I originally posted this on my other blog "The Better Side of Humanity" earlier this year. Well, this is the date of the action my friend and former Navy CO participated in which won him the Navy's highest award, the Navy Cross. I'm posting it again here just as a tip of the hat to a brave and humble man....
There is an attitude that seems to come with being a hero. Most of the time you ask these guys a question about it and you are likely to get a response like, “I was just doing my job,” or “I only did what anybody would do.”
My brother Dusty for example, just retired from the Air Force. He got what they call a “shadow box” as part of the deal. A shadow box is a nice wood display with all of your awards, your rank, an American flag and other things like that. I asked him what he got all of those awards for and his reply was something like “Oh, just being me.” Now I don’t know if he was a hero but he does illustrate the point. For the military serviceman there is a kind of attitude that I could only describe as a mild kind of humility—a humbleness about what they’ve done. You can almost bet your life if you find someone in the military, or formerly, who seems a bit boastful about what he did, that he in fact didn’t do it at all. And likewise, if they have that humbleness about them that seems somehow to pervade their very being, well, you can bet that they’ve done a lot.
One of the most humble men that I’ve ever met in that respect was Bob Baratko.
My book, Vengeance: Hatred and Honor has the following paragraph in the introduction: “I recall the first day that I was on a ship. My squadron was deployed to the USS Kitty Hawk for a Western Pacific cruise. Now, if you have ever seen an aircraft carrier, you realize how easy it is to get lost. After searching for almost forty-five minutes, I finally found the squadron’s personnel office. Everybody was busy unpacking and stowing their gear because we had just arrived at the ship, and seemed to have no time for this young, lost, and very confused airman apprentice who was just trying to take care of the paperwork necessary to get another stripe added to his uniform. The door that led to the officer’s ready room opened and in stepped a commander. He surveyed the compartment to see what was going on, and his eyes very quickly landed on me. He walked over to where I was and with a kind and gentle smile asked, “Can I help you, sir?” I would like to thank USN Commander Robert E. Baratko, my commanding officer in VAQ-130, for teaching me what it really means to be a leader.”
So I decided that if I am going to put this into my book I should see if I could find him and let him know firsthand that I am going to do so. Unfortunately I couldn’t find him in time and I made the decision to go ahead and put it there anyway and hoping for the best, let him know that I did so when I found him.
So while doing the search for him I found this: “The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Lieutenant, Junior Grade Robert Edward Baratko (NSN: 0-741174), United States Naval Reserve, for extraordinary heroism on 15 September 1970 while serving as the Aircraft Commander of an attack helicopter, attached to Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron THREE (HAL(L)-3), Task Force 116 (TF-116), during operations against enemy forces in the Republic of Vietnam. Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Baratko participated in a mission to provide cover for a medical evacuation helicopter which had previously attempted to evacuate several seriously wounded personnel in the face of intense enemy fire. As his plane and three others entered the evacuation area, the surrounding tree lines erupted with intense fire which downed two aircraft and seriously damaged a third. Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Baratko's aircraft sustained several critical hits, including one through the fuel tank. With the only flyable attack helicopter on the scene, he provided gun-ship coverage while the medical evacuation helicopter eventually succeeded in rescuing the downed crews. As he was flying this coverage, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Baratko's plane was again subjected to heavy fire and sustained several more hits. After the medical evacuation helicopter departed the area, Lieutenant, Junior Grade, Baratko flew to a nearby landing strip with his fuel supply practically exhausted. By his perseverance and great personal valor in the face of almost overwhelming odds, he was directly instrumental in saving the lives of several of his shipmates. His selfless and determined efforts were in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
The Navy Cross is the highest award that the Navy can award a sailor and is the second highest award that there is for anybody serving in the military.
I am happy to report that I have finally located Bob Baratko after several years of looking and his letter back to me was just as pleasant as I remembered him to be. He will get a courtesy copy of my book with thanks for his part in inspiring the leadership qualities of the main character of my book. I also thank him and all of our fine heroes who quietly take the lead and guide the rest of us through what we need to do, whatever that may be.