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Rally round the flag

Hospital co-workers take up yard duty for guardsman in Kuwait

More than a dozen Providence St. Vincent Hospital doctors and nurses descended on Tracy Acuna's home in Southeast Portland on a recent Saturday.

There was no medical emergency. Instead, the mission was landscaping Ñ spreading gravel, laying topsoil, installing sod and building a deck. Instead of coming in an ambulance, the hospital workers showed up with a small green bulldozer and pickups full of dirt, grass and lumber.

Acuna's husband, Anthony, is an emergency room technician at the hospital and has been deployed to Kuwait as a member of the Oregon National Guard. The couple bought the modest home last April with the idea of finishing the bare driveway and back yard.

But after Anthony Acuna and his company flew out of town Feb. 15, the rest of the emergency room staff decided to pitch in and do the job for them.

'Tony's part of the team at our hospital, and we need to support our team,' said Deb Gabel, a nurse who spent much of the day weeding the overgrown front garden.

As rain occasionally fell from the overcast sky, the hospital workers scurried around the yard in jeans, sweatshirts and work boots. The heavy work was concentrated behind the house, where record winter rains had turned the bare yard into mud. After the bulldozer scraped it level, the crew transformed it with fresh sod and a new corner deck.

The project was pulled together by Dr. John Heiser, an emergency room physician who also owns and operates a 10-acre farm called Heiser's Pumpkin Patch just south of Stayton. He raised around $1,000 in donations from the emergency room workers for lumber and other building materials. The topsoil was donated by River City Landscapes, and the sod was contributed by J.B. Instant Lawn.

'Tony's a great guy, and this is our way of showing our appreciation for what he's doing for us,' said Heiser, a green ball cap pulled over his head.

Tracy Acuna watched the transformation in awe, offering fresh coffee to everyone who passed by.

'It really needed to be done, but there was no way I could do it without Tony,' said Acuna, who is raising the couple's three children by herself while pursuing a criminal justice degree at Portland Community College.

The project started April 22 when Heiser erected a flagpole in front of the house.

'Tony always wanted a flagpole,' Tracy Acuna said. 'John learned that and the next thing I knew, there was one in the front yard.'

Work is scheduled to be completed later this week, just before Tracy's mom comes to town to help out.

Grass-roots support grows

The deployment has not been kind to the family's finances. According to Acuna, their income has dropped 75 percent since her husband was called up. She's already late on one house payment and has called the Oregon Military Department's judge adjutant general in Salem for assistance. The federal Soldiers' and Sailors' Civil Relief Act prevents mortgage holders from foreclosing on Guard families with a member on active duty.

'I'm making the payments as best I can, and the JAG will write a letter if I need it,' she said. 'I'm just hoping something doesn't happen anyplace else, like Korea.'

The financial problems could last a long time. Although National Guard troops are normally called up for one year, their terms can be indefinitely extended by the Pentagon.

The Acuna house project is just one of many grass-roots efforts to support the families of Portland area troops stationed overseas. For example, earlier in April, more than 20 local men, women and children crowded into the backrooms of the Round Table Pizza restaurant, 6250 S.E. Foster Road, to stuff care packages for the members and families of the Air Force Reserve's 939th Rescue Wing, which has sent more than 30 members to the Middle East.

The event was pulled together by Lynda Andersen, a Southeast Portland homemaker who said she regrets that she did not support her older brother when he served as a medic in the Vietnam War.

'I was in college and concerned only about myself,' she said. 'Now I understand how brave he was, and I'm sorry I wasn't there for him more.'

Andersen spent weeks contacting businesses, which contributed more than $8,000 in goods and gift certificates for the packages. The donations came from such businesses and community organizations as Rite Aid, Safeway and Fidelity Insurance.

Eleven members of the 939th Rescue Wing received a warm reception when they stopped by the restaurant to show their appreciation.

'It's wonderful. It means so much to those over there to know that people here care about them,' said flight engineer Christy Baerwel.

The families of the deployed soldiers also are learning to support one another while their loved ones are gone. Tracy Acuna and Mary Ann Donaldson-Bradley did not know each other before the war began. But the two Portland mothers are now the best of friends, talking every day and taking turns baby-sitting each other's children.

'I've been lonely and sad, and it helps a lot to know I'm not the only one going through this,' Donaldson-Bradley said.

Although the two women met briefly at the family gatherings that marked their husbands' deployments, they became fast friends after running into each other at a pro-troop rally in Pioneer Courthouse Square in late February.

Since then they've kept in constant contact, getting together two or three nights a week to support each other.

'She'll sit my kids so I can go shopping, and I'll sit hers so she can clean her house,' Acuna said. 'The breaks help me keep my sanity.'

Contact Jim Redden at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .