The Gray Ladies

Alma had just received a letter from her cousin, Marguerite. Marguerite was in Washington, D.C. now. She’d gone there to do what she could to help with the war effort at Walter Reed Army Hospital as a member of the Red Cross “Hostess and Hospital Service and Recreation Corps.”

Mable Boardman, Secretary for the Red Cross, had started the Corps and Edith Oliver Rea was the first field director. This group of volunteers had been founded that very year – 1918 – to serve in military hospitals.

As soon as she heard “Red Cross,” Alma remembered those hard days after the Great Flood of 1913, before she’d been taken in by her aunt and uncle. To her, the Red Cross would always be the people who fed her, tucked her in and dried her tears those first awful days and nights.

Now Marguerite was helping them out. Alma wished she could, too, but everyone said she was too young. She’d lived through the flood! Surely she could pass out magazines and listen to those soldiers’ heartaches. She knew all about heartache’ after losing her family and home.

For now, all she could do was read Marguerite’s letters and dream. Marguerite had gotten a lot of training. She knew all about ethics, how the hospital was organized, how to listen to men whose spirits were as wounded as their bodies. She’d been taught something about the occupational therapy they were getting to help them learn to eat and walk again after losing an arm or leg. Marguerite even sat with some of the men as they were dying.

According to Marguerite, all Red Cross volunteers wore a uniform, and each area of service had its own color. It was the fellows who’d begun calling them “Gray Ladies” because theirs was gray.

Marguerite was helping the Red Cross. And one day, Alma promised herself, she would help, too. Somehow, she would give something back to the Red Cross for all they had given her after she had lost everything.

In 1934, the formal name “Hospital Service and Recreation Corps” was changed to “Hospital and Recreation Corps.” Although initially intended to serve the military, the Gray Ladies later served in civilian hospitals and blood centers as well. They also helped with disaster response. During World War II, nearly 50,000 Gray Ladies were serving in both military and civilian hospitals in the United Sates. In the mid-1960s the Red Cross shifted to a unified concept of volunteers, but the Gray Ladies’ service to hospitalized U.S. military personnel continues through the Service to the Armed Forces.

The majority of Red Crossers are volunteers, and they work in all of its areas of service. For more information on how to become a Red Cross volunteer, go to http://redcross.orgvolunteer

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