Columbus native and Army veteran Greg Baker hasn’t talked much about his military experience over the years. And when he has, it’s only been when specifically asked.
As a Vietnam veteran from 1969 to 1970, Baker was among a group of U.S. military veterans who weren’t welcomed home with thanks. Instead, they stepped back onto U.S. soil to find a country embroiled in protests against the war and the military.
“Every time you see a Vietnam veteran, do you know what you are supposed to say?” Baker asked during a telephone interview from his home in Naperville, Illinois. “It’s ‘Welcome home.’ We never heard it from anyone.”
That’s something that Greg Baker’s younger brother, Mark, finds regrettable.
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“How do you thank someone who volunteered to serve and defend you?” he asked. “The question has burned inside me.”
Mark Baker, who lives in Columbus, said time has given him a greater understanding of the burden all American veterans have carried, physically and emotionally.
“Greg carried up to 80 pounds of gear in extreme temperatures, as well as the emotional baggage of men who might die under the mask of composure, along with the weight of memory,” Mark Baker said. “Greg carried the responsibility for his men, culminating in the Bronze Star Medal for bravery and heroism.”
Greg Baker, a 1962 graduate of Columbus High School, was attending Indiana University taking general business classes every other year, and working at Cummins Inc. on the years when he wasn’t in school to pay for it, he said.
At the time, being a college student only gave young men a four-year deferral, and then you were up in the draft, he said.
“Because they needed bodies, I was a sitting duck,” he said of his eventual decision to enlist in the Army in 1967.
Baker had hoped that the war might be downsized enough that he would avoid a tour in Vietnam.
Initially sent to Officer Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia, Greg Baker was then assigned to Washington, D.C. as the officer in charge of cadet training at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
The Army’s 3rd Infantry, the oldest division in the Army, is assigned there. It still uses horses as part of Honor Guard ceremonies.
By 1968 and 1969, and now a first lieutenant, Baker became the officer in charge of military funerals at Arlington cemetery, including presenting the American flag to bereaved families. He also was the officer welcoming heads of state to the White House.
Baker was selected as the Platoon Team Casket Officer for one of two teams for the funeral of the 24th president of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Baker was part of a team of service members working together to transfer the casket from the hearse to the horse-drawn caisson, and up the steps to the Capitol rotunda where dignitaries from around the world waited.
The team practiced the precarious walk up the marble steps to the rotunda by placing a volunteer in a casket and simulating how the ascent would be.
“Can you imagine if you dropped Eisenhower on live TV?” Baker asked.
The two teams then worked to move the casket from the rotunda to a train to transport Eisenhower to his home in Abilene, Kansas, for burial.
Mamie Eisenhower and her son John came back to the train car that carried Eisenhower twice, and each time the team removed the flag and opened the casket for them to view the body, he said.
The second time, Greg Baker remembers being startled when the son slammed his hand on top of the casket after it was closed a second time, saying, “He doesn’t look good enough.”
Part of Greg Baker’s assignment on the trip was to stand on the train platform as the train passed slowly through stations along the route and salute as the train passed.
The closest the train came to Columbus was North Vernon, and Greg Baker said his parents went to the station to watch the train pass.
“I saw all these World War II veterans in uniforms that didn’t fit anymore saluting the train car,” he said. “I was saluting to honor their salute.”
Different tour of duty
Still in his 20s, Greg Baker’s life was about to change as new orders called for him to be an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam.
“I went from spit-and-shine to blood-and-guts,” he said.
From the majesty and decorum of the Honor Guard, Greg Baker found himself in the delta region of Vietnam, leading his platoon on search-and-destroy missions, and at night heading out on ambushes.
“Of course, we could walk into an ambush ourselves,” Baker said. “We got shot at.”
He is particularly proud that he never lost a man in his platoon during his year of service in Vietnam, although men were injured.
He described the conditions as extremely horrible.
“You wore about 80 pounds on you — ammunition, food, a lot of water. It was 120 degrees during the day and we were wearing steel helmets and heavy flak jackets,” he said. “It was the delta and there was a lot of mosquitoes. They were so big they could bite through your boots and make your ankles swell.”
During monsoon season, the humidity and rain would cause soldiers’ feet to become so soaking wet that they could hardly walk.
Ringworm was common. Misery was generally universal.
Baker was awarded two Bronze Stars for going into enemy fire to pull out a wounded soldier while under attack, and going back to do it again while calling in a helicopter to transport the injured for medical care.
“Those are the kinds of things you don’t think about — you just react,” he said. “It’s the situation and you just do it.”
A year to the day that he arrived in Vietnam, he had reached his three-year service requirement and had the option of re-upping in the Army or going back to civilian life and Indiana University.
“I said, ‘I’m done,’ ” returning to the IU-Bloomington campus and eventually accepting a job in marketing and sales administration at Cummins, working there in various roles for 15 years, before moving to a Chicago regional office for the company.
Now at age 73, he works at Rush Enterprises in Chicago in truck sales, and each year participates in a ceremony the company does for veterans among its workforce.
But he only talks about his service if he’s asked, he said.
“I’m proud of it, but I don’t go around beating my chest about it,” he said. “A lot of the young people, they don’t know to ask,” he said.
Today, he will attend a ceremony honoring veterans in Naperville and perhaps attend a Veterans of Foreign Wars dinner tonight. His wife Julie will take him out for dinner over the weekend, he said.
His Columbus brother Mark hopes that this Veterans Day, local residents will remember his brother among others being honored for their service.
“Please accept my sincere thanks to all veterans and especially to my favorite veteran, Greg A. Baker, who taught me the two most important words to say to a Vietnam veteran, ‘Welcome home,’ ” his brother said. “I am forever proud of you, Greg. Your example is marrow deep within our family.”
Residence: Naperville, Illinois, near Chicago
Education: Graduated from Columbus High School in 1962 and Indiana University in 1973
Military service: Served in the U.S. Army from 1966 through 1970, with basic training in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, followed by Officer’s Candidate School in Fort Benning, Georgia. Assigned to the Honor Guard/Old Guard in Washington D.C. in charge of cadet training in procedural execution for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Served as officer in charge of military Arlington Cemetery funerals, presenting the American flag to the bereaved and also welcomed heads of state to the White House. Selected as the Platoon Team Casket Officer for the funeral of General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Served a one-year tour in Vietnam in 1969 through 1970 as Army First Lieutenant, Fifth Battalion, 60th Infantry, 9th Infantry Division.
Military honors: Two Bronze Stars and an Air Medal for flight time in aircraft in Vietnam.
Family: Married to Julie Baker, two children, two stepchildren, five grandchildren with one more on the way.
What: Bartholomew County Veterans Day community observance.
When: 11 a.m. today.
Where: Memorial for Veterans, southwest of the Bartholomew County Courthouse, Columbus. Rain location: Donner Center shelterhouse.
- Welcome by master of ceremonies John Foster
- National anthem sung by Janie Gordon
- Invocation by Chaplain E. Reeves Flint
- Remarks from special guest U.S. Sen. Todd Young
- Laying of wreaths by Gold Star Mothers
- Memorial balloon release and reading names of Bartholomew County veterans who have died in the past year
- Three rifle volleys by the Bartholomew County Color Guard
- Benediction by Chaplain Flint
- Closing comments by Foster
- Closing music by the Cummins Diversity Choir