A soldier tells his story

sgilman@newsobserver.comFebruary 28, 2014 

It had been 51 years, four months and 13 days since the two retired Army colonels had seen each other. Then, at a book signing last year at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, they found one another.

“He walked in, and it was,” began Roy Douglass of Rougemont.

“Instant recognition on both parts,” finished Clayton resident Rudy Baker. “It was like we finished working yesterday and started back today.”

Baker and Douglass graduated together from Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Benning, Ga., in March of 1962, just as U.S. involvement in Vietnam was heating up. They were two of 119 men to finish what 238 had begun.

“For the next 50 years,” Baker recalled, “we went our own ways all over the world. A lot of us stayed in the Army, some of us got out, but we never worked together for that 50 years.”

The life stories of Baker, Douglass, 12 other 1962 OCS alumni and one OCS company commander appear in “The Boys of Benning,” published last year.

The idea for the book came at their class reunion exactly 50 years and many battles after their graduation. On March 30, 2012, 21 alumni gathered at the National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Ga. It was like a “band of brothers” coming back together, recalled Thomas Vaughn, the book’s co-editor and a retired Army colonel. (Douglass did not attend the reunion but did go to the book signing in Raleigh.)

At the reunion, the men swapped life stories and found they had similar experiences. They had gone from non-commissioned officers to highly educated leaders in the Army. Many had completed two 12-month tours in Vietnam. Many had made the rank of colonel. One of them made brigadier general.

None of them had forgotten OCS.

“It’s four years of West Point jammed into six months,” Douglass said.

Vaughn and a few others came up with the idea for a book and recruited others to submit their stories. A year later, the book, complete with their stories of courage and leadership, was done.

OCS was the turning point for many of them, since it moved their careers from enlisted to commissioned officers. For Baker, it meant opportunity.

“It opened doors that would never have been there without the commission I received through the program,” he said. “Even my civilian employment after retirement would not have happened without OCS. Most importantly though, OCS provided me with the skills, discipline and opportunity to lead troops in peace and war.”

Throughout his life, Baker said, he has always looked for a “better way to make a living.” It started on a hot July day in 1954, just two months after he graduated from Selma High School. The 18-year-old Baker was working in a tobacco patch with his father, a sharecropper.

“About 3 o’clock, I come to the end of a row, flipped my hat down, put my foot in it and told my dad, ‘I quit,’” Baker said.

His father told him: “You can’t quit. You own three acres of this.”

Baker answered: “The three acres is yours and whatever you can get out of it. I’m gone.”

He moved in with a cousin in High Point and went to work at a furniture factory. But the sawdust in his eyes and nose was just as bad as the heat and dirt of farming, and he left after one week of factory work.

Unemployed, Baker went to the military recruiting office in High Point. After waiting an hour for the Naval recruiter to return, he went across the hall and joined the Army.

“A week later, I was at Fort Jackson in South Carolina pushing up sand,” Baker said wryly.

Baker gained 18 pounds during basic training at Fort Jacksonville. He later went to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, where he received training to become a combat engineer. That meant “one pick, one shovel, seven days a week,” he said. He dug ditches and poured concrete in Germany until he became a staff sergeant.

When Baker returned home in 1957, he left the Army. But unable to find work he liked, he reenlisted, working as a non-commissioned officer at a recruiting station in Raleigh. Later, Baker went to Fort Campbell, Ky., where he stood before a promotion board with other soldiers competing for a bump in rank. The soldier who got promoted had been a sergeant seven years longer than Baker.

That meant his own promotion would be a long wait.

“That’s when I went back to company headquarters and typed up an application to officer candidate school,” Baker said.

OCS changed everything but not right away. First, Baker went to airborne school and motor-maintenance school and spent a year as a platoon leader in South Korea, where he lived in a hut and was “cold and miserable.” But that leadership experience would serve him well when he found himself in Vietnam in 1965.

In Vietnam, Baker was a company commander in a battalion that was part of the 101st Airborne Division.

He got to jump out of planes.

“It’s exciting,” Baker said. “It’s butterflies in your stomach. I don’t care how many times you’ve jumped, and I made well over 100.”

Most of the drops were at night, and the soldiers carried about 100 pounds of gear. It was “everything you could live with for a few days,” said Baker, who helped lead some of the main clashes between American forces and the North Vietnamese.

When Baker returned to the United States, he attended advanced infantry officer school at Fort Benning. He returned to Vietnam in 1968 for a second 12-month tour, this time as a logistics officer. He navigated frustrating rules of engagement to save soldiers’ lives.

Barker later earned a master’s degree in business administration from Syracuse University, did a two-year tour in Iran, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel and trained an airborne infantry battalion within the 82nd Airborne Division.

“I was extremely honored and humbled at the same time,” Baker wrote of the experience. “I recognized what an opportunity I had been given, but I also recognized the awesome responsibility I had before me to ensure the unit was ready to deploy within eighteen hours, and fight and win upon arrival in a combat zone.”

The Army recognized his training ability and eventually put him in charge of a new program, the Battalion Training Management System, where he trained battalion commanders. It later named him inspector general of the 82nd Airborne Division, then chief of staff for the first Corps Support Command at Ft. Bragg. His last assignment was as comptroller for the XVIII Airborne Corps and Ft. Bragg.

In 1987, the colonel retired from the Army after 33 years of active duty and landed a job with First Citizens Bank, where he was city executive at Camp Lejeune and Pope Air Force Base. Baker said he “had a lot of fun and supported soldiers.”

“To put it mildly, I had two great careers and loved both of them,” he said.

Baker’s story is only one of the incredible tales in “The Boys of Benning.” They are stories of hard work, perseverance and patriotism. They are life journeys of joy, sorrow, victory and loss. As Baker said, “There are 14 other guys in that book, and some of these guys got shot up.”

Four of their classmates lost their lives in combat in Vietnam, and the book is dedicated to them.

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