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Military families' link to hope

San Diego Red Cross call center is a clearinghouse for the crises of those with relatives serving in Afghanistan and Iraq.

June 27, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

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 country 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.

Still, the military relies on the Red Cross to review emergency requests and messages.

As the U.S. mission in Iraq stretches into its fifth year and into its sixth year in Afghanistan, military units require extensive information before they allow a Marine, soldier, or sailor to come home.

By arrangement with the military, Red Cross caseworkers check the facts -- that a baby has been born, that a parent or grandparent has died -- before sending a message to the Red Cross in Iraq. When requests from San Diego reach Red Cross workers in Iraq, they contact the military commands, which often ask for more information.

Exempt from certain federal privacy laws, Red Cross workers routinely call doctors, funeral homes, lawyers, child-protective workers and police departments on behalf of families.

Betancourt says she knows every coroner's office in California and is particularly partial to the friendly workers in Kern County because she likes the jazz they play on their answering machine.

On a recent night, when the older sister of a young Marine called to ask if he could get emergency leave from Iraq to see his dying grandfather, caseworker Joyce Wheeler-Owens called the grandfather's doctor.

"Is he actively dying at this point or is he just in decline?" she asked.

That was only the first step. Red Cross workers also regularly call family members and question them. Gently, they probe.

Did the sailor live near his grandmother as a boy? Was the Marine close to his grandfather? Can you describe how close the soldier was to her aunt or her uncle or her brother-in-law?

They scour medical dictionaries trying to figure out what's at stake. But even serious illness isn't necessarily enough for a strapped unit to grant a leave.

"I've had very sick babies and still the guys couldn't come home," caseworker Gaye Harris said.

About 60% of the calls to the San Diego center are from families in San Diego and Imperial counties. But the center also covers 60 Red Cross chapters nationwide and in Guam.

Calls from Los Angeles are routed to the Springfield, Mass., center. Calls from Orange County go to Louisville, Ky.

Some caseworkers are paid. Some volunteer. All handle not only military calls, but disaster calls from all over the country. On the night the soldier's wife called about the biopsy, for instance, they were fielding calls about an apartment fire in San Francisco and a tornado in New Mexico.

Sometimes spouses lean on them to break the news that a car has been wrecked or that the pay is gone. One military wife asked that her husband and her lover -- stationed on the same ship -- be told that she had given birth.

Caseworkers draw the line at delivering "Dear John" messages.

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