ST. MARIES, Idaho – Angered and dismayed by the treatment of the only living black Medal of Honor winner from World War II, friends organized an auction that raised $16,000 for Vernon Baker’s medical bills.
Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne baked a cake, and Medal of Honor winners and legislators from other states filled the town to support the veteran and his wife.
“There were so many people. I was so overwhelmed,” Heidy Baker said of Saturday’s auction. “I had to go outside to cry a couple of times.”
Baker, 85, was diagnosed in September with a brain tumor, and was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle for emergency surgery.
Medicare is covering Baker’s medical bills but refuses to cover the more than $20,000 for the MedStar flight from Coeur d’Alene to Seattle. MedStar and the Bakers are appealing the decision.
Before his surgery, Baker had not enrolled for VA 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.
The benefit was organized by the Bakers’ friends after they heard about the couple’s battle over benefits and payments.
Gayle Alvarez, from the Idaho Military History Museum in Boise, brought a joint resolution from the Iowa state Senate to the White House, asking President Bush to show appreciation for Baker’s valor on the battlefield by paying his outstanding medical bills.
Baker grew up in Iowa and that state claims him as a native son.
Baker’s neighbors organized the benefit auction. Marilyn Fletcher, a friend, reserved the Eagles Lodge and her brother’s live band. She sent out word she needed items to auction to raise money for Baker’s medical bills.
“I got calls from all over the country,” Fletcher said. “The Medal of Honor Winners’ Society put it on their Web site. It literally went all over the nation.”
The U.S. Marine Corps sent a color guard. A woman offered a video she made of Medal of Honor winners from all wars, including Baker.
Kempthorne baked a chocolate cake for the auction and sent it to St. Maries by a state trooper. People donated handmade quilts and garden statues, paintings and airline tickets, bottles of liquor and flags that flew over the U.S. Capitol and the state Capitol.
Kempthorne’s cake went for $125 and the buyer gave it to the Bakers.
Nearly 500 people packed the lodge, including Sen. Larry Craig.
Baker said an MRI test he took this week will tell if the part of the tumor surgeons had to leave in his brain will cause trouble in the future.
Baker, who settled in St. Maries in 1987, was one of six black American soldiers chosen in 1997 for the Medal of Honor.