Holiday Cheer For American Military Heroes Up North

By Dan Williams, Executive Director of the American Red Cross Serving Northern Minnesota

The American Red Cross Holiday Mail for Heroes program boils down to messages of thanks and well wishes to people who are serving or have served in the American armed forces. While the number of cards signed, gathered, and distributed is large — more than 15,300 this year in northern Minnesota — our Red Cross volunteers, and other important helpers, ensured that every local service member or veteran received a bundle of cards wrapped in a ribbon with a gift tag attached.

Each bundle was special. Each card was special.

I think the cards are so special that I want to take the opportunity to share a few of the messages with you.

Many of the cards had patriotic themes, and great artwork. Some of them had extremely heartfelt messages. And, some were even written from the perspective of the family dog.

This card could not be more perfect.

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Imagine, a holiday message from a WWII veteran! Thank you, Jerry, for your service!

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A great card with a great message.

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Bridget from Esko has it right!

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Sometimes the best message is just ‘thanks.’

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Making it happen

Holiday Mail for Heroes is part of our local Red Cross Services to Armed Forces. We have learned through this undertaking, during this year and past years:

  • People in our communities genuinely thank and support our military service members and veterans from the bottom of their hearts through the Holidays Mail for Heroes
  • People in military service members, or who are veterans, genuinely appreciate the gratitude and support provided by the Holidays Mail for Heroes

brainerd-hsAcross northern Minnesota, in 2014 we collected, sorted, and distributed just over 7,000 cards to local service members and veterans. In 2015, we expanded our efforts to include a handful of senior living facilities and county veterans services officers, which resulted in the distribution of more than 12,000 thank you messages. This year, as of December 21st, we were up to 15,385 cards distributed to nearly 4,000 military members and veterans from our chapter!

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Holiday Mail for Heroes would not happen without a delightful mix of community and corporate involvement. Some key contributors returned to this project. For example, nearly all students from Brainerd High School made cards again this year. Thanks to Beth Bastain for making this happen! The quality and thoughtfulness of the messages and artwork in their cards, reminds me that the future is in good hands with our youth. And, when I think of youth, I must mention the great students from Bryant Elementary in Superior, Wisconsin. For the fourth year in a row, our Red Cross chapter received incredible cards from the students there. Thanks to Principal Kate Tesch for her leadership!

umdWe had great support from businesses as well, with over 5,000 blank cards printed up for use at public events hosted by Essentia Health, Bent Paddle Brewing, ZMC Hotels, and Thrivent Financial.  We could not have made this happen without their support. Another company that made a massive difference this year is DeCare Dental. Through their locations in Gilbert and in Eagan, they signed over 4,000 Holiday Mail for Heroes cards.

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Our colleges were incredibly supportive as well, with the University of Minnesota-Duluth Athletic Department, and Greek Life Club being key partners.  The College of St. Scholastica was incredible as well, with support ranging from the Hockey Cheerleaders to the Sisters at the adjacent Benedictine Monastery.

Click here to see more of the most special Holiday Mail for Heroes cards of the year. Click here to learn more about Red Cross Services to Armed Forces.

Most of all, if you’re a military veteran, thank you for your service. If you have veterans you’re close to, please pass along our thanks to them as well.

Happy holidays to everyone!

Hero Care App connects military families

rco_blog_img_herocareapp_img_7073The American Red Cross has a new mobile app for military families and veterans. The Hero Care App provides instant access to vital Red Cross services anywhere in the world. Whether you’re a military member, the parent of a child in the military, a military spouse, or a veteran, this free mobile application guides you to valuable resources and services that can help alleviate stress and provide important information at your fingertips.

With the Hero Care App you can...

  • Request Red Cross emergency services including an emergency message or assistance with emergency travel or emergency financial aid.
  • Securely and easily access information about their service member in the case of an emergency, including updated information as they move or change duty assignments.
  • Access non-emergency Red Cross behavioral health assistance including financial assistance and free local workshops for military kids and spouses.
  • Find local resources and information provided by trusted community partners like Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS), Blue Star Families, Military Child Education Coalition, United Way, Goodwill, Easter Seals, and others.
  • Locate information on key government resources such as MilitaryOneSource, VA Benefits and Services, Department of Labor VETS, the VA Caregiver Support Program, and SAMSHA Community Health Support Services.

