SOUTHERN UTE RESERVATION – At Tuesday’s 10th annual Veterans Day Dinner, hosted by the Ignacio School District, Ronnie Baker, a U.S. Army veteran, imparted a sense of what military service is really like.
The Veterans Day Dinner regularly draws 400 people, making it one of the school district’s biggest events. Led by students, it focuses on giving community members an opportunity to thank veterans. Baker, 77, a Southern Ute tribal member, shared his experiences in Vietnam and Germany from 1967 to 1980, offering some guidance to students.
“I try not to influence people. I just want to say this is what (service) was like,” said Baker, who was born and raised in Ignacio. “Maybe give the kids a sense of what they want to do.”
He says he has three tips for others:
Always be on time.Do the best job you can.Do one good deed every day.The free event in the Ignacio High School auditorium featured a meal, a photo slideshow honoring veterans and performances by the band and choir students. Elementary, middle and high school students came together to make decorations, bake cookies and volunteer to show their appreciation to veterans.
“It’s an opportunity for community members to thank the veterans and active-duty men and women ... and give back a little something,” said Kathy Pokorney, curriculum director for the district.
In Vietnam, Baker served as a ground reconnaissance soldier in the 17th Cavalry 101st Airborne Division from 1967 to 1968. He then served as a gunner on a battle tank in Germany until 1970, where he rose to become a tank commander.
Pokorney chose Baker as the event’s keynote speaker because of his involvement with the schools and in the community.
Baker regularly attends school events, and both his wife and daughter have held educational roles either for the tribe or the school district. When there was an intermediate school in town, Baker would come on Veterans Day and lead students in the Pledge of Allegiance at the flagpole outside, Pokorney said.
Baker said he was also president of the Ignacio School Board and has served in other boards and leadership positions in the community.
“He’s just wonderful. He’s happy; he’s jovial. He’s very personable,” Pokorney said.
From Ignacio to VietnamFor Baker, joining the military was a whirlwind. In six months, he went from a “naive,” 18-year-old civilian who had never left the reservation to a soldier in the middle of the Vietnam War.
“Ten thousand miles from home. That was an experience,” Baker said. “It was scary. You’re so lost you have no idea. You just kind of follow what they told you.”
He went to Denver for entrance examinations, then Fort Campbell, Kentucky, for basic combat training. Seemingly at random, officers split up his group and sent him to ground reconnaissance training. After another split, Baker found himself in jump school learning to parachute.
Then in December 1967, the 101st Airborne Division landed in Vietnam.
“The first thing we noticed when we got off the plane was how hot and humid and smelly it was,” Baker said.
A month later in late January, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese military launched the Tet Offensive, a series of surprise attacks on South Vietnam in an attempt to turn the tide of the war.
Baker was there, in one of the toughest battlegrounds, protecting the flanks of the Marines as they went through the former national capital, Hue.
By the time the historic city was retaken on Feb. 24, it had been all but leveled. About 150 Marines were killed in the battle. The Viet Cong executed thousands of civilians, and 100,000 residents lost their homes, according to History.com.
“We served there for almost 30 days,” Baker said. “I don’t envy those guys fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. That house-to-house fighting is the dirtiest fighting you can imagine.”
After the “hyper” time in Vietnam when soldiers were “always on guard,” Baker focused on relearning patience – first as a tank commander in Germany, which was more relaxed, then as a civilian working in oil and gas fields.
Looking back, Baker said he misses his fellow soldiers – the ones who didn’t make it in the 17th Cavalry and the ones who served with him in the tank outfits in Germany.
“When you get to my age, you think about them as kids. Just a bunch of kids doing what we had to do,” Baker said.
That’s how he describes his service, even when he talks about being celebrated as a veteran at the Ignacio dinner.
“You didn’t go in to get special recognition or anything,” Baker said. “You just had to go and do what you had to do.”