Living Columns & Blogs

Lessons in leadership, faith, suffering

When I worked in the Pentagon several years ago, I had the honor and privilege of working for Brig. Gen. David “Bull” Baker. Baker was a colorful character — I could always hear him coming long before I saw him. He was loud, good-natured and powerful and had earned the name “Bull” for his aggressive style of flying and fighting. So when Bull was in the area, you knew it. It was also true that Baker lived in pain every single day I knew him.

Baker was what I would call a “real life hero.” He was a Vietnam War veteran and a former prisoner of war. During the war, he flew the O-2A Cessna — a modified business aircraft that was used for reconnaissance and targeting primarily to improve air to ground effectiveness and prevent friendly force casualties. While small and agile, the Forward Area Controllers were easy targets from ground fire, and Baker was shot down over Cambodia in 1972. Surviving the crash, he fought off the enemy with only his service revolver before finally being captured. He sustained severe injuries from the crash and was shot at least twice during this ordeal.

I was honored to hear his story one day when he shared it with a group of visiting high school students — the story of how he was tortured and forced to live in a bamboo cage buried in the ground during his time in captivity, never receiving the medical care he needed. It was the only time anyone could remember him sharing his story this way and I volunteered as an escort that day so I could hear it.

There was a great deal more he shared, but suffice to say he survived and became the only Air Force member repatriated from Cambodia at war’s end. He went on to continue in service to his country and flew 20 more combat missions in the F-15 during the Gulf War in 1990. I worked for him for about two years in the Pentagon, where we served together as liaisons between the Air Force and the classified intelligence agencies.

The reason I write to you about this now is to share some of the life lessons Baker taught me. His aggressiveness in the air carried over into his leadership style in the Pentagon, and while he wasn’t known for his eagerness to please every bureaucrat or politician, he was one of the most loyal bosses I ever had. Loyal to his country, to the mission of the Air Force and to his people. And there was a side of him that surprised many people — his sensitivity. Behind the aggressiveness and bluster was a man with great empathy and discernment. He was a wonderful example of how to be a strong leader while showing concern for those around you.

I also mentioned earlier that Baker was in constant pain. After his release he underwent numerous surgeries to repair his shattered legs but despite all the technology of the day, he still suffered terribly. I suppose he could have taken the medications to relieve that pain, but it would have ended his career in the Air Force.

Instead, he dealt with it, and labored on. And despite this suffering and how miserable he may have felt, he was still that compassionate, uncomplaining person who wanted to listen and learn about your life and the struggles you had.

I don’t think Baker was a particularly religious person, but I sensed a profound faith in this man. And it was during my time working for him that I first heard my call to full-time ministry. And when I think or read of “suffering” — whether that be physical, mental, emotional or some other form of suffering, I think of Baker, laboring on in pain, enduring for the sake of something greater than himself.

He inspired me to at least try to do greater things, and taught me that there are far more important things in life than pleasing the earthly powers that be, and I will always be grateful to him for that. Bull Baker died Jan. 29, 2009, at the age of 62.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us” (Romans 8:18) speaks to the suffering of our present condition and the glory that awaits us in the future glory of God’s kingdom. I pray for the day when we will be free for suffering and enter that glory that awaits us, and I hope to hear Baker there — long before I see him.

Dave Downer is the pastor at Trinity United Church of Christ in Centre Hall.