In addition, with the Hero Care App you can connect with other Red Cross apps, such as the Emergency, First Aid and Blood apps.

To download to the Hero Care App to your smart phone or tablet, search for ‘American Red Cross’ in your app store, text GETHEROCARE to 90999 to receive a download link, or go to redcross.org/apps. The Hero Care App is available in English and Spanish.

Red Cross Women in France during World War I

Dee Smith, 36, served with the American Red Cross as secretary in Paris, during World War I. Photo from the Minnesota Historical Society collection.
Dee Smith, 36, served with the American Red Cross as secretary in Paris, during World War I. Photo from the Minnesota Historical Society collection.

During World War One, people in Minnesota made a major contribution to The Great War effort. Minnesota women were among them. At home, they did many things to help, such as darn socks, make bandages, pack comfort kits, and offer first aid classes. More than 120 of them chose to be close to the front lines in Europe. Their names included Ruby, Marion, Grace, Marguerite, Julia, Aileen, Verna, Leila, Mary, Alice, Helen, Dee, and Rose. Their jobs were many, such as canteener, secretary, nurse, supply-truck driver,  and social worker. They, like the men they helped, held steadfast.

As part of ongoing remembrances during the war’s centenary years through 2018, we share below an exceprt from “Awfully Busy These Days: Red Cross Women in France During World War I” by Nancy O’Brien Wagner and published in the Minnesota History Magazine, Spring 2012.

Late train arrivals were just one of many wartime annoyances. Flies, lice, fleas, hives, chilblains–nearly every woman complained of these. Food shortages, food and coal rationing, and high prices were popular topics, too. Marion Backus wrote: “Between cooties, fleas, and hives I am having an interesting time. The last two bother me most…the only things I miss are pie and cake. When I get home am going to eat a dozen pies right straight at one lick, and then a strawberry short cake.”

Alice O’Brien dismissed these discomforts with suspiciously adamant protests.

All your letters carry messages of Sympathy such as–I must be working so hard–not enough food–not enough sleep–feet must be sore, etc. etc. I am sorry if my letters have given you that impression because it is not a true one. Of course we do work hard but we love it and nothing is as healthy as hard work. We have fine beds, and I assure you we use them a lot. I have never been better in my life–never–and I have everything I need.

Everything but intact socks, it appears. In July Alice wrote, “Mugs [Marguerite Davis] came into the room last night and said that she realized, for the first time, how far we were from home. You bet we’re a long way off when I started darning.” She went on to request that socks be sent from St. Paul. They arrived four months later, in the hands of Grace Mary Bell, an acquaintance who had signed on as a canteener. She described the meeting for Alice’s parents: “I delivered safely into her hands sundry articles at which point she devoutly remarked ‘Thank the Lord, I can stop darning!'”

Cases of homesicknesses developed, too, though few would admit it. Dee Smith wrote from Paris with insightful candor:

The whole idea here is anything to keep the morale of the men as high as possible, & everyone is so proud of them that no one begrudges them a good time. It is fine for the girls, too, tho no one ever seems to think they may get lonely and discouraged. I have met an occasional one who was frankly homesick, & don’t doubt there are others who are, but keep it to themselves. I think I might be if I didn’t have lots of work, but I haven’t time to think of being homesick. I sometimes even forget there is a war.

Alone in a foreign land, fighting a war with an uncertain outcome, these women were determined not to let their comrades or their country down. Helen Scriver summed up these attitudes: “My conclusions are always the same, namely if others can speak this language, I can, if the rest can life in these houses, so can I and if the rest can hold their jobs, I must be able to hold mine. It is a good philosophy.”

World War I-era, 1914-1918, Red Cross poster in the Minnesota Historical Society collection.
World War I-era, 1914-1918, Red Cross poster in the Minnesota Historical Society collection.

