Red Cross Supports POWs, Troops in Kosovo
By Maj. Donna Miles, USAR
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, April 13, 1999 It was a busy day at the American Red Cross' Armed Forces Emergency Service Center in Falls Church, Va.
Kirsten Teumer sat at a telephone station responding to the typical array of calls that pour into the center every day. Military families trying to get emergency information to a service member called directly or indirectly through one of almost 1,300 Red Cross chapters throughout the United States. A grandfather had died. A father was seriously ill. The family house had burned down. A child had been born.
With increasing frequency since NATO-led military action was launched against Yugoslavia in late March, many of the calls to the Red Cross concerned service members supporting Operation Allied Force in Europe.
"We've definitely been busy with the situation in Kosovo," Teumer said. "There have been a lot of inquiries and a lot of interest."
At the rate of one message every 22 seconds -- 1.4 million last year alone -- Teumer and her fellow Red Cross workers deliver the emergency communication services men and women in uniform and their families have come to depend on.
In a calm, reassuring voice, she gathered information, verified it with hospital and other official sources, then passed it to military commanders. She used military locator services and the military communications network to contact service members wherever they might be at their permanent bases, on training or operational deployments or at sea.
"It's nice to be that middle link between families and military people overseas to know we can help ease their stress," Teumer said.
Sometimes Red Cross workers have little more than a name and service to launch their searches. "Our workers often play detective," said Sue Richter, vice president of the Red Cross Armed Forces Emergency Services. "It's always best when we have the unit address and social security number. But if someone gives us a name, we can track someone down."
For units deployed for Operation Desert Fox and Operation Allied Force in Europe, Teumer and her colleagues transmit their messages through Red Cross staff members serving on the ground with the troops. According to Richter, six Red Cross employees are in Bosnia, with another two in Saudi Arabia and two in Kuwait. Depending on developments in the Balkans, more Red Cross workers could be sent to the region, she said.
Steve Bullock, acting American Red Cross president, knows firsthand the role the Red Cross' Armed Forces Emergency Services workers play during military operations; he served as one in both Germany and Vietnam. "I can tell you how vitally important it is to our military personnel to have the American Red Cross right by their side in times of conflict," he said.
The Red Cross also provides a vital communication link between prisoners of war and their families. Red Cross chapters in Los Angeles, San Antonio and Port Huron, Mich., for example, have met with the families of the three U.S. soldiers being held captive by the Yugoslavian government. All three families wrote confidential messages to be delivered to the POWs by the International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Geneva, Switzerland.
In accordance with the Geneva Conventions, the International Red Cross asked the Yugoslavians for permission to visit the prisoners to assess their conditions and deliver the messages. At press time, as negotiations for the POWs' release continued, the Red Cross awaited a response to its visitation request.
Richter said Red Cross visits can have a major impact on the morale and well-being of both POWs and their families. In October 1993, for example, the International Committee of the Red Cross visited CWO 2 Michael Durant, an Army helicopter pilot taken captive in Mogadishu, Somalia.
After the visit, the Red Cross delivered a letter from Durant to his wife. "That letter was something tangible for her to hold on to, and she expressed deep gratitude for our help," Richter said.
For long-term detainments, the Red Cross provides prisoners "POW kits" with toiletries, candy and playing cards. "But for the three soldiers in Yugoslavia, the most important thing is communication with their families," said Richter. "That's our priority right now."
Meanwhile, the American Red Cross staff stands ready to pass emergency communications from the families of all service members, wherever they are serving. The center can be reached toll-free at (877) 272-7337 and serves Washington, D.C., and 12 East Coast states. A second center is slated to open June 7 at Fort Sill, Okla. Local Red Cross chapters also offer assistance.
"Family members don't have to do a lot of stressing and try to call the base or post where their son or daughter was stationed to try and find them," said Phyllis Marvin, manager of the Red Cross station at Aviano Air Base, Italy. "They just need to get hold of their local Red Cross office."
Richter said the Red Cross' role in providing emergency communications hasn't changed, even in these days of cellular phones and e-mail. "Today's military is so mobile and often operates in such remote places that communication remains a challenge," she said. That's especially true, she added, during emergencies when families are most in need of help.
"If the Red Cross weren't doing this, many military families wouldn't know where to turn," she said.