Carolynn Baker, the newest commander of the American Legion Department of Maryland who hails from Harford County, is making better access to health care for veterans and growing the membership of the American Legion her top priorities as the leader of 63,000 American Legion members throughout the state.
"The more people involved, the more the Legion can do," she said. "The larger the numbers, the bigger the voice."
Baker, 67, of Bel Air, is the first woman to serve as state commander for the Maryland department since it was chartered in 1919.
The past commander of Legion Post 39 in Bel Air was elected to Maryland Legion's top leadership post in July, during the organization's annual convention in Ocean City.
"It's a tremendous honor to be elected to this position, to represent the 63,000 legionaries in the state of Maryland," Baker said during a recent interview at Post 39.
The American Legion, which has 2.4 million members across the country, advocates on behalf of veterans and provides a variety of community services and activities though local posts.
The Legion has four pillars in its mission of service: caring for veterans, national security, promoting Americanism and patriotism and serving children.
Baker said she wants to get more men and women of all ages involved in the Legion, but she noted the challenge of bringing in younger members who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, because they are involved with work and family activities.
"As they become more aware of the things that we do and see a value, then they join," she said.
Baker, who served in the Army during the 1960s, has been a member of the Legion for 16 years. She served as commander of the Bel Air post from 2000 to 2002 and has spent the past decade working her way through the local, regional and state leadership ranks.
She has been commander of the Harford County Council of Legion Posts twice and commander of the Legion's Northern Central District, overseeing Harford, Baltimore and Howard counties.
She entered the state level of Legion leadership in 2010 when she became the sergeant at arms for the state department. She then moved through the ranks, known as "chairs," including third vice chair, second vice chair and first vice chair, before being elected commander.
"You go into the chairs to work your way up to commander," she explained.
Russ Getz, the current commander of Post 39, succeeded Baker in that position. He said Baker is "very deserving" of the state commander's post.
"She definitely has a lot of knowledge, and she's well-liked in the department," he said.
Bill O'Hern, the adjutant and finance officer for Post 39, also praised Baker's election as state commander.
"I think it's great," he said. "She worked very hard to get there."
O'Hern, who was also Baker's adjutant when she was county and district commander, said she has "been known to ruffle feathers when she has to.
He recounted her achievements as commander of the Bel Air post, such as restarting its Sons of the American Legion squadron, which is made up of men who aren't veterans but whose fathers or grandfathers have been in the military and are eligible to be members of the American Legion, according to the Sons of the American Legion website.
The Post 39 Sons' chapter oversees a number of community and fundraising activities, such as serving pit beef on Saturdays, as well as organizing steak dinners, dances and raffles.
"I think she's very determined in what she wants to do," O'Hern said of Baker. "She has a vision of what she wants to see done, and she knows that she can't change the world, but she can make a difference and she will make a difference. There's no doubt in my military mind."
'A wonderful career'
Baker's father was in the Air Force, and she says she "grew up all over the world."
"I went to nine junior high schools and six high schools and I don't know how many elementary schools," Baker said.
"I've lived in Germany and Panama – and Alaska, even before it became a state," she added.
Baker served in the Army during the mid-1960s in finance and accounting. She did her basic training in Fort McClellan, Ala., and she graduated in August 1965.
Baker did her advanced training at an Army accounting school in Indiana. She was stationed at William Beaumont General Hospital in El Paso, Texas. The hospital is called the William Beaumont Army Medical Center today, and it is part of Fort Bliss.
She spent 18 months in finance and accounting at the hospital; she was not deployed to Vietnam.
"I wanted to go overseas, but that's not what I got," she said.
Baker was charged with keeping the books and the military payroll for the hospital.
"I had a really good time," she said. "I enjoyed the camaraderie and the people."
Her late husband, Donald Baker, who had relatives living in Bel Air, was a military police officer, and a Harford County Sheriff's Office deputy who retired as a lieutenant. He died in 2006.
The Bakers were married in 1968 and moved to Harford County in 1969. Carolynn Baker has lived in Bel Air ever since.
Baker said she studied nursing at Harford Community College, which was paid for by the federal GI Bill. She went on to earn a bachelor's degree in nursing from the University of Maryland in Baltimore.
Baker has worked at Harford Memorial Hospital in Havre de Grace and the former Fallston General Hospital, and she spent the bulk of her career at Franklin Square Hospital in Baltimore County, where she was the nighttime supervisor.
She spent 18 years at Franklin Square, and another 14-and-a-half years with the Harford County Health Department.
Baker said she did "a little bit of everything" for the Health Department, including prenatal and newborn care for teenage and young mothers, childhood lead poisoning prevention, prevention of sexually transmitted diseases, childhood immunizations and helping senior citizens get access to health care.
"If it hadn't been for Harford [Community College], I would never have been able to be a nurse," Baker said. "It was a wonderful career."
She also has one son, James, who lives in Bel Air, and two granddaughters, Ava, 4, and Emma, 2.
Caring for veterans
Baker said the federal veteran's hospitals in Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Martinsburg, W.Va., are rated fourth worst in the nation in terms of new patients being able to get their first appointments in a timely fashion.
She said it takes more than a month for many new patients, when they are required to get a first appointment within 14 days.
"We have started working very closely with the VA health care system in Maryland," Baker said of the American Legion.
The patient backlog issue has affected VA hospitals across the country and led to the recent resignation of former VA Secretary Eric Shinseki.
"They're very receptive," Baker said of the VA officials she is working with. "There's many good things about the VA, and we'd like to build on that, and working together we will."
Baker noted the Legion leadership positions are unpaid volunteer roles.
"We're all volunteers, every one of us," she said.
Baker said her retirement from the Health Department in 2006 allowed her to spend more time on Legion activities.
"I think it's because the Legion is dedicated to all of the active-duty military and all the veterans," she said when asked why she has dedicated so much time to the American Legion.
"The Vietnam veterans are my generation, and I think the country needs to take care of the people that took care of them," she added. "We're the greatest country in the world, it's my belief, and we need to stay that way, and you need to take care of your military and your veterans to do that."