tidy, tree-lined business park several miles from any military base, calls come in 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from family members of military personnel in not only those hot spots but on bases around the world.
Nearly all the callers are women. Many are desperate.
Relatives have died or are dying. Children have been injured or taken ill. The payment for the rent or the car or the short-term loan is coming due and the bank account is empty. A father, mother, sister, brother or spouse is in the war zone, maybe for the second or third time.
As one of three large-scale regional Red Cross Armed Forces Emergency Service Call Centers nationwide, the San Diego office logs 2,000 official calls from throughout the United States each month — and handles many more for which there is no need to open files.
Sometimes caseworkers direct callers to agencies that can help.
Sometimes they research relatives’ stories to pass on to military commands, where officers decide whose situation is dire enough to merit a trip home.
“Sometimes people just want to talk, sometimes they want somebody to yell at, and sometimes they just cry,” said Red Cross worker Lisa Dance. “We sometimes end up crying with them.”
Thanks to e-mail and satellite phones, communication between deployed troops and their families has never been easier.