By Paul Fattig
Home on leave, a Guardsman discovers his prized pickup restored by community members showing their appreciation.
When Oregon Army National Guard Spec. Chris Robertson arrived at the Medford airport from Iraq just before midnight Friday night, he was greeted with hugs by his parents and girlfriend. After helping him grab his luggage, Paul Robertson told his citizen-soldier son — who is home on leave — that they had to swing by Bob Thomas Automotive in Medford so they could pick up his four-wheel-drive 1977 Ford F-150 truck.
That would be the rust bucket the 2006 Crater High School graduate drove in high school, the one that was dented, rusted, scraped, scratched and peeling paint.
“Dad told me they finally got the brakes fixed — he said that Bob wanted us to pick it up that night because it would be easier than opening up the shop on the weekend,” Chris said Saturday.
But when they stepped into the shop, he didn’t see his old truck. Instead, there was a shiny 1977 Ford pickup glistening with new paint, new rims and new tires. That’s when more than two dozen volunteers, who had spent the past two months working for free on his truck, jumped out of their hiding places to greet him with applause.
“He was totally stunned — he couldn’t stop smiling,” said his fiancee, Jessica Rickman. “He was just speechless.”
None of the volunteers or business owners who donated parts and labor knew the soldier. But it was a labor of love — for all those in uniform.
“A lot of the guys said they enjoyed doing this for Christopher but it was really done in their minds and hearts for all the service men and women out there serving their country,” Paul Robertson said.
The undercover operation was launched by Steve Banry of Central Point. Robertson had served as a volunteer wrestling coach in Central Point — in a community program that included Banry’s two young sons — before being sent overseas.
“He volunteered his time — he was very unselfish,” said Banry, who served in the Guard. “I knew his truck meant a lot to him, that it was given to him by an uncle. When I started calling people and businesses, everybody said they wanted to help.”
“That guy put his life on the line for us — it’s the least we could do,” observed volunteer Rob Massey, a painter who does hot rods and custom jobs for Star Body Works.
Like the other volunteers, Massey didn’t know the soldier. But Massey’s older brother is a helicopter pilot in the Army and his wife, Kelsey, is expected to be deployed next year with the Guard.
“We need to support our troops,” Massey said.
When he and others began stripping the truck to repaint it, they found it rusted and in need of body work. Massey found another truck bed, doors and fenders.
“Whoever we called, they were willing to pitch in,” Massey said. “The best example of that was Christmas Eve, when we found we were short a lift kit. Tom’s Bronco Parts immediately put one together that day for the truck.
“In addition to Tom’s Bronco Parts, Bob Thomas Automotive and Star Body Works, local businesses volunteering expertise, labor or parts included Automotive Paint Specialities/PPG, Auto Glass Creations, Baxter Auto Parts, Burn’s Upholstery, Bernie’s Sure Fit Upholstery, J&L Muffler, Medford Paints, Mirror Image Polishing, Advantage Tire, Ashland Les Schwab and Sun Scape Window Tinting.
“People were coming in and volunteering to sand the truck — I couldn’t keep track of all of them,” Banry said. “It was amazing. It was a very unselfish act by these businesses and people.
“These were just people saying to those in uniform, ‘We remember you are there,’ ” he added.
A standout wrestler in high school, Robertson, 21, had earned a scholarship to wrestle for the University of Oregon. However, the school later dropped its wrestling program, replacing it with baseball. Robertson joined the Guard two years ago. He is one of 600 soldiers of the Guard’s 1st Battalion of the 186th Infantry, headquartered in Ashland, which arrived in Iraq in July. Providing security for convoys, they are expected to return home next spring.
When Robertson left for Iraq, he knew the truck needed work.
“We had started getting it looking good, then I went off to college and everything,” he said. “It sat around and rusted up.
“But now the truck looks like it was just driven off the showroom floor. And the volunteers aren’t done yet.
“There are a few more cosmetic things they want to do after Chris goes back,” his father said. “Sun Scape is going to tint the windows and put some graphics on the back.”
“This isn’t just for Chris — this is to show people in uniform that we care,” Banry said, adding that anyone who wants to help in similar efforts can contact him at 944-4260.
Meanwhile, Robertson is still adjusting to his new truck.
“It wasn’t just one person doing something nice — it was a lot of people,” he said. “I can’t get over what they did. It’s awesome.”