Helen’s steadfast determination was common, and the volunteers’ unflinching efforts made the work of the American Red Cross possible. For example, nurse Marion Backus was transferred to Evacuation Hospital #110 in Villers-Daucourt in September 1918. After a long day of travel, she went on duty that night and stayed on for two weeks. “If anybody had told me that I could take care of more than two ether patients before I came over here I would have laughed and thought them joking. But now I can watch 45 in one ward, 36 in the next and never wink an eye.”

In the fall of 1918, Marguerite Davis and Alice O’Brien watched as train after train of men unloaded at their camp near Chantilly. “We are awfully busy these days,” Alice wrote home. On September 7, their friend Doris Kellogg reported that, with just three other women, they served 1,157 meals in their canteen in three-and-a-half hours; on September 18, they dished up 1,300 meals, and on October 20, more than 1,600.

Good humor, resourcefulness, and flexibility were invaluable traits for Red Cross volunteers. When asked, these women dropped their work and jumped to do whatever was needed. Margaret MacLaren enlisted as a hospital worker, then began running a canteen. Soon, she was driving a supply truck. Minneapolitan Winifred Swift volunteered as a physiological chemist at Red Cross Hospital #2 in Paris, helping to research the nature and treatment of gas gangrene. “During the heavy work following the offensive in spring 1918 and summer, research work was abandoned to give more hands for the task of caring for the wounded…all spare moments were given to relieve the nurses of such work as might be done by those less trained.”

To read the full article, click here.
To learn more about the American Red Cross during World War I, click here.

We’re ready to help military kids manage stress

reconnection-workshop-a-spot_cropThe American Red Cross has two new workshops that help children of military families to manage challenges that are specific to their lives. The workshops, Roger That! Communication Counts and 10-4: Confident Coping, teach essential life skills for military kids and teens to better manage stressful social situations.

“All kids face challenges,” says Diane Manwill, a behavioral health expert with the American Red Cross. “They are growing up and learning to navigate social situations. However, challenges faced by military kids may be compounded because military families move more frequently and family members may be more absent due to military deployments.”

Each of the workshops is composed of two modules with activities designed for children 8 to 12 and teens 12 to 18 years old. The Roger That! Communication Counts workshop focuses on the importance of developing quality interpersonal communication and listening skills. Operation 10-4: Confident Coping focuses on bolstering strengths present in older military children to help manage stressful situations. The new workshops are part of the Red Cross reconnection workshop series.

“My children have participated in these workshops and they make a difference,” says Kelsey Liverpool, co-founder and president of Kids Rank. “It helps because it gives children of military families a place where they can talk, where they feel safe, be with other people who understand what they are going through and learn how they might better adapt to their situation.”

Red Cross volunteers, who are licensed behavioral health professionals and trained to work with children, facilitate the workshops. All professionals have undergone extensive background checks as required by the Department of Defense for adults working with children. Additionally, a second adult is also available during these workshops for support and assistance to the groups.

“We were very proud to support the Red Cross in the development of this program over the past year along with many other subject matter experts in the field,” says Dr. Mary Keller with the Military Child Education Coalition. “We know that community-based initiatives, like this, make a positive difference for our military kids.”

For more information about this free and confidential program, go to redcross.org/reconnectionworkshops.

Wonderful is a life filled with volunteer service

Story by Ellie Decker, American Red Cross Volunteer Services

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Red Cross volunteer Alice Tomaschko recently received her 60-year service pin in Austin, Minn. Photo credit: Carrie Carlson-Guest.

“I’m never speechless.” But after receiving her 60-years of service pin from the American Red Cross, followed by a Volunteer of the Year Award, Alice Tomaschko was without words. Her fellow volunteers, who attended the volunteer recognition event in Austin, Minnesota, were not. They had much to say about Alice. They described her as a mentor, friend and inspiration. Looking around the room it was clear that Alice had made an impact during her decades of Red Cross volunteer service.

