So much for taking care of our vets

Vernon Baker battled Nazis, then racism in his own country to win the Medal of Honor. Now, at 85, he’s battling red tape.

Baker, the only living black Medal of Honor winner from World War II, needed emergency surgery in September to remove a baseball-sized malignant tumor from his brain.

Healthy for much of his life, the Idaho resident had overlooked the need to enroll for Veterans Affairs and Medicare benefits. When his medical bills arrived, Baker and his wife were surprised to learn the government did not intend to help pay them.

Patients must enroll with the Veterans Administration to receive benefits, and cannot be reimbursed for costs incurred before their enrollment, said Roxanne Sisemore, spokeswoman for the VA.

And while some Medicare coverage kicks in automatically when a person reaches retirement age, coverage to pay doctors’ bills also requires enrollment, said Peter Ashkenaz, a Medicare spokesman.

“It kind of makes me feel angry,” Baker said in a telephone interview from his home in St. Maries, a town of 2,400 in the forested Idaho Panhandle, about 70 miles southeast of Spokane. “I’m not able to take care of myself and it hurts me.”

With the help of Idaho politicians, Baker has started receiving some VA and Medicare benefits. And residents of St. Maries are organizing a fund-raiser to pay for thousands of dollars in medical bills he already owes.

“Someone held up as a hero all over the world, then he can’t get medical coverage. No one should have to go through that,” said neighbor Marilyn Fletcher, who is organizing the March 19 fund-raiser.

Baker earned the Medal of Honor citation for his courage and leadership in the spring of 1944.

Army Lt. Baker had been sent to Italy with the all-black 92nd Infantry. On April 5, Baker and his men were behind enemy lines in the battle for Castle Aghinolfi near Viareggio, according to Army records.

Their white commanding officer ran when the fighting started, ostensibly to seek reinforcements who never arrived, Baker wrote in his book, “Lasting Valor.”

With German fire decimating the Americans, Baker took charge, moving from one machine gun nest to another, killing the enemy soldiers inside. Then he covered the evacuation of his wounded comrades by taking an exposed position and drawing the enemy’s fire, according to Army records.

The next night, Baker voluntarily led an advance on the castle through enemy mine fields and heavy fire.

In all, Baker and his platoon killed 26 Germans, destroyed six machine gun nests, two observer posts and four dugouts. Their heroism enabled the Allies to take the castle shortly thereafter.

Baker was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, making him the most decorated black soldier in the Mediterranean Theater.

What he didn’t know was that his Medal of Honor nomination had been blocked by a military establishment that did not want to give the nation’s highest honor to blacks.

In 1993, Army officials contracted Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., to learn if any black soldiers had been improperly denied the Medal of Honor. The university recommended 10 soldiers. From that list, Pentagon officials picked seven.

Baker was the only recipient still living and received his award from President Clinton in 1997.

Baker stayed in the Army after the war and retired to St. Maries in 1968.

Baker is trying not to let the financial woes get him down.

“I’m hanging in there,” he said. “Today I feel pretty good.”

© 2005 The Associated Press