The Veterans: Former Marines Sonny Baker and Dale Richardson have Seen the Hell of War at the Killing Level and Say the Price was Far too High to Pay
Feb. 26, 2003Sonny Baker killed his first man at the age of 18 when he was just out of high school, serving in the U.S. Marines. Dale Richardson was on the other end of the firing line -- suffering three devastating wounds within a six-month period in Vietnam. He too was 18 and serving in the Marines when a bomb blast nearly blew his leg off.
Today, Baker and Richardson are among a number of former combat veterans in Northern Michigan who are speaking out against the war in Iraq. Although they had never met before, Baker and Richardson spoke against the war at a rally in Petoskey on February 8, stirring a crowd of more than 200 with a standing ovation for the intensity of their experiences, and the passion of their convictions.
Both men went into the service with the naivete of youth and came back sickened by what they saw of global politics played out at a soldier‘s level on the killing grounds of the world‘s poorest countries.
Following are their stories:
(PULL QUOTE): ‘I feel that I was used against the poor people of the earth, and yet I came from poor working class people myself‘
Sonny Baker: Three wars in five years
“I‘ve got a ‘hard‘ right, but you‘re ‘lucky‘ if you survive my left -- that‘s my mantra,“ says Sonny Baker, 32, whose love of boxing goes back to the days before he fought in Panama, the Gulf War and Somalia with the U.S. Marines.
A roofer from the small town of Topinabee, located between Indian River and Cheboygan, Baker has the word “HARD“ tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand and “LUCK“ on those of his left in testament to the left hook he‘s noted for as Northern Michigan‘s top heavyweight boxer.
Baker fought in the Marine Corps Golden Gloves in San Diego in 1994 as an amateur and beat the national champ. He‘s been fighting professionally for the past two years, competing in three fights per year as a light heavyweight at 178 lbs. One of his bigger wins was an FX Tough Man contest. Baker exudes an aura of physical strength and a posture of military bearing.
But beyond the sport boxing ring, he‘s bitter over the notion of violence as a solution to the world‘s problems.
“It may seem strange for a boxer to be a peace activist, but then you have to consider that Muhammed Ali was one of the greatest peace activists of all time,“ he notes, reflecting on the fact that Ali chose prison and was stripped of his title for refusing to fight in Vietnam.
“Sometimes it‘s hard to talk about the things I had to do in the name of this country,“ he says. “I‘ve seen a lot of horrible things. I‘ve seen what violence does to the human spirit as well as the human body.
“When someone dies, it‘s not like in the movies where someone clutches their chest and dies. When these weapons of mass destruction which *we* wield, it‘s a horrible, despicable thing. Human bodies come apart in ways that can‘t be described.“
OFF TO WAR
Baker learned that lesson at a tender age. Three weeks after graduating from Boyne City High School in 1989, he shipped out with the infantry of the 2nd Battalion, 9th Marine Corps. After completing basic training, he was sent to Fort Sherman in Panama to reinforce Kilo Company 36 on the eve of a surprise attack planned by the administration of George Bush, Sr.
On Dec. 20, Baker‘s company was part of the invasion to take out Panama President Manuel Noriega. “We were in very close proximity to Chorrillo, which was burned to the ground. For about a day there was serious resistance, but the Panamanian Defense Forces were no match for the U.S. forces.“
El Chorrillo is a poor district in Panama City which was full of wooden buildings. A barrage of artillery fire and bombs ignited a firestorm which killed a large number of impoverished civilians. The U.S. government estimates that about 300 Panamanians died in the invasion, but subsequent investigations have claimed that the civilian death toll was about 3,500. A total of 18 U.S. servicemen were killed out of an invading force of 26,000.
“It was used as something of a training war, just as the interventions in the banana republics in the ‘50s were used to keep the Marine Corps sharp,“ Baker says.
It was during the fighting in El Chorrillo that Baker killed a man.
“I shot a Panamanian soldier to death almost at point-blank range,“ he says, noting that the man unexpectely emerged from a doorway. “The fight probably lasted only a second, but it seemed like 20 minutes. I probably fired before I had a chance to see if he was going to shoot at me or not -- it was a full-armed combat situation.“
After Panama, Baker served in Honduras, patrolling the Nicaragua border. Here, he began to observe the role of the U.S. military in propping up corporate power in third world countries.
“We‘re working on what‘s called a ‘Pax Americana,‘ filling the void of the British or Roman empires by trying to control the world through military means for our financial gain. You see it in places like Honduras where the Dole Fruit company has a huge amount of influence.“
After six months in Okinawa and a stint in the Phillippines, Baker was sent to the Persian Gulf on the U.S.S. Tripoli. “We were the rear guard in Desert Storm, collecting prisoners and turning them over to MP‘s.“
He says the things he saw are tough to talk about, but by way of illustration, he has a photo of an Iraqi soldier burned to a cinder, with an MP pretending to light a cigarette off the corpse on the so-called Highway of Death in Kuwait.
