The Red Cross Message

The Red Cross Message

Contributed by Alan Rohlfing


The first time I heard the words “Red Cross Message”, I was in the middle of Army Boot Camp. Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri…summer of 1986. In that time before cell phones, that time before social media, it seems like it was easier to focus on our military jobs because we had fewer distractions. Without the technology that, these days, keeps us all up-to-date on the status of friends and family, it was easy to get caught off-guard with a bit of unexpected bad news. And bad news came on a regular basis, like the time when a drill sergeant broke it to one of my battle buddies that there was a death in his family and he needed to call home.

I know many of you are familiar with that message, from personal experience. The Red Cross message is basically the end product of one of the services that the American Red Cross provides to the United States military. When one of our service members has an emergency that may require leaving his or her duty station, whether stateside or deployed downrange, the Red Cross can be requested to independently verify the emergency. While the Red Cross does not authorize emergency leave, that independent verification enables the service member’s commander to make an educated decision regarding emergency leave and if transportation and/or financial assistance is needed.

One of the country’s oldest Congressionally-chartered Veterans Service Organizations, today’s American Red Cross serves as a critical line of communication between the U.S Armed Forces and their families. The iconic symbol of the organization, founded by Clara Barton in 1881, makes many of us recall the classic images of Red Cross nurses helping American soldiers and civilian war victims during World War I…but it does so much more. Still tasked by the federal government with providing services to members of the American Armed Forces and their families and disaster relief in the United States and around the world, Red Cross workers proudly carry on the tradition of serving those in the military community with the Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program. That program helps members of the military, veterans, and their families prepare for, cope with, and respond to, the challenges of military service.

The Red Cross manages its ‘force structure’ by Chapters & Regions, and each Service to the Armed Forces program offers up different events to its constituents. Here in the St. Louis area, the Service to the Armed Forces committee on which I volunteer prides itself on its outreach & how we hope to make a difference to those we serve. We provide Reconnection workshops, which are free and confidential events that help with reintegration; an annual Women Warriors Baby Shower, for expectant mothers from our military community; and a Holiday Mail for Heroes campaign every holiday season, an effort that provides our community with the opportunity to send messages of thanks and holiday cheer to military members, veterans, and their families.

When I was a young Field Artilleryman in the 1st Infantry Division, I was busy preparing for deployment, for combat. In those times when I was headed to the field or downrange – not really sure how long it would be until I spoke with one of my loved ones again – I remember making sure that my family knew how to contact the Red Cross for assistance, should something tragic happen.

In those days, it was a landline phone call to the nearest Red Cross chapter. These days, the American Red Cross Hero Care Center is available 7/24/365 days a year, and you can request assistance online or by phone. To initiate a request by phone for Red Cross emergency assistance for members of the military currently serving on active duty, call 1-877-272-7337 to speak to an Emergency Communications Specialist.

You can also start a request for services with a computer, smartphone, or tablet and track its progress from anywhere in the world using the Red Cross’ online self-service tool. To request assistance online, visit:, download the free Hero Care App, or text “GETHEROCARE” to 90999.

Every day, more than 300 military families request assistance through the Hero Care Network by either using the online self-service tool via computer, tablet, or cell phone, or by calling a Communication Specialist.

Whichever way you initiate that request for emergency assistance, please be prepared to provide information about the service member and the emergency (the Red Cross says to use the phone option if you don’t have all of the required information below):

Service member information

  •         Full legal name
  •         Rank/rating
  •         Branch of service (Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard)
  •         Social Security number or Date of Birth
  •         Military unit address
  •         Information about the deployed unit and home base unit (for deployed service members only)

Information about the emergency

  •         Name and contact for the immediate family member experiencing the emergency (could be spouse, parent, child/grandchild, or grandparent)
  •         Nature of the emergency
  •         Where the emergency can be verified (hospital, doctors office, funeral home)

There are certain eligibility requirements to consider. Service members eligible to receive emergency communications regarding an immediate family member include: those on active duty in the Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, or Coast Guard; activated members of the Guard and Reserve of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces; civilians employed by or under contract to the Department of Defense and stationed outside the Continental United States; cadets or midshipmen at a service academy; ROTC cadets on orders for training; or Merchant Marines aboard a U.S. Naval Ship.

It bears repeating that the American Red Cross does not authorize emergency leave for members of the United States military. Again, the role of the Red Cross is to independently verify the emergency, enabling the service member’s commander to make an educated decision regarding the granting of emergency leave. If transportation and/or financial assistance is needed, the Red Cross can help expedite access to emergency financial assistance via Military Aid Societies. These Aid Societies determine the financial assistance package that will be offered, and whether it will be in the form of a grant or a loan.

These days, I look in the mirror and realize that I’ve become the old man in the room. It’s been over 30 years since I first learned about the Red Cross & its “message” as a young Private in Boot Camp. It’s been over 20 years since I was a young(ish) Battery Commander on a long field exercise, a commander tasked with the authority to grant that emergency leave that my troops needed so. It’s been just over 10 years since I last received my own Red Cross message, one that I knew was coming due to the advent of technology and the constant contact I had with my wife during that deployment.

I’ve seen the tremendous positive impact that the American Red Cross has on our military community and now, as a retired Soldier, I get to ‘give back’ a little by volunteering with the local chapter’s Service to the Armed Forces committee. And, if you’re able, I encourage you to see how you can give back in your neck of the woods.