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The Good Soldier : As the Military Downsizes, the War-Hardened Vietnam Generation is Retiring, Including Army Legend Alfred Baker

August 21, 1994|ROBIN WRIGHT | A former Mideast correspondent for the Sunday Times of London, Robin Wright covers global affairs out of The Times' Washington bureau. Her last article was about Tajikistan

In the summer of 1969, Alfred M. Baker was blown up by a satchel full of Viet Cong explosives. The explosion threw Baker 20 feet into air; the impact broke his back in two places, ripped off almost half his face and snapped bones all over his body. Medics deposited him in the triage section for those left to die. Before a priest began giving him last rites, Baker managed to clear away the teeth and bits of gum knocked into his mouth.

"Get the f--- away," he mumbled to the priest. "I'm not Catholic. And I'm not going to die."

Baker was awarded a Purple Heart. It was his fourth in three years.

And Vietnam marked only the early phase of Baker's career. Later assignments--including two "black book" posts delegated by the secretary of the Army--were just as dangerous and often more challenging. Yet no assignment, Baker contends, has been as painful as his post as chief of staff, U.S. Command, Berlin Brigade. Next month, he will oversee the closing of the only U.S. base behind enemy lines, ending a half-century-old American presence in a city that symbolized the Cold War. And as he turns off the lights of the headquarters built for Nazi Field Marshal Hermann Goring, Baker will also end a three-decade career.

"In some ways, this has been the toughest assignment I've ever had. It's saying goodby to a city and a mission that has played such a role in history. It feels like amputating your own leg," Col. Baker, 53, reflected recently in the cavernous office that once served the Luftwaffe . "Plus the whole kaleidoscope of what I've done and all I've been for 30 years ends here. This is the last stop. There is no more."

The end of the Berlin Brigade and the cashiering of one of the Army's most decorated soldiers are microcosms of the changes within the American military during the final phases of its massive drawdown. Their last days symbolize the passing of a certain kind of mythic American soldier and an ambitious mission that first led the United States to international power. The result is transforming the U.S. Armed Forces.

Since the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, more than half the 1,669 U.S. military facilities overseas have been eliminated, reduced or inactivated--just short of the 54% reduction of 1990 levels expected by 1996. More than 600 were in Germany. And since the height of the U.S. deployment in 1987, more than 200,000 of the half-million soldiers overseas have been reassigned to home bases, left the military or retired. The overall goal is a 56% reduction of 1985 levels by 1996; the largest drawdown is again in Germany. From more than 250,000 troops in 1987, the U.S. presence will be reduced to less than 100,000 soldiers after cutbacks culminating with the deactivation of the Berlin Brigade.

Like Baker, many of those affected by the cutbacks in posts and personnel are the most war-hardened officers still serving in the military. Due to either time, notably the 30-year career limit, or the new streamlined military, many who cut their teeth in the foxholes, marshes and jungles of South Vietnam are now being retired.

Among them is one of the Army's contemporary legends.

IT TOOK MORE THAN 15 OPERATIONS TO PUT Baker back together; he underwent 10 just to reconstruct his face.

"I told them I had looked like Rock Hudson. They obviously screwed up," he laughed. The only visible reminder of Vietnam is a lump on his upper right lip, which he opted to keep rather than undergo more surgery.

As a professional soldier, Baker didn't take a military discharge. Eighteen months later, he was back in Vietnam. During his third tour, he worked under John Paul Vann, the acclaimed but controversial military maverick dissected in Neil Sheehan's Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, "A Bright Shining Lie." It was a turning point in Baker's life.

Vann appraised the Saigon government early on as corrupt and inept. He understood the war was being lost among the peasantry, and he knew high-tech weapons were often producing more guerrillas than they killed. After failing to win promotion and thus forced out of the Army, Vann returned to Vietnam as a civilian adviser and architect of a different strategy to counter the Viet Cong. His eight-man teams, culled from the diplomatic, intelligence and military communities, worked on a U.S. program advising villagers at the grass-roots level on economic, political, agricultural and health issues. Baker became one of Vann's boys.

Years later, colleagues referred to Baker's final tour in Vietnam as his Col. Kurtz period, after the officer played by Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now" who pursued the war on his own terms. Shortly after Baker arrived in the jungles and rice paddies of remote Phu-Yen Province, he dismissed the other seven members of his team. "They were the wrong people in the wrong place doing the wrong jobs. It wasn't their fault," Baker explained.

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