“The Iraqi soldiers were forced to stay at the front,“ he says. “Their NCO‘s would shoot people if they ran -- the Republican Guard was mostly there to shoot conscripts trying to retreat or surrender. You could always tell who the Republican Guards were because they had real high boots. One of our prisoners broke free and strangled a Republican Guard prisoner to death -- they were pretty universally hated.
“They didn‘t want to be there,“ he adds of the Iraqi soldiers. “They were mostly shell-shocked with their eardrums blown out, bleeding from the ears from the concussive force of the bombs.“
THOUGHTS ON IRAQ
“My perspective from what I saw in Iraq just made me sick,“ Baker adds. “It was like I was fighting a ten-year-old, it was such a mismatch.“
Baker says he‘s seen no evidence that Iraq is connected to the religious fanatics of Al Queda and notes that the U.S. has kept 20,000 troops in the region for more than a decade as a threatening presence. He believes that the upcoming war with Iraq is about oil, and not social justice. “Iraq is sitting on top of the second largest oil reserves in the world and oil runs our administration now.“
By the time he was deployed to Somalia, he was a lance corporal. In 1992, he spent three months escorting food trucks from that capital at Mogadishu through the famine-stricken country.
“It was a really nasty, nasty area. I went from seeing what a large force could do in Iraq to Somalia, which was a lot more like Vietnam because everyone had a gun.
“Somalia is the kind of place that happens when you use violence as a solution to everything,“ he adds. “It‘s amazing to see how much a society can degrade; it was absolutely horrible with children dying everywhere and people shooting each other.“
The biggest threat was that of mines. Bakers says the Somalis “couldn‘t hit the broad side of a barn with a handful of rice,“ but had welded machine guns to their trucks. In response, the warring clans scattered mines along the country‘s roads, and the U.S. rescue forces lost a number of trucks while tranporting food.
By the time Baker left Somalia, he says he had developed a “bad attitude“ about the military and wanted out. A bright spot, however, was his acceptance in the Marine Corps boxing team. During 1993-‘94, he was the 1st Marine Division heavyweight and light heavyweight champion.
Upon his discharge, Baker used the G.I. Bill to begin attending classes at North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, where he received an associates degree in history. Reading a number of left-leaning writers and historians such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn gave shape to some of the troubling experiences he‘d had as a solidier.
Baker notes that the United States has often backed dictators it later regrets, including Manuel Noriega, the Shah of Iran, and Saddam Hussein.
“We poured a lot of our dollars into Saddam Hussein‘s regime,“ he notes of U.S. involvement in the ‘70s and ‘80s. “We built him and funded his war with Iran for eight years. When we start to dictate to other cultures, we always choose badly and it comes back to haunt us.“
Today, Baker and his wife Katy hope to shield their two-year-old son Cleveland from a military future that serves corporate purposes and empire-building. “If I can convince just one kid not to go out and join up and support American imperialism, I‘ll feel good about it,“ he says.
Baker has suffered bad dreams and feelings of guilt from his time in the Marines. After his discharge, he had a difficult time and succumbed to heavy drinking. He has also developed an allergy to metal, along with other Gulf War veterans. He can‘t wear a wedding ring or jewelry, and the metal snap on his pants must be coated with fingernail polish to avoid contact with his skin. Contact with metal can mean blistering and swelling.
“I‘m concerned about the amount of shots I had to take and the pills and experimental anti-blistering agents,“ he says. “The government was supposed to do follow-up work on the effects of that stuff, but it never did... We‘re talking about weapons of mass destruction poisoning people, but George W. Bush‘s dad poisoned me and other veterans and no one‘s doing anything about it.“
Ultimately, Baker feels that he was used for sinister motives. He also feels that he has a sense of kinship in common with the poor soldier he shot in Panama.
“I feel that I was used against the poor people of the earth, and yet I came from poor working class people myself. I came from a trailer park in Boyne City and was from the third world myself.“
PULL QUOTE: ‘Someone was walking about 20 or 25 feet ahead and they tripped a 500-pound booby trap or mine‘
Dale Richardson: Wounded three times in Vietnam
When Dale Richardson looks back on his life, he feels the pain and regret of 32 years of career, family and self-esteem blown to oblivion by a bomb blast while on patrol in Vietnam in 1969.
Today, Richardson, 53, spends his time as a community volunteer in Gaylord, providing transportation for people in need through the Family Independence Agency and Child and Family Services. He is also a volunteer mentor for those on court-ordered probation.
Richardson lives on VA disability as a consequence of his wounded leg -- he has a quadraceps muscle which is partially paralyzed and getting worse. He walks with a cane, but fears that he may someday be flat on his back or in a wheelchair.
