The calls are coming into the American Red Cross office at Fort Belvoir -- sometimes in a trickle, sometimes in a rush. After a week of watching television pictures from Iraq of howitzer-firing U.S. troops, bombed targets and, more recently, American POWs, concerned relatives are turning to the Red Cross.
A Maryland caller says his brother is in a military transportation unit in the Middle East and had been faithfully calling home twice a week but suddenly stopped. Could the Red Cross track him down and ask him to phone home? Another caller says a family member had been stationed in Germany. Could the Red Cross find out if he's been deployed to the Middle East? A local mother is concerned about her son, who was in Kuwait the last time she heard from him.
"I'm sure you've seen the news," Red Cross volunteer Roxanne Forbes gently tells the worried mom over the telephone. "Communications is getting quite difficult."
It's all in a day's work for the South Fairfax/ Fort Belvoir outpost of the American Red Cross, where volunteers and staff members manning phone lines and military e-mail keep these families in touch around the world during difficult times. The 24-hour-a-day operation, called Armed Forces Emergency Services (AFES), had its origins in the Civil War.
AFES workers relay news of important family events -- births, deaths, serious illnesses -- to troops overseas no matter where they are. The service relies on Red Cross personnel stationed with the troops and on commanding officers and other military sources.
The Fort Belvoir center, operated by American Red Cross of the National Capital Area, normally receives between 100 and 200 calls a month, managers say. The center serves Fairfax and Montgomery counties and the District.
Lately, the subject matter has turned from the usual messages about births and deaths in the family to what the Red Cross terms "health and welfare" calls. Family members want to find out where their loved ones are, whether they have been deployed to a more dangerous setting or if they are with a particular unit that has been seen fighting on television.
In a time when e-mail makes worldwide communication relatively easy and frequent, relatives feel lost when that link is cut, said Debbie Vanderbeek, Fort Belvoir's Red Cross manager.
Her staff reassures callers that "right now, not getting phone calls or e-mail is normal," she said.
Most of the time, the Red Cross can track anyone, anywhere, fairly quickly. But during wartime, an e-mail check with a commanding officer can take days instead of hours. "That's just going to be the reality right now," Vanderbeek said.
The Fort Belvoir Armed Forces Emergency Service center can be reached at 703-805-2057 or 877-272-7337. A listing of resources for military families can be found at www.defenselink.mil. Click on the "family" link.