'First Response' Helps Wounded Troops

By Carmen L. Gleason
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, March 26, 2007 - The soldier's eyelids fluttered as he heard his mother's voice over the phone.

In a coma, it was the first time there had been any response from Army Spc. Jerry De La Cruz since he had arrived to Germany's Landstuhl Regional Medical Center from the combat zone in Iraq.

By holding a cell phone to his ear, a perfect stranger made it possible for Cathy Holcomb to whisper words of encouragement to her son from the other side of the world, telling him that she loved him and wanted him to make it home alive.

Tears ran down Carolyn Crossley's checks as she held the phone to his ear and tenderly grasped his hand that day.

An Army wife whose son had been a Marine, Crossley understood this mother's agony in not being by her son's side. At the same time, her heart went out to all the war-torn troops in the hospital ward who didn't have families with them in their time of need.

It was on that day that she silently promised herself that she would be by their sides when their own families could not and she would be there to help support those families who were.

Only two days before, Crossley had linked up with Peggy Baker to offer her assistance in helping troops after coming across Baker's name on the Internet. Baker, whose son was in the Army, had been visiting the wounded at Walter Reed Army Medical Center here for more than a year, but she wanted to do more.

Baker, in Culpeper, Va., was the one who initially received the phone call from the desperate mother and contacted her new-found counterpart in Germany for assistance.

Crossley said she was hooked from the very beginning. Her obvious love for the troops and previous medical experience led hospital leadership to immediately ask her to join their ranks by working as a nurse on the ward, and the groundwork for Operation First Response was laid.

Operation First Response is one of the first members of the Defense Department's America Supports You program, a program helping connect home-front groups with servicemembers and their families.

Initially, the nonprofit group focused on supplying patients with backpacks filled with a new set of clothes, personal hygiene items, a phone card and a handmade blanket upon their arrival to medical centers. The group since has branched out to assist servicemembers with financial needs, such as helping to provide airfare for families or offsetting living costs when spouses or parents miss work to stay by a wounded relative's bedside.

Since the duo joined forces in 2004, they have touched the lives of more than 2,000 families who have come through Landstuhl and Walter Reed, in addition to other medical facilities.

The Operation First Response staff has grown to five members who work around the clock to help servicemembers. Crossley's husband has since been stationed at Fort Bragg, N.C. She said she hopes to continue her outreach efforts for wounded troops at the installation's Womack Army Medical Center.

"It's an honor to be making an impact on these heroes' lives," Baker said. "The mere fact that these young men and women step up to the plate and putting their lives on the line for the country is ... well, more than words can express."

More than offering tangible donations, the organization gives emotional support as well.

"My focus has always been working with families and offering a shoulder for them to cry on," Crossley said.

Many families are on emotional roller coasters when seeing their injured soldier for the first time, she said. The emotions usually go from anger, to grief, to sadness and, with the help of First Response volunteers, to hope.

Volunteers from the organization visit wounded troops weekly, bringing by their favorite soda, or food in case a patient misses a meal due to an appointment, or giving them a little cash to live off of while in the hospital.

Most importantly, Baker said, they bring friendship. She considers each one to be part of her extended family.

"When you do that every week, you become very close with a family," she said. "You develop a bond. I can't find the words to describe how this has impacted me."

"It comforts me to know that there is an organization like yours out there to give families like mine comfort when they need it most," an Army wife said on the organization's Web site. "There is nothing like an organization that can give you love and emotional support."

In cases when their organization can't meet the requests of families, Baker and Crossley are quick to point them in the direction of support groups who can. By networking with other America Supports You members, Operation First Response can help fulfill the needs of a soldier or their family.

"The (Defense Department) support is invaluable," Baker said. "(Each home-front group's) scope is a slightly different, so if I can't help a troop, I know someone who can."

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