A few days later, I talked more with Alice about her life and volunteer work with the Red Cross. Throughout our conversation Alice laughed. She told me about her children, and late husband, and how volunteering always had been a part of her life. Wonderful is the word Alice uses to describe her life, a life filled with service. Simply, she enjoys volunteering.

Alice started volunteering with the Red Cross in 1955 when she was pregnant with her first daughter. First, she volunteered at local blood drives. She used a typewriter to record donor information. Later, she trained to work with military families, which she describes as one of the greatest things she has done with the Red Cross. Through volunteering with Service to the Armed Forces, Alice witnessed the help Red Cross gave to families. Alice’s husband and his family experienced this assistance firsthand when the Red Cross helped her husband get home for his grandmother’s death. That help is why she chose to volunteer with the Red Cross.

Alice’s work has continued to help people in multiple ways. In addition to those who received Red Cross services, she has helped other volunteers. Being described as a mentor, she says, is the best compliment she could ever receive. Even though it’s impossible to measure the impact Alice has had on others, her impact is here to stay. (She even helped plan the volunteer appreciation event.) The reverse is true, too: the Red Cross has had an impact on Alice. “I’ve had absolutely one of the best lives with the Red Cross I could imagine.”

For more information about becoming a Red Cross volunteer, click here.

Celebrating Women’s History in the Red Cross: A Minnesota Girl Goes to Vietnam

Story and photos by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross
Additional reporting by Lanet Hane/American Red Cross

Lois Hamilton served with the American Red Cross Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) program in Korea after the war in 1965 and during the Vietnam War in 1967 and 1968. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross
Lois Hamilton served with the American Red Cross Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) program in Korea after the war in 1965 and during the Vietnam War in 1967 and 1968. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

Lois Hamilton was a Red Cross caseworker at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital in 1967 when she decided to go to Vietnam at a hot time during the war. At the hospital, she saw “horrendous injuries,” but she also saw wounded warriors get well. “I loved my work,” she says over coffee and pastries at her home in Rochester, Minnesota. “It was my job to make the whole situation easier for them, to comfort them.”

By that time, and the time of her decision to go to Vietnam, she already had overseas experience. She’d left her hometown of Osseo, Minnesota, to serve with the Red Cross’s Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) program in Korea in 1965. She was 22 years old. She knew Vietnam would be different, tougher and more serious. Still, her Korea experience was key: “Had I not gone to Korea, I’d never have gone to Vietnam,” she says.

When she told some of the patients at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital about her plans “they thought it was the dumbest thing they’d ever heard.” Yet, they were supportive and gave her some advice: “keep your head down,” they said. And she did, for 12 months of service with the Red Cross SRAO program in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.

During that time, Lois and the other SRAO women, all recent college graduates with adventurous spirits, carried program bags: duffels stuffed with quizzes, flashcards and other games for boosting morale and combatting boredom among American troops in South Vietnam.

During the Vietnam War, Lois Hamilton (center) was among hundreds of young women who carried Red Cross SRAO program bags stuffed with quizzes, flashcards and other games they used to boost morale and combat boredom among American troops.
During the Vietnam War, Lois Hamilton (center) was among hundreds of young women who carried Red Cross SRAO program bags stuffed with quizzes, flashcards and other games they used to boost morale and combat boredom among American troops. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

From their base in Saigon, the “Red Cross girls” (also nicknamed “Donut Dollies”) traveled to army units around the country. They went by bus or helicopter. A few made small talk with the helicopter pilots. But unlike some of the other girls, Lois did not make friends with the pilots because their risk of being killed was so high. “I think it was a protection sort of thing.”

Lois never doubted she would make it home. Not even in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, a series of communist military attacks on Saigon. Mostly, the time was “scary for my family because mail wasn’t going in or out.” Still, Lois heard gunfire on her street. Even closing shutters was a danger.

Later, Lois and the other SRAO workers were transferred to the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division headquarters at Camp Enari in Pleiku. There, they sought cover in a bunker that was just for the Red Cross girls. “I worried about some of them,” says Lois, who recalls crying only one time when a shower blew up and there was a fire, and then no hot water. It was a little thing, really, but the little things added up.

