American Red Cross Brings the Battlefield to Vegas

By Emma Larson, American Red Cross of Nevada

It’s a warm Saturday morning on June 24th when more than 20 Civil Air Patrol cadets, ages 12-18, gather in a gymnasium in Las Vegas to participate in RAID Cross– an all-day training event exploring humanitarianism in war.

A team of enthusiastic American Red Cross volunteers and staff members, led by International Services Coordinator Caren Bedsworth and Service to the Armed Forces (SAF) Director Michael Viers, greets them.

“We don’t really know what to expect,” one cadet says.

“I came because I wanted to learn about the rules of war. I want to join the military after high school,” another adds.

The “rules of war,” otherwise known as International Humanitarian Law (IHL), are the focus of the day. Soon after their arrival, cadets are taken into a classroom where Bedsworth conducts an IHL brief, covering everything from the inception of the Red Cross and subsequent drafting of the Geneva Conventions to an overview of the tough decisions military leaders must make on a daily basis, both on and off the battlefield.

She asks the students, “What is human dignity? Why is it so important to maintain during war?”

There is silence for a moment before a cadet raises his hand. “Dignity is established within yourself…and is expressed outwardly in the way you treat others.”

Another cadet adds that it is important to treat people with basic respect for their lives, even if they’re from an opposing force. “You have to at least provide water, food, clothing, and shelter,” he says regarding prisoners of war.

The ensuing hours, Bedsworth explains, will test the cadets’ leadership skills, knowledge of IHL, compassion, and logic, as they work together in randomly assigned teams to address and overcome difficult battlefield scenarios.

After a break for Meals-Ready-to-Eat (MREs), the cadets gather at their first post.

An angry guard greets them at the entrance to a prison camp and yells at them to hurry up. She expresses her annoyance for the prisoners, stating that she doesn’t believe they deserve to be treated with respect. Three Prisoners of War (POWs) speak to the group individually, explaining the harsh conditions of the camp: they are deprived of sleep, food, and exercise. They are not allowed to practice their own religions and have been captured without knowing why.

Then a Red Cross Delegate conducts a private interview with a prisoner, noting the conditions of the prison and offering to help her contact family members.

“This is an important moment because it shows students a critical role the Red Cross plays in detention camps,” Bedsworth explains.

The cadets are then ushered into a “cell” of their own.

“BARK LIKE A DOG!” The guard yells. “GET DOWN AND CRAWL ON YOUR KNEES!”

The cadets laugh but follow her instructions before pausing to reflect on the simulated degradation they’ve just experienced.

“We were treated like animals,” one cadet laments.

“I think it’s better to treat prisoners with dignity so that they don’t try to get revenge later,” another says.

From here, the cadets split into their four teams and rotate through stations where they deliver humanitarian aid, treat and care for casualties, conduct artillery strikes, and strategize as a team of military generals.

“My favorite activity was the minefield,” one cadet says. The teams must deliver a box of humanitarian aid, but not before crossing a treacherous area full of “landmines,” and undergo an interrogation by an overzealous border patrol guard. Team members are asked to surrender their passports, read directions written in a foreign language, and hand over their personal belongings, to include their shoes. The demonstration, Bedsworth explains, shows how difficult it can be to deliver help to people in war-torn nations– a major role of the Red Cross.

At the casualty assistance post, cadets’ first instincts are tested. “We learned how to assess casualties and triage [based on the severity of] their wounds rather than what side they fight for,” says one cadet. The exercise is designed to help participants practice neutrality on the battlefield, encouraging them to care for those who need it most regardless of their affiliations.

The artillery pose further tests knowledge of the Geneva Conventions. Teams must choose targets to attack in a “city” full of tightly packed buildings. In doing so, they must also try to mitigate the number of civilian casualties and avoid destruction of protected buildings such as schools and historical monuments. “It’s really hard to do both sometimes,” one cadet notes after hitting multiple “buildings” with a “bomb” (symbolized by a basketball).

Other cadets say they enjoyed being in charge most of all: “Generals have to make tough decisions and can get in trouble if they choose the wrong thing,” explains a cadet. Teams test their critical thinking skills and ethics by answering a series of questions associated with challenging battlefield scenarios. The overarching question is perhaps the most important: How do leaders ensure they are following all the rules while also trying to make decisions quickly and under pressure? “Just do what’s right,” one cadet says.

The event concluded with an International Criminal Court trial, in which half of the day’s participants were thrown in “jail” for committing IHL violations– everything from teams accidentally bombing non-military targets to guards abusing their power.

“I hope the cadets walk away with a better knowledge of IHL, but also of each other,” cadet leader Theresa Schaapveld states. Schaapveld explains that she loves watching the cadets (two of whom are her sons) utilize their teamwork skills and develop their own leadership styles. “A good portion of our cadets go on to join the military,” she says, adding that the majority chooses the Air Force.

Civil Air Patrol is, in fact, an auxiliary of the Air Force that focuses its mission on aerospace education, cadet leadership development, and emergency services such as search and rescue and humanitarian support to agencies like the American Red Cross.

There is a natural partnership between the two organizations that SAF Director Michael Viers looks to capitalize on. As a retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel and ROTC instructor, Viers knows the importance of youth engagement, leadership development, and community service.

“These kids are already looking outside themselves to do big things for their communities. Red Cross offers so many opportunities for them to make a real impact,” he says. He states that he looks to grow this program exponentially over the next year, and is hoping to facilitate RAID Cross and similar events with other community partners in the near future.

Viers goes on to express the importance of trainings like these for future military leaders: “Understanding the role of humanitarianism on the battlefield is of top priority in protecting human dignity while accomplishing the mission. The role Red Cross plays in the doing that is truly invaluable.”