A symbol of courage, a burden of honor

THE BALTIMORE SUN

CLEAR SPRING -- Army Spc. 4 John Phillip Baca was running toward the explosions of automatic weapons, heavy machine guns and grenades in the hot tropical twilight of Phuoc Long Province. His platoon was in deep trouble, pinned down in a furious firefight with North Vietnamese soldiers.

Preparing to fire his 90 mm recoilless rifle, Specialist Baca heard a thud on the ground to his left.

"Oh, my God," he yelled. "Grenade!"

PD As his platoon mates dove for cover in the open, scrub brush ter

rain, Specialist Baca yanked off his steel helmet, slammed it over the live grenade and smothered it with his body -- just as it detonated.

The memory of that day -- Feb. 10, 1970 -- will live with John Baca for the rest of his life. But it is especially poignant and haunting this weekend as the nation pauses to observe Memorial Day.

Specialist Baca's action saved the lives of eight men. After two years of rehabilitation in VA hospitals, he stood proudly at attention in the White House as President Richard M. Nixon wrapped the star-studded, blue silk ribbon of the Medal of Honor around his neck.

For his bravery, Specialist Baca became one of the 3,399 recipients of the Medal of Honor, America's highest combat decoration. Most of those soldiers -- four out of every five -- were killed in the combat for which they received the award.

What happened that evening in far-off Phuoc Long Province was a watershed in the life of Specialist Baca, a 21-year-old from Providence, R.I. Before being drafted into the Army, he had been a troubled young man who lacked purpose and direction in his life, drifting dangerously into a life of ever more serious crime.

After the award ceremony at the White House, those who knew of his achievement came to view him as one of America's certified heroes, saluted by generals and hailed in speeches. But the perceptions of others were difficult for Mr. Baca to reconcile with his self-image. Receiving the medal created expectations that he could never live up to.

Coming to terms

The pastoral blueberry farm on which he now lives, 10 miles west of Hagerstown, bears no resemblance to the rough-and-tumble streets of the Rhode Island and California towns where he grew up. He didn't know his father and he was constantly in trouble with the law.

Today, Mr. Baca finds tranquillity on the mountainside farm that is owned by his best friend, Art James, one of the eight infantrymen he saved in Vietnam. On the farm with Mr. James, his wife, Terry, and their three children, Mr. Baca lives off his disability checks from the Department of Veterans Affairs, and he quietly attempts to come to terms with his past. He works during the winter months at a nearby ski resort.

"My two sisters and me, we hardly knew our father," Mr. Baca, 44, says in a converted 9-by-12-foot garden shed in which he sleeps, reads and writes letters. "Two feet smaller than Thoreau's place at Walden Pond," he jokes.

"There was never any real affection at home. I was in and out of juvenile homes for truancy, petty burglaries, that sort of thing. My high school diploma was earned while in the custody of the California Youth Authority."

A turning point

Mr. Baca believes that if it weren't for being drafted when he was 20, he probably would have gone on to a life of crime and prison.

After recovering from his wounds, Mr. Baca held a succession of jobs, took college courses, bounced around the country and became involved in veterans rights issues. In 1988, he bought a boat with a friend, Ray Keefer, on Maryland's Eastern Shore and fished and crabbed the Chesapeake Bay for a year.

"But one day I looked around and he was gone. Poof!" said Mr. Keefer of Ridgely, Caroline County, who met Mr. Baca at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington and struck up a friendship. Mr. Keefer was wounded five times during three tours of Vietnam and Cambodia.

When Mr. Baca left Ridgely, he again sought the life of solitude and for eight months lived alone in a trailer in the woods of Nova Scotia.

In 1990, he went with Mr. James to Yen Bien, North Vietnam, and helped rebuild a medical clinic.

"When the Vietnamese people found out about me, they put flowers on my wounds," Mr. Baca says.

There were trips to California, Australia, New York and Chicago. Almost always, he returned to the James farm, pulling up the driveway, honking the horn on his red 1969 Volkswagen, the one with the license plates that announce "Congressional Medal of Honor."

"Sometimes I think I'm getting to know him, and he drifts away," says Mr. James. "He goes and comes back, mostly for my three children. There's a real rich love there, a high-quality love directed at the kids. He's really extended family."

Mr. James believes that he owes his life to Mr. Baca: "My children are here today because of him," he says.

This weekend, Mr. Baca says, the visions will return of fellow platoon members -- Pack Rat, Pineapple, Preacher Man, Sugar Bear and Surfer -- all young soldiers with hope and dreams and fears. He will remember once more how his decision that day 23 years ago let them live.

Reliving the scene

Even after all these years, John Baca relives the scene: There he is, flat on his back, after taking the punch of the exploding grenade in the battle in Phuoc Long. His midsection and upper legs are mangled. But strangely, he recalls having strong feelings of warmth and security.

"I felt nothing, no pain," Mr. Baca says. "I felt like an angel, a spiritual being, was standing at my right shoulder. I asked my guardian angel if I was going to heaven."

Next to him was Mr. James.

The exploding grenade had detonated a 90 mm recoilless rifle shell that propelled large chunks of shrapnel into his lower legs.

He attempted to get up and run, but one leg was broken and an artery in the other was severed.

"My whole body was charged with the energy of the explosion, I thought I was dying," Mr. James says.

"I looked over at John. . . . He was breathing very hard, gasping for air. It was crazy, we were supposed to go to Australia for R & R the next day. . . . we were dying together instead."

An Army helicopter finally got in and Mr. Baca and Mr. James were loaded onto the floor of the ship.

On the flight to the evacuation hospital, the two 1st Cavalry Division soldiers grasped hands.

They made it. Mr. Baca was hospitalized for a year in Japan, where he almost died.

"I think of those times, fighting back from all of it, and sometimes I feel blessed to do something more for humanity," Mr. Baca says.

"But sometimes I curse the medal, how it raises you above who you are, an imaginary person. I truly want to be a crusader, get wisdom from Gandhi and Tolstoy. I want to find myself and accept myself. I want to stay away from dishonesty. . . . I am willing to shed some tears and try to work at all of us embracing each other's triumphs and brokenness.

"I'll do all of this," he says.

"But I will go to the wall [the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.] on special days and offer myself to the people there and make them feel more peaceful."

That happens when they see the medal around my neck."

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