With declining rates of infection from the Covid-19 Omicron variant and the indoor mask mandate being lifted, Soldiers and Airmen from the Oregon National Guard (ORNG) who were deployed to assist hospitals throughout the state, wrapped up their mobilization during the month of March, with a few remaining on orders until April.
Approximately 1200 Guard members deployed in January to aid understaffed and overworked hospital employees during the Omicron surge. They served in over 41 hospitals throughout the state performing critical non-clinical support roles such as administrative and phone duties, janitorial and food services, logistics and supply, transportation, Covid-19 screening and testing, Information Technology (IT) and lab support, and even sitting with patients.
Anna Hayter, human resources director, Wallowa Memorial Hospital, Enterprise, Oregon, said she was very impressed by the members of the ORNG who worked at Wallowa, and their readiness to jump in and assist.
“I think the quality of character we saw in the Guard members that were deployed at our hospital was just phenomenal,” she said. “They displayed such a willingness to help. They were very professional, very respectful, very kind, and willing to do whatever we asked of them. They all had wonderful attitudes throughout the time they were here. It’s very nice to know those types of people are in our National Guard.”
Hayter said the roles the ORNG performed at the hospital were critical. Due to the hospital’s rural location in a town with a total population of 2,400, she said they have been short-handed for as long as she could recall, and the pandemic only served to magnify that.
“A lot of our people—the ones who are still here—are tired,” she said. “It was just a really welcome relief at a moment when we really needed it, and even though they couldn’t help with patient care, it was great to have them fill-in in certain areas to give someone a break, or allow us to reallocate one of our full-time employees to a department that was in need.”
Staff Sgt. Denny Cline, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment, 1st Division, Oregon Army National Guard, served as the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge of the ORNG members deployed to work at Wallowa. Cline assisted with sorting laundry at the hospital. His presence allowed the only hospital staff worker in laundry to be able to take some breaks during the day and make it home to her family on time, rather than working overtime to finish the job. He said the opportunity to serve in this way, was a rewarding, but also eye-opening experience.
“I think we all joined with the mentality that we wanted to give back to our country,” Cline said. “But we forget that our number one goal, as the National Guard, is to give back to our community, and show them we are there for them.”
Sgt. Isaac Waggoner, Bravo Company, 741st Brigade Engineer Battalion, 41st Brigade Combat Team, Oregon Army National Guard, also said the mission was extremely rewarding. Working swing shift in the emergency room at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Ashland, Waggoner cleaned rooms, ran labs, assisted in patient moving and patient packaging for life-flight or ambulance, and helped with anything the nurses and doctors needed.
“Having the opportunity to help others who may or may not have been able to help themselves, or just having a helping hand in the folks’ jobs that keep others healthy and safe is a big deal,” Waggoner said.
He said the moment he felt he made the biggest difference was when he was assisting the nurses with a patient. The patient’s heart failed and Waggoner and two nurses took turns giving chest compressions until the patient was revived and life-flighted to another hospital, where he underwent surgery. That patient is alive today due to their efforts.
“Our missions come in different shapes and sizes,” Waggoner said. “No matter how big or small they are, it’s our job to answer the call and respond by giving ourselves to the communities we live in and make a positive impact.”
Julie Hale, director of support services, Asante Rouge Regional Medical Center, Medford, Oregon, said the ORNG’s services not only made a positive impact on the hospital, but the community as a whole. Hospital patients and other local citizens baked bread and cookies and delivered them to the medical center to thank the Guard for their service and sacrifice.
Hale described one incident that stood out to her where the Guard went above and beyond to help. The medical center’s drive through Covid-19 clinic, where community members could be tested for the virus from their vehicle, became inundated. At one point, the line was backed up for a mile or two, which impeded traffic. That’s when ORNG members stepped up to try to resolve the situation.
“They ended up doing some traffic control and traffic management because it was so overwhelming, when that type of role would normally have been done by law enforcement or city officials,” Hale said. “They’ve had such a great positive attitude being here,” Hale added, “even though I know they have been away from their home and their families.”