Sometimes during their service, Lois and the others wore flak jackets. “You girls should not be here,” a soldier said. “But if you are, then you should wear flak jackets.” They also had fatigues, combat boots and, for a short time, a revolver that a captain at Camp Enari gave them for times when they had to jump in the bunker.

A page from the Sayonara (farewell) book the other Red Cross girls made for Lois Hamilton before she left Vietnam in 1968. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross
A page from the Sayonara (farewell) book the Red Cross girls made for Lois Hamilton before she left Vietnam in 1968. Photo credit: Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross

But they were non-combatants. Most often Lois wore a dress, not a flak jacket. Her job was to bring a smile to a weary soldier’s face. “They had fun and I had fun, too,” she says. “Smiling was good.” For the most part, she felt like one of the guys. “The difference was that I was a civilian.”

In July 1968, her service was up and Lois did not extend. “I’m going home,” she said at the time to the others. “I was just ready to go home,” she says today.

Lois stayed with the Red Cross in various positions and retired decades later. She also became active in the Vietnamese refugee community in Rochester. “I felt I had a kinship because of Vietnam.” She went so far as to welcome three refugee children, with their own stories of survival and escape, into her home and later adopt them.

Reflecting on her Vietnam experience, Lois remembers her decision to go surprising her friends. “Lois would never do that,” some said. But she felt good about going. She would go again. “I’m the one who’s lucky.”

At its peak in 1969, 110 young women with the American Red Cross Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) program reached an estimated 300,000 military members in Vietnam (source: redcross.org). Today, the Red Cross continues to provide emergency communications and other services to America’s armed forces. To learn more, click here.

Gray Ladies celebrate 60th anniversary

Story and photo by Amy Chaffins, a journalist with the Echo Press newspaper.

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Gray Ladies members include (back row, left to right) Rhonda Steinberg, Sue Jelen, Marlene Strehlow, Marlien Lohrman, Luella Peterson, Judy Schjei, Judy Steidl, Janet McHugh and Pat Pederson; (front row) Candy Bohjanen-Hammitt, Sylvia Klimek, Irene Wheeler, Hazel Holt, Myrtle McKay and Irene Bundy. Not pictured are Pat Katzmsarek, Linda Kuhlman, Kathleen Linn, Julie Roering, Fran Schultz, Ruth Steidl and Renee Stomberg. (Amy Chaffins/Echo Press)

The American Red Cross Gray Ladies of Alexandria, Minn., celebrated its 60th anniversary on October 30, 2014. The group primarily helps out during Red Cross bloodmobile events.

A special meeting brought the women together at the Traveler’s Inn in Alexandria to celebrate and share stories. There are currently 22 active local members.

In 2013, the Alexandria Gray Ladies volunteered about 1,951 hours at more than 50 bloodmobile events in Douglas County, according to member Candy Bohjanen-Hammitt.

Since its start in 1954, 170 Gray Ladies have served as members.

About the Gray Ladies

The Gray Ladies, formerly known as Hostess and Hospital Service and Recreation Corps, was founded in 1918 at Walter Reed Army Hospital and became a unique and enduring symbol of the Red Cross service in military and later civilian hospitals.

Their gray uniforms worn by the female volunteers at the hospitals prompted wounded soldiers in their care to affectionately call them Gray Ladies.

In 1947, the name was officially changed to the Gray Lady service.

The Gray Ladies do not provide medical care, rather recreational services to patients and assistance where needed at military and civilian hospitals, blood centers and disaster response.

Early on in the Alexandria chapter, the Gray Ladies would visit nursing home patients, write letters and sometimes transport patients to appointments.

Nationwide, during World War II, the service reached its peak with almost 50,000 women serving as Gray Ladies in military and other hospitals across the U.S.

The Gray Ladies continued serving in hospitals until the mid-1960s when the Red Cross shifted to a unified concept of volunteers.

This story is published on our blog with permission. It was originally published in the Echo Press on November 5, 2014.

If you’re interested in volunteering for the American Red Cross, click here.