Veterans Day 2020 has come and gone, but we should keep America’s veterans in our hearts year-round, particularly as we give thanks for our many blessings on Thanksgiving Day. One way to express thanks is to memorialize the names of veterans who have served above and beyond the call of duty. Congress is on the verge of providing an opportunity to do just that.
The National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2021 will likely receive approval in early December. It calls for removal of the names of Confederate Generals from U.S. military bases. The Army would have three years to rename 10 Army bases currently bearing the names of seditious officers. There are some remarkable Idaho heroes whose names should be considered.
Ralph Sword of Boise has asked Idaho’s Congressional delegation to help change the name of Fort Benning in Georgia to Fort Vernon Baker. The base was named during Jim Crow days for a Confederate Civil War General who strongly opposed the abolition of slavery. On the other hand, Vernon Baker, an African American hero of World War Two, was a loyal citizen of the United States during his entire 90 years.
When Baker first tried to enlist in the Army in 1941, he was turned away because of the color of his skin. He persisted and later earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for, as stated in his citation, “extraordinary heroism in action on 5 and 6 April 1945, near Viareggio, Italy.” His citation describes how Baker single-handedly wiped out three machine gun positions and several other enemy emplacements in a suicide mission against a German strong point at Castle Aghinolfi.
The Medal of Honor was not actually awarded until January 1997–more than a half century late, due to Baker’s skin color. His other honors include a Silver Star, Bronze Star, two Purple Hearts and the Combat Infantryman Badge.
Baker was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and lost his parents in an auto accident when he was four years old. He learned to hunt out of necessity–to put food on the table. His love of hunting brought him to live in Idaho in 1986, which was his home until he died at age 90 in 2010. Vernon Baker was beloved in his adopted home state and a national hero and treasure. It would be entirely appropriate for the Army to rename Fort Benning to honor Vernon’s dedicated service to the United States and his fellow citizens.
While on the topic of base names, it would be fitting and proper for the Air Force to rename Mountain Home Air Force Base to honor another genuine Idaho hero, Bernie Fisher. Bernie, a long-time resident of Kuna, was a warm, plain-spoken, humble soul. Just chatting with him, you wouldn’t necessarily picture Bernie landing his old-fashioned, propeller-driven fighter on an airstrip littered with battle debris to rescue a downed wingman amongst a hail of bullets coming from practically every direction. But that’s exactly what Bernie did.
Bernie was the first member of the U.S. Air Force to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in the Vietnam War. His heroic actions took place in March 1966 at a Special Forces camp in A Shau Valley that was surrounded by 2,000 North Vietnamese regulars. Bernie rescued his wingman and returned to base with 19 bullet holes in his vintage plane. During his service, Bernie received a trove of other medals, including the Silver Star, Legion of Merit and Distinguished Flying Cross.
I had the distinct honor to work with Bernie on a committee charged with helping Vietnam veterans readjust to civilian life. He was highly dedicated to helping all who served this great nation.
As we enjoy our Thanksgiving this year, be thankful for those like Vernon Baker and Bernie Fisher who helped make it possible. Let our Congressional delegation know that they should weigh in on renaming bases to honor these heroic Americans.