Maj. John Cascamo, equal opportunity director, 173rd Fighter Wing, Oregon Air National Guard, served as the Officer in Charge of ORNG members deployed at Asante and was also the Task Force Region 5 Commander, where he oversaw ORNG members working at four other hospitals in the region. This was Cascamo’s second deployment to assist with the Covid-19 surges, having also served at a medical clinic in Salem from September through December, 2021.
Cascamo said while his experience at Asante was very positive, it was difficult to be away from home, trying to manage a major family transition. A year ago, his wife’s father passed away and they inherited his ranch in Arkansas. Though the move to Arkansas was planned, he did not expect to be deployed during that time.
“My wife, Katharine, had to do bear the brunt of moving everything cross country on her own,” he said. “It wasn’t an easy task.”
Despite this hardship, Cascamo said he was very happy to be able to serve at the same medical center that had served him and his family in a miraculous way 12 years ago. In 2009 his wife had a documented case of the swine flu while she was pregnant with their son, Giovanni, which led to some pretty severe complications. Katherine was life-flighted from Klamath Falls, where they lived, to Asante. Their son was born 10 weeks early, weighing only two and a half pounds. The Asante staff treated his son in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, and continued to care for his wife until they were both able to safely go home.
“It felt like a completed circle,” Cascamo said, “to give back to the hospital that literally saved my wife’s life and my son’s life.”
Spc. Thomas Halbesleben, Alpha Company, 3rd Battalion, 116th Cavalry Regiment, Oregon Army National Guard, also understands the sacrifice that is often required to fulfill the Guard mission. Halbesleben just completed his second hospital deployment with the ORNG and worked at Wallowa Hospital in the Dalles, quite a distance from his hometown in Payette, Idaho. He has 11 children, with six of them living at home. His wife gave birth to one of their children while he was deployed.
“When we were having issues with our pregnancy, and I was tasked with Covid orders, we were concerned it was going to cause more harm than good with me being gone and taking less pay,” he said. “But in turn, it was actually the biggest blessing we had ever seen.”
Not only was the hospital very accommodating in allowing Halbesleben to travel back to Idaho for the birth of his child, but there was also an unexpected surprise waiting for him when he returned.
When Halbesleben first arrived at Wallowa, Hayter asked all of the Soldiers and Airmen if they had any specialty areas. After Halbesleben told her he worked as a Computer Specialist and Network Installation Technician, she said she might have the perfect job for him, as their hospital IT tech had just resigned.
“Not many people come through with that skillset,” Halbesleben said, “so they put me to work right away, and they appreciated not only my skillset, but my demeanor toward other people.”
Hayter said the collaboration between Halbesleben and the team, his knowledge and his experience were exactly what they were looking for. So, when he returned to the hospital after the birth of his child, he found a job application waiting for him to fill out, so he could apply for the vacant IT position at the hospital.
“As soon as he turned in his application,” Hayter said, “he was extended an offer, based on his work ethic, his aptitude in learning our programs, he was very well liked among the employee population, and he had very good feedback about his customer service and being timely.”
Halbesleban accepted the job, and will begin working at Wallowa shortly after he demobilizes. The best surprise was that the job at the hospital has better pay and benefits than the civilian job he was working prior to his deployment. In addition, because his home is over a three-hour drive from the hospital, they are going to allow him to start off working remotely. He and his family plan to relocate to the area eventually.
Though Halbesleben’s deployment may have started out as a sacrifice and a hardship, his dedication and efforts on the job led him to receive incredible rewards.
“It’s good karma,” he said. “I love helping people, and people need to help others more often now days instead of thinking about themselves. We need to be more selfless instead of more selfish, and with the world in turmoil as it is, you don’t see that much anymore.”
Halbesleben also provided some advice for others who may face unexpected opportunities: “Take the chance and try new things,” he said. “They might look like a problem in the very beginning, but it’s going to turn out well in the end.”