Future's bright for Guard; they're going to wear shades

Every Oregon Army National Guard soldier from Jackson and Josephine counties deploying to Iraq this summer will be wearing a shiny new pair of protective Wiley X sunglasses, thanks to a gift from the company that makes them.

Upon learning from a story in the Mail Tribune on Wednesday that local American Red Cross volunteer Debbie Hicks was trying to raise enough money to buy glasses for the roughly 150 citizen soldiers, Wiley X Inc. promptly donated 90 pairs to the cause. The firm specializes in making protective eyewear for the military.

"Our mission is to make sure fellow service members are protected," explained Ryan Wilkerson, the firm's Army sales manager, in its Livermore, Calif., office. "When we see a unit in need of something, we like to do what we can to help. It's our way of paying back the military.

"We want to make sure they leave equipped with everything they need," added the Army veteran. "It's the least we can do."

At $95 each, the gift is valued at $8,550 retail. Hicks had raised about $1,600, enough to buy 68 pairs at a drastically reduced price, but she was trying to raise roughly twice that to buy the rest.

The company is donating an additional eight pair in case someone loses or breaks a pair, Wilkerson said.

"I'm on cloud nine," Hicks said Wednesday afternoon. "I wanted to see every soldier from here wearing these glasses when they left. Now they will all have this additional protection. I'm so thrilled."

No more so than the soldiers currently training for their Iraq mission, said Captain Michael Heinsch of the Guard's 1st Battalion of the 186th Infantry, headquartered in Ashland.

"It is a truly phenomenal gesture on the parts of both Ms. Hicks and Wiley X," Heinsch said. "We are truly thankful to be supported by such a great community."

The Wiley X sunglasses were among three items on a "wish list" provided by a 1/186th officer at the request of Hicks, who has stepped forward to help the unit in past deployments. The list also included special flashlights and knives.

Although the military provides the basics, soldiers can always use extra items, she said, noting the special eyewear will provide needed protection for their eyes.

"Now that we have the sunglasses, I'm going to start working on getting the flashlights and knives," she said.

The soldiers from the 1/186th are among more than 600 members of the Oregon Army National Guard's 1st Battalion of the 186th Infantry bound for Iraq. The unit left for training at the Army's Camp Roberts in California earlier this month. It is expected to be sent to Fort Stewart, Ga., for additional training May 11 before going to Iraq in early summer.

The 1/186th has units in Medford, Grants Pass, Klamath Falls, Roseburg and Coos Bay. It's part of the Oregon Guard's Tigard-based 41st Infantry Combat Brigade Team, which is sending 2,800 troops from Oregon and some 650 more from other states to Iraq. They are expected to be there at least 10 months, returning home in spring 2010.

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at pfattig@mailtribune.com.

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