Don Patterson has led a life in the service of others. Now at 85 years old, he lives with his wife of 55 years, Janice, in Pearland, Texas and has two children. Every Monday and Tuesday, Don drives to Downtown Houston to volunteer with The American Red Cross Texas Gulf Coast Region in the military entrance processing division (MEPs). He sits with service members about to deploy and their families’ answering questions beyond the Command’s purview. Things like how to get in touch when there is an emergency at home and what resources are available to the service members and their family. Drawing upon his many years in the United States Army, Don sometimes just answers questions about what it is like to deploy.
“I like to talk about all the things they can do that they might not know and all the things they can accomplish,” said Don.
Don’s daughter, Kimberly, is the Texas Gulf Coast Region Service to the Armed Forces and International Services Director. This branch of the Red Cross is devoted to service members. Each year the national organization provides more than 540,000 services to service members, veterans, and their families. Some of these services include working with military aid societies to deliver quality, reliable financial assistance. Others include providing service members with resources after deployment and family help coping with emotional and practical assistance.
In 2019 Kimberly called her dad, who was several years retired from the Army Reserves and told him how the latter segment of the operation she oversaw, the MEPs division, could use someone like him with his experience. Don and his wife discussed it and decided to move to Houston ready to help.
It was 1966 when Don entered the United States Army, motivated by the assassination of JFK. Before enlisting, he worked as a funeral director. Because of his familiarity with anatomy, he began as a combat medic at the rank of Warrant Officer in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
This would begin his active-duty service career, which would last 30 years, one month, and five days. After basic training, he spent the next eighteen months in clinical special courses, becoming an anatomy and physiology instructor. From there, he and his family moved to El Paso, where he worked at the William Beaumont Army Medical Center in the emergency room and clinical section. Following a year there, they moved again to Fairbanks, Alaska— Fort Wainwright Bassett Army Hospital. Here, he would spend the next two years honing his skills in the E.R. and men’s surgical ward.
One memorable evening a patient experienced a code blue cardiac arrest. With no nurse or doctor available to respond, Don got the crash cart and used the paddles on the man twice. Once stabilized, he and another medic moved the patient to the Critical Care Unit. The following morning the Chief Nurse called Don in and told him he would be relieved of all duties. One hour later, the post commander asked the Chief Nurse to redirect her assertion and instead congratulated him. This incident would lead to Don’s promotion to Staff Sergeant.
Don’s next deployment would take the whole family overseas to Nei-Ulm, Germany. There he was assigned a small dispensary. By his side was another medic, a corporal, and they spent the first couple of days treating minor bumps and bruises. That would not last.
On a cold day in January, Don was called to the training site to see about an officer in distress. It soon became clear to Don that the officer suffered from a ruptured appendix. Upon recognizing the situation’s urgency, he called for a helicopter. He accompanied his patient to the emergency room in Augsburg, where he could undergo surgery. With his ward safely transferred into the hands of hospital workers, another officer hastily approached him, saying his wife was giving birth. With his butt on the dashboard of the Volkswagen Van, Don delivered the baby. Upon clipping the umbilical cord and congratulating the new dad, Don straightened and stretched and made his way back to the helicopter for his return to base.
Meanwhile, he got the news during the transit that the other officer would be okay; he had arrived just in time. This day’s labor had earned him the Quick Reaction Alert medal of achievement. He was the only medic ever to receive the award.
In 1984, he would switch hats again, taking on the role of ops training officer, serving with his previous commander from Denver. During this time, he helped one officer achieve lieutenant cornel, three more reach major, and six enlisted move up at least one grade. The unit grew from 91 to 175 under his guidance. While serving in this capacity, he earned the Meritorious Service Medal and the Distinguished Member of the Regiment honors.
This new post found him tasked with developing a medical clearing company. His job was to get them ready to deploy for duty. While a medical clearing company’s role when deployed is to prepare injured for evacuation with minimum personnel and equipment without sacrificing mobility, this unit had the novel element of specializing in chemical equipment. Don’s duties as First Sergeant and Operational Manager were to get a dysfunctional new unit from no training to ready to deploy. He was also charged with evaluating the sections and their abilities, then optimally developing them so they would be primed to accomplish their mission. The unit ended up receiving an award for training excellence.
From there, in 1993, his family relocated to Arkansas, where he worked with the 5th Medical Group. In this assignment, he acted as an Operational Sergeant Major in the familiar role of evaluating, planning, training, and executing the unit’s progression to deployment. Again, he won the training excellence award. This would be his final post while serving on active duty. In 1997, he retired as a First Sergeant.
During his time with the United States Army, he says he enjoyed “caring for individuals who needed assistance so they could serve.” In total, Don earned three Meritorious Service Medals, an award given to members of the U.S. Armed Forces who distinguished themselves by outstanding meritorious achieving or service, and five Commendation Medals. They are awarded to service members who distinguish themselves through acts of heroism or meritorious service.
From there, Don entered the Army Reserves, where he would remain for ten years, four months, and 16 days. His time at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri’s U.S. Army training base, would be spent as a detachment commander and Accessions Suitability Administration. Don’s efforts in the role would lead to over 10,000 investigations of individuals seeking top security clearance within the Department of Defense. Additionally, he was instrumental in streamlining the process. Before Don arrived, it could take two years for an individual to get placed in the position to which they were best suited. He was able to cut that timeframe in half.
In September 2016, Don retired from the U.S. Army Reserves as a GS9 DAC civilian. A short while into retirement, he would decide it was again time serve. This would be when he joined with the Texas Gulf Coast Region of The American Red Cross.
From the day he enlisted to today, it has been fifty-seven years. He has spent the majority of them in the service of others. Don said the desire to be a part of something greater than self-guided him.
Story By: Kristen Lawler