As the military buildup in the Middle East continues, the Ventura chapter of the Red Cross is getting ready for possible war.
"We are witnessing the largest U.S. military mobilization since the Vietnam War," said Red Cross chapter Executive Director Brian Bolton Tuesday, after presiding over a weekly staff meeting. "We hope nothing comes of it, but if it does, we intend to be there and play our role."
From its offices in downtown Ventura and the Port Hueneme naval base, Ventura's Red Cross volunteers have been busy in recent days relaying messages from worried parents and spouses to U.S. troops possibly headed to Saudi Arabia or already there.
The American Red Cross provides communication services for U.S. military personnel year-round, but the volume of calls the Ventura office is receiving has been increasing with every indication that U.S. forces might be closer to engaging in combat, Red Cross officials said.
"On normal weeks I receive about 15 message requests," said Kay Anderson, Port Hueneme's station manager. "Now I'm getting about 25."
The Ventura office receives another 20 to 25 requests a week on its 643-9928 telephone line from Ventura County families with relatives serving in all four branches of the military.
"We haven't seen a sizable increase of calls in this office yet, but we expect a lot more if reservists are called up," Bolton said. "And that's a definite possibility now, so we have to be prepared."
Already, about a dozen American Red Cross workers are stationed in U.S. military bases in Saudi Arabia, relaying about 200 messages a day from the United States. And more Red Cross personnel will be added as needed, Bolton said.
As the volume of messages grows, so does the need for volunteers. The Ventura Red Cross, its 20 employees and volunteers already overworked, is recruiting up to 30 full- and part-time volunteers to help man the phones.
"It's a good thing for people concerned about the political situation to volunteer as Red Cross caseworkers," said Martharuth Lefever, director of emergency services.
Caseworkers typically relay messages of death, birth or serious illness from Ventura County residences to locations around the world where U.S. military forces are deployed. The messages, as well as where they are sent, are confidential.
But at times of rising anxiety for military personnel and their families, Red Cross volunteers step up their efforts to soothe, counsel and comfort those who fear losing their loved ones.
On Tuesday morning, for example, volunteer Tami Simpson, 29, received four phone calls from military families, two from worried parents of soldiers stationed in West Germany.
One family had not heard from their son in three weeks and feared that he had been sent to Saudi Arabia. The other family wanted to know if their daughter could be excused from being sent to a war zone because she is their only child.
"I tell them not to worry, I try to calm their fears," Simpson said.
Anderson, whose brother and brother-in-law are U.S. Air Force officers, said she understands how the callers feel. "The wives know what to expect. They are used to military lives, so they don't get upset or fish for information they know we don't have or can't provide."
But among some of the parents, Anderson said, patience is beginning to wear thin. "A lot of them don't live near military families or a chaplain they can talk to, and they read things in the newspapers and it's hard on them. When they call us, we try to reassure them by letting them know that there's a friend on the other side of the line."
For seasoned Red Cross veterans such as Anderson, the prospect of a war with Iraq is but the latest emergency in a long string of catastrophes they have dealt with since joining the humanitarian organization.
"I don't get any buzz from a situation, whether hot or cold," she said. "Here at the Red Cross we're not terribly excitable."
But for at least one young recruit, there's something special about helping one's country in a time of need.
"To me, what we do is not as important as military people fighting a war," said Simpson, a California Conservation Corps worker who became a Red Cross volunteer in January. "We send them over there to fight for our freedom, the least I can do is help them send a message to a wife, parent or fiancee."