Army Spec. Patrick McDermott had just arrived at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to be treated for a knee fracture he suffered in Iraq, and one thought was foremost in his mind: I want to call home.
McDermott, 45, was among the first wave of injured soldiers flown to Walter Reed in Northwest Washington for treatment last month. While doctors and nurses concentrated on his medical needs, volunteers from the American Red Cross attended to his personal concerns -- including giving him a prepaid telephone calling card.
"I talked to my brother and my sister," McDermott, a Wisconsin native whose relatives live there, said from his hospital bed.
From providing soldiers with phone cards to handing out restaurant and taxi vouchers to their loved ones, local chapters of the American Red Cross are supporting military personnel who have been transported to hospitals in and around Washington after being hurt on the battlefields of Iraq. About 60 volunteers are active in the effort, many representing the National Capital Area Chapter, which serves Montgomery and Fairfax counties and the District.
"It is great to know that there are people here who really care about what we are doing," said McDermott, a member of the Army National Guard's 147th Aviation Battalion.
Barbara A. Green, the Red Cross station manager at Walter Reed, said that in addition to making "comfort kits" for patients, the volunteers assist family members who are waiting to see their loved ones at Walter Reed or National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.
"When they hear about their loved ones coming to Bethesda or Walter Reed, some of these families are just jumping in cars and coming to Washington," said Chris Paladino, executive director of the Red Cross chapter's Montgomery County office.
Jane Martin of Silver Spring works full time for a marketing company, yet she said she is more than happy to devote her free time to being a Red Cross volunteer. Martin said she especially enjoys helping military families, despite the unpredictable hours.
"When the families show up, we sit them down, we help them fill out forms, and we see if they need assistance," she said. "Sometimes the flight [transporting the injured relative] is delayed, so we stay with the family members until the plane comes in. It makes me feel like I am making a difference."
Dressed in her light blue uniform, Red Cross volunteer Suella York answered the phone at Walter Reed's Family Assistance Center on a recent day. York spoke proudly of her role, as if she had been tasked by the Pentagon: "Our main mission is to see that we get the soldiers and their families what they need."
In addition to providing support for local military hospitals, each Red Cross chapter operates a 24-hour emergency communication center; military families rely on the centers to share important news, such as the birth of a child, with their loved ones overseas.
"The [military] commanders like to use us because we always verify the message first," Paladino said.
Since its beginning in 1881 -- years after its founder, Clara Barton, risked her life to care for and write letters to soldiers in the Civil War -- the American Red Cross has been at the vanguard of service in times of war, whether by organizing blood drives or visiting prisoners.
The organization was chartered by Congress in 1905 with two missions: to respond to disasters and to support the military and military families in wartime.
Paladino was attracted to the Red Cross after a gas explosion leveled part of his family's home in Staten Island, N.Y., in the mid-1980s. He said that watching the volunteers help his family sparked his desire to serve. "When families have no place to stay and we can say, 'We can take care of you,' it is a fabulous feeling," he said.