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Health and Fitness

The American Red Cross and the Military: A century-old partnership

In the darkest days of World War II, as American troops battled enemies on two fronts...

In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, honorary chairman of the Red Cross, proclaimed the month of March as "Red Cross Month," with a fundraising goal of $125 million. By that June, donations had topped $145 million. Roosevelt called it the "greatest single crusade of mercy in all of history." March has been set aside to honor the Red Cross ever since.

Below are just a few of the ways the American Red Cross has supported and continues to care for our men and women in uniform through the years.

The founder

Clarissa "Clara" Barton was a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., when the Civil War broke out in April 1861, and poorly trained, poorly outfitted Soldiers began pouring into the capital. Barton organized food, clothing and bedding donations to support the Soldiers. She was soon transporting provisions to the front lines as well.

"I thought that night if heaven ever sent out a[n] ... angel, she must be one - her assistance was so timely," one overwhelmed Army surgeon wrote after Barton arrived at his hospital at midnight with a wagonload of supplies.

Toward the end of the war, she began corresponding with many wives and mothers whose men had been reported missing or had simply disappeared. Over the next four years, Barton and her assistants identified some 22,000 missing servicemen.

Barton travelled to Europe in 1869. There, she learned about the Red Cross, and saw its impact first-hand during the Franco-Prussian War. She founded the American Red Cross in 1881. It received its first congressional charter in 1900, and its mission remains basically the same today: to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.


Soon after its founding, the American Red Cross participated in a number of disaster relief efforts, and introduced water safety, first aid and public nursing programs. It also originally aided the U.S. military during the Spanish-American War. The organization really came into its own during World War I, however.

The number of chapters rose from 107 in 1914 to 3,864 in 1918, and membership jumped from 17,000 to more than 20 million adult and 11 million junior members. In addition to providing ambulance drivers and millions of surgical dressings, other medical supplies and relief items, the Red Cross made a significant contribution to the war effort through nursing. It recruited and trained some 20,000 nurses to serve the military, both at home and abroad.

This trend continued during World War II. Between 1939 and 1946, the Red Cross Nursing Service enrolled about 212,000 nurses and certified half of them for the Army and Navy Nurse Corps.
American Red Cross photo collage

Blood program

During World War II, the military also asked the Red Cross to organize a Blood Donor Service with a goal of processing blood into dried plasma. The organization collected about 13.4 million pints of blood from 6.6 million donors over the course of the war.

The military took over its own blood program at the end of the Korean War, according to the Armed Forces Blood Program. Today, the Red Cross still provides about 40 percent of the nation's blood supply, and the two organizations work together in times of great need.

Hospital and veterans services

Throughout its history, the Red Cross has aided hospitalized service members and veterans, offering everything from free first phone calls home to writing letters to running errands to providing personal care items to holding recreational activities.

Many of those efforts continue today. At Naval Hospital (NH) Jacksonville, Florida, for example, Red Cross volunteers contribute about 900 hours each month. According to the hospital, they counsel patients on personal and family issues; help coordinate emergency leave; obtain background information from patients for use by medical staff; and lift the spirits of patients, visitors and staff.

The organization also remains committed to helping military members and veterans by offering financial, job, legal and mental health counseling. In addition, Red Cross workers assist veterans in filing benefits claims and appeals.

For assistance, call the Red Cross at 877-272-7337, contact a local Red Cross office or submit a request online.

American Red Cross photo collage

Deployment services

Efforts to entertain the troops and keep them in touch with home have never stopped at the hospital doors either. Red Cross directors have deployed to counsel troops, distribute comfort items and serve as conduits between service members and their families during major conflicts, for example, and a number of the organization's employees have been killed overseas.

The Red Cross built clubs across the globe during World War II that offered meals, places to sleep, activities and even barbershops. And when GIs couldn't get to the clubs, the Red Cross took the clubs to them via "clubmobiles" (half-ton trucks or refurbished buses). These mobile units were typically staffed by young women nicknamed "Donut Dollies," and offered coffee, donuts, reading material and often music.

These activities evolved into the Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas (SRAO) program in Korea and Vietnam. Teams of young, college-educated women travelled to forward and isolated locations where they served light refreshments and engaged servicemen in games, skits and quizzes. The SRAO lasted 20 years in Korea. By the time it ended in 1973, 899 women had traveled more than 2.9 million miles on the peninsula. In 1969 in Vietnam alone, 110 young women reached about 300,000 GIs a month.

Servicemen would crowd around the women. Emily Strange, who served in Vietnam that year, said most men had a "thousand-yard stare that just looked right through you and sort of focused on your face" in "Women in Vietnam: An Oral History." A GI would usually be confused, she continued, because "it was contradictory to everything in his mind that there should be standing there an American woman looking at him. ... Then he just broke out in this big grin."

Today, the Red Cross offers deployment courses for service members and their families, as well as reconnection workshops and post-deployment resources. The organization has also been present to support troops downrange in Iraq and Afghanistan, even bringing in therapy dogs.

"It was very easy to become depressed and homesick over there," wrote Army Sgt. Michelle Woods. "The dog's sole purpose was to boost our morale. ... It was so comforting seeing a pet there. ... No words could truly describe how grateful I was."

Prisoners of war

The American Red Cross has maintained Barton's original commitment to missing service members and prisoners of war in every conflict since its founding. During World War II, for example, some 13,500 volunteers assembled Red Cross packages nationwide. They usually contained nonperishable foods such as raisins, coffee, dried milk, orange concentrate, canned fish and chocolate bars, as well as cigarettes, soap, medicine and clothing.

During the Korean War, the Red Cross was instrumental in facilitating tens of thousands of prisoner exchanges between United Nations and North Korean forces. The organization also swept into action after Vietnam heated up, eventually forwarding almost 20,000 letters to POWs from their families, and participating in a "Write Hanoi" campaign that urged North Vietnamese authorities to help captured and missing American servicemen. Red Cross workers were also on hand to welcome released POWs home and provide them with personal comfort items.

American Red Cross photo collage

Emergency communications and financial assistance

Last but not least, the Red Cross remains a vital conduit between service members and their families. To date, the organization has provided more than 17,000 emergency communications to about 31,000 families in 2018 alone. The Hero Care center is available 24-7, with options for online and phone (877-272-7337) assistance. For more information or to request assistance, visit The Red Cross does not authorize emergency leave for service members, however. Its role is to verify the emergency, enabling commanders to make that decision.

The American Red Cross also facilitates emergency financial assistance on behalf of military aid societies. Assistance can include funds for emergency travel, burial of a loved one, or emergency food and shelter. For more information, visit

Sources: Unless otherwise noted, all information is from the Red Cross website and official Red Cross histories.
The American Red Cross and the Military: A century-old partnership

Inforgraphic by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Taylor Stinson