By Mitch Meador, Fort Sill TribuneMarch 21, 2019
FORT SILL, Okla. (March 21, 2019) -- A partnership that tossed a lifeline to the U.S. Coast Guard in time of crisis got a big "Bravo Zulu" at a recent ceremony here.
In maritime signal flags that means "job well done."
Coast Guardsmen were hard hit by the government shutdown that began before Christmas and dragged on for 35 days. Because the Coast Guard now falls under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, an agency whose budget had yet to be approved when the shutdown started, it was the only military service to go without paychecks until the shutdown ended.
In real-world terms, that meant young families struggling to keep their children fed, clothed, and diapered.
A threefold partnership consisting of Coast Guard Mutual Assistance Inc., USAA, and the American Red Cross came to the rescue of U.S. Coast Guard personnel during that difficult time.
Representatives of all three gathered March 13, at the Fort Sill Red Cross Call Center to recognize and celebrate the help their organizations were able to provide.
The Hero Care Center, as the call center on post has been branded for four years, has 90 of the 121 Red Cross workers who man its three call centers, according to Joshua Williams, manager of the facility. They served some 4,600 of 8,600 service members during the lapse in federal funding and distributed $5.4 million in assistance over the course of about one month, according to Keith Pannell, Fort Sill media specialist.
That's nearly the same amount of financial assistance that the Red Cross provided during all of fiscal year 2018 through normal military assistance programs, Pannell noted.
Two other Red Cross call centers in Springfield, Mass., and Louisville, Ky., help make up The Hero Care Network, which presented a united front in the relief effort.
"This is a great opportunity to say thank you," said Koby Langley, senior vice president of International Services and Service to the Armed Forces, divisions of American Red Cross. He described the triumvirate that came to the aid of the "Coasties" as "a fantastic partnership."
"It came together pretty quick to help meet a need," Langley said. "Most folks know the American Red Cross provides financial assistance through mutual aid societies So we partner with Army Emergency Relief, Coast Guard Mutual Assistance, Air Force Aid Society, Navy Emergency Relief. These are organizations that every day provide financial assistance to our men and women in uniform.
"What most folks don't realize is that we also assist in that process by providing them 24/7 access to that financial aid and assistance. Last year we provided over $7.7 million through that process," Langley said.
Langley recalled having just 72 hours to mount an assistance package for the Coast Guard after getting a Friday night call from the CEO of American Red Cross. Langley said he knew they could do it because of the great Red Cross staff on which service members rely. Last year, 88,000 service members called the American Red Cross asking for emergency assistance.
"Today, as we sit here, the phones are ringing upstairs, and we'll probably see anywhere between 800 and 1,000 calls today alone," Langley said.
The partnership with Coast Guard Mutual Assistance has been around for decades, and Langley also knew that USAA would be there to provide exceptional support.
The desperate needs of the Coast Guard members prompted USAA, a financial institution that has been serving men and women in uniform since 1922, to make a whopping $15 million contribution to Coast Guard Mutual Assistance. Justin Schmitt, USAA's assistant vice president for corporate responsibility, said that's the largest philanthropic investment to a single nonprofit organization within a single year in his company's history.
Retired Coast Guard Rear Adm. Cari Thomas, CEO of Coast Guard Mutual Assistance, said it was a privilege to come to Fort Sill, stay in Comanche House, and share in the history here.
She keyed into Women's History Month by sharing a story about one of the Coast Guard's most famous heroes, Ida Lewis, who became one of the first female lighthouse keepers when her father died in the 1870s. In March 1869 she came to the rescue of Sgt. James Adams and Pvt. John McLaughlin, both of them Soldiers, whose boat had overturned in the harbor of Newport, R.I. They collected $218 to reward her for her efforts.
"Some criticized her for that, saying that it was unfeminine to really row a boat," Thomas said. Lewis countered by saying, "No one but a donkey would consider it 'unfeminine' to save lives."
About 10 years later Lewis was awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal for rescuing two more Soldiers who fell through the ice while trying to walk back to Fort Adams.
"So it's just not lost on me that there has been a partnership between the United States Coast Guard and the United States Army for a long time," Thomas said.
"I will say that it truly was wrong that 42,000 men and women in uniform were not being paid as they were on duty across the world," said Thomas, noting that the Coast Guard operates as a law enforcement agency most of the time but currently is "on deployment in southwest Asia, the South China Sea, and everywhere around the world as well as close to home."
In her case, the ball started rolling with a Saturday phone call. Coast Guard Mutual Assistance, USAA, and American Red Cross began to exercise the well-worn memorandum of understanding they had in place.
"We helped over 6,200 men and women with over $8.4 million in assistance," Thomas said to applause from the audience. "During that shutdown members of the Coast Guard visited food banks, they got free meals, they got haircuts from local businessmen. Most landlords, but not all, extended their rent payment dates. Childcare was still needed, utilities needed to be paid. Diapers aren't cheap, and they needed to be bought. No parent wants to be without diapers when you have a toddler at home. The financial pressures were real."
Thomas said the assistance provided a safe haven in a storm, allowing Coast Guard members to focus on their mission and continue to serve their nation.
"We could not have done this were it not for the extraordinary generosity of USAA," she said.
She then tossed a small token of appreciation -- an orange Frisbee -- to Justin Schmitt, USAA's assistant vice president for corporate responsibility.