Physical distance separated father and son by thousands of miles, but for one local father, a time difference of 14 hours wasn't far at all.
Gene Smith, a retired Army veteran from Mount Oliver, found out in late January of this year he needed surgery in order to break up and remove a brain aneurism. Mr. Smith said when his doctor told him the news, he could only think of his son, James Wilfrom, serving in the Marines overseas in South Korea.
"I wanted him to be home for [the surgery]," Smith said. "You want family around you during difficult times like that."
After mentioning at the hospital that his son was a Marine serving half a world away, Mr. Smith said his doctor told him about the Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) program at the Red Cross.
SAF is one of the many services offered by the Red Cross and is utilized when connecting U.S. service members with their families during times of crisis and for 24-hour emergency counseling and support.
Mr. Smith said he was apprehensive about the program in speedily contacting soldiers and servicemen. His hesitation, he said, was proved wrong.
"I called the Red Cross around Jan. 27 and told them I'd like my son to be home for my surgery," he said. "The next day, I got a phone call back saying they got in touch with my son's unit in Korea. It was that fast."
Mr. Wilfrom's commander was notified shortly after Mr. Smith's request for his son's leave and approved the travel home for his father's surgery. The whole process of contacting and relaying information took less than 24 hours.
Mr. Wilfrom, a gunnery sergeant with more than 16 years of service, said it was very important for him and his family to be home during his father's surgery.
"Especially with the diagnosis, it was necessary for us all to be there," he said. "My kids aren't used to seeing him like that, but they were still excited to see him."
Sgt. Wilfrom's wife and three kids, ages 13, 9 and 7, live with him in military housing in South Korea. He said the SAF program and the Red Cross were able to secure tickets and travel costs for his entire family.
"I would definitely say that the Red Cross is a necessary thing to have when you're so far away from home," Sgt. Wilfrom said. "Fellow Marines stationed in the desert have used [their] services. The word gets there."
Mr. Smith was in critical condition for a few days post-surgery and said having his son with him made the healing process much smoother. He said his son would have come home right away if necessary but he chose to fly home a week after being notified so he could be there for the surgery and for his father's recovery.
"My son elected to stay in Korea until a few days before my surgery," he said, "but flew home for 10 days with his wife and kids who are stationed there with him."
Sgt. Wilfrom's trek home took 15 hours, flying from Korea to Detroit then finally home to Pittsburgh. He said his first experience with the Red Cross was excellent.
"For [the Marines] to approve you for a trip of that magnitude, all the paperwork has to be correct and it was perfect," said Sgt. Wilfrom. "I couldn't thank them enough; the Red Cross got us all the pertinent information in order to get my trip home cleared."
Mr. Smith said he is extremely thankful and appreciative of the fast, hard work the Red Cross displayed in bringing his son home for a family emergency.
"The Red Cross is efficient and very quick in their work," he said. "They did an excellent job helping me out and did everything you would expect of a good organization."
During the 2009-2010 fiscal year, the SAF at the Southwestern Pennsylvania Chapter helped 522 local military families contact their loved ones serving in the armed forces. To contact the SAF program as a volunteer or to utilize their services, email Pauline Duncan at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 888-217-9599.