Richardson also suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome for more than 30 years, a disorder which led to alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce and estrangement from his three children. All of his problems stem from just six months and 20 days in Vietnam as an 18-year-old Marine, fresh out of high school.
“Being 18 years old, we felt invincible, but I didn‘t know the truth about war, and that it was all politically motivated,“ he says.
Like Baker, Richardson has attempted to use his experience in the military to warn young people not to buy into the John Wayne sterotypes of glory on the battlefield. When a career fair was held for young people in Gaylord, he volunteered to offer an opposing view to that of military recruiters, but was turned down. “I made a request to talk to whoever wanted to listen to me after the recruiters were there,“ he says. “But they didn‘t want me.“
Richardson graduated from Dondero High School in Royal Oak in 1968 and decided to enlist in the Marines as a way to sidestep conflict with his father. “My dad and I had some issues and he was one of these ‘18-and-out‘ guys who said he wasn‘t going to subsidize me living at home,“ he recalls. “He was an old Navy guy who believed in a lot of discipline at home, so going to boot camp for me was not all that difficult.
“But I had an uncle Bob who had enlisted and was serving in Vietnam, and he later told me that one of the saddest moments of his life was when he heard that I had signed up, because he knew I‘d be coming over there. To this day, we‘ve never had a conversation where he could talk about what he saw there.“
Richardson was assigned one of the most dangerous jobs in the Marines: that of a platoon radio operator with the 2nd Battalion, 1st Marines, Echo Company. In Vietnam, seven out of 10 radio operators wound up as casualties, specially targeted by the enemy to knock out communications.
“I was in-country just five days on patrol when I was shot in the right heel by a sniper,“ he recalls. “I was in the hospital for four days and then got sent back out in the field.
“It was brutal. I was carrying around around a 45-pound platoon radio in the bush with a flak jacket and a lot of heavy clothing and equipment in extreme heat, dying for water all day long. The environment itself was a major challenge just to survive it.“
Within two-and-a-half months he was struck again, this time by shrapnel to his knee. Yet after a month‘s recuperation, he was back with his unit in Da Nangh.
Then, on a patrol in an area called the Pipestone Canyon, disaster struck. “Someone was walking about 20 or 25 feet ahead and they tripped a 500-pound booby trap or mine,“ he recalls. “There were 34 or 35 of us wounded or dead.
“It killed two radio operators. I got shrapnel in my left thigh up to the top of my leg, and was bleeding so badly that a guy used his M-16 to twist a tourniquet around my leg as tight as he could.“
Richardson and the survivors were pinned down in the water of a rice paddy for almost two days waiting for rescue helicopters. “There were guys a lot worse off than I was. They could pretty much die right there, and they did. My problem was infection -- I‘d severed a major femoral artery and we were waiting in the water.“
The last thing Richardson recalled of the battlefield was passing out as he was lifted through the gate of a CH-47 helicopter.
“The first hospital I went to, they wanted to amputate my leg while I was unconscious, but an Air Force surgeon suggested treating it with antibiotics instead.“
Richardson found that his nation had little use for him once he‘d been used for cannon fodder.
“I was in and out of VA hospitals for 18 months until I walked out of the one in Allen Park on my own because of the lack of treatment. They didn‘t even discharge me -- I just left.“
He says wounded soldiers received no treatment for psychological readjustment, and poor medical treatment to boot. “VA funds are appropriated each year, and if they run out of funds and you need an operation, you won‘t get it.
“There will be collateral damage for the people who come back from the war in Iraq,“ he adds, “but people need to know that the VA won‘t be taking care of their loved-one‘s needs.“
In Vietnam, Richardson says that 18-year-olds felt their world flip upside down. “We literally didn‘t know what we were doing there -- we just did what they told us to do.“
At home, however, the reality of suffering the after-effects of the war was all too evident. Although Richardson found work as a drummer with a number of top blues bands in Detroit, including Catfish Hodge and Robert Noll and the Bluesbreakers, he says he was unable to connect with society outside of bars and the music scene. He went through four marriages and was estranged from his three children. He hasn‘t seen his daughter since she was six months old, and only recently connected with his sons, ages 21 and 19, after 17 years of absence through a quirk of fate.
Richardson has been clean and sober for 10 years now, and three years ago, he began grappling with the effects of his post-traumatic disorder through a heavy course of therapy. Today, he‘s able to speak quite eloquently in public about his experience -- something that he never dreamed would be possible.
Moving to Northern Michigan has also been helpful; getting away from the “ripping and running“ and neurosis of big city living.
He feels that people need to listen to other views on the war and think more deeply about the futility of violence as a solution.
“People need to listen to more alternative views on the war in Iraq to get different perspectives on what‘s happening there,“ he says. “I‘m trying to share my experience to creat a more peace-loving world for my children and other children. I‘ve seen the ugly side of conflict.“