The Vietnam War has been on the minds of many Americans this year, due in large part to the exhaustive 17-hour documentary television series that premiered on PBS in September.
Larry Baker, a U.S. Army medical corpsman who tended to the wounded in Vietnam, watched most of the TV series. While it dredged up memories of his time as a combat medic, Baker said it definitely was worth watching.
“It showed a lot of what really happened,” the 69-year-old Vietnam War veteran said. “I can’t explain to you the feelings … it brings it back to light.”
The series, which took more than 10 years for producers Ken Burns and Lynn Novick to make, was an opportunity for Americans to learn more about a complicated war, Baker said.
“I want people who haven’t stopped to think about Vietnam veterans to take a minute this Veterans Day and thank a vet,” he said.
From his recliner at the Montana Veterans Home in Columbia Falls where he has lived in declining health for the past 16 months, Baker reflected on his time in Vietnam.
A 1966 Flathead High School graduate, Baker volunteered for the draft and joined the Army in 1968. Military service was a big part of the Baker family. His four brothers also served in the military.
An aptitude test showed Baker was best-suited to be a combat medic. There was only one problem.
“I fainted at the sight of blood,” he said. He couldn’t imagine tending to the traumatic wounds he most surely would see in Vietnam.
Baker still wonders exactly what he wrote down that slanted him toward a medic role.
“I put that I liked the outdoors, and I’m soft-hearted,” he recalled. “I think I wrote myself right into it.”
He pleaded with his drill sergeant for an infantryman assignment, to no avail.
“He looked me right in the eye and said ‘they need lots of medics over there,’” Baker recalled. “ ‘You’re going [as a combat medic] and that’s final.’”
A 10-week training course was all he got before heading into the thick of war in 1968. There was little time to think about his fears; there was no choice but to overcome them.
Conditions were as bad as Baker expected when he arrived in Vietnam. He lost 35 pounds during his first 45-day stint, but he survived.
“It was all traumatic,” he said about the wounded soldiers he helped. “It was keep ‘em alive and get them on a helicopter. I’m pretty proud to say we did a real good job.”
The death rate was high among combat medics. “If you’re a medic you have to go” to the wounded, he said. He was constantly in harm’s way.
Baker took shrapnel three separate times in Vietnam, once in his face, the other times in his back.
“I still have a piece in my back,” he said.
“It was a real tough war to fight,” Baker added, not only because of the jungle terrain but also the complicated political scenario.
During the war Baker crossed paths with his youngest brother, Terry, who also was serving in the Army. Another brother, Rick, was in the Navy at the time. His two oldest brothers served in the early 1960s, Del in the Marine Corps and Jim in the Army National Guard.
After his military service was completed in 1970, Baker returned home to the Flathead Valley and worked for a time at C & C Plywood in Evergreen and later at the F.H. Stoltze Land and Lumber Co. sawmill. He got a job as a police utility employee — “a glorified gopher,” he said — with the city of Columbia Falls. He wanted to build a career around working for the city, but health problems interfered with that plan.
By this time Baker had married, had a family and was divorced. His disability led him to Flathead Valley Community College, where he earned degrees in human resources and health and recreation. Going to school helped bring him out of his shell.
“I was so withdrawn. It helped me being around people,” he said about the emotional aftermath of the war.
Four years ago Baker was able to travel with a local group of Vietnam veterans to Washington, D.C. to visit the Vietnam war memorial.
Physical ailments continued to dog him, though, and like many of his fellow soldiers from that era, he had to fight to get military disability compensation. He has a 100 percent disability rating.
Baker “blew out” a lung a couple of years ago and was even on hospice, but lived to tell about that round of ill health.
“I guess the good Lord has something more for me to do,” he said.
Baker and a handful of other combat veterans who served in Vietnam formed an informal group some 20 years ago. It’s a brotherhood that he has treasured.
“It took us years of working together. Now we have a bond that’s probably stronger than brothers,” he said.
These days, Baker has made it his mission to administer a little kindness wherever he can at the Veterans Home.
“I’m really proud of the people here,” he said. “The patients and the help. It’s tough being in a place like this.”
He’s lucky, he said, because he has so much family nearby. His four children have produced 14 grandchildren, and family photos fill his walls.
Though Baker didn’t mention his medals during an interview with the Daily Inter Lake, a veterans tribute section in today’s newspaper shows that he has numerous commendations, including a National Defense medal, Vietnam Service Medal with two bronze stars, Combat Medical badge, Vietnam Campaign medal, Bronze Service medal with two overseas bars.
That “soft-hearted” nature that revealed he had the compassion to be a combat medic is still on display at the Veterans Home, where Baker makes a point of making the day brighter for others.
His hope this Veterans Day is this: “I want people to respect all vets.
“I wish every vet in America a happy Veterans Day, and thank you for your service.”
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or firstname.lastname@example.org.