By Brandon HENSLEY
He said he enjoys relaxing at Coffee Bean once in a while, and you don’t want to believe him, because when was the last time you saw Mike Baldwin take a break? But here he was on a July afternoon in the Montrose Shopping Park with his wife Carolyn, leaning back in his seat, trying to think of ways to casually answer questions about his big award.
Maybe that’s it. Even when he’s not doing anything, he’s still working; working in his mind to try and deflect a whole bunch of praise that was recently heaped on him.
A Vietnam veteran who is well known in the community for his charitable actions, Baldwin was on the receiving end last week when he was honored in Sacramento in front of more than 100 fellow veterans.
Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) presented Baldwin as Veteran of the Year for the 43rd District at the Assembly Veterans Recognition Luncheon. Baldwin is the 20th District Commander of the American Legion Verdugo Hills Post 288 and a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1614.
Maybe another decorated vet would have a long-winded response to how much of an honor it was to be recognized, but Baldwin deals in brevity.
“Well, I mean, I’m honored. It’s kind of a humbling experience,” he said. But then he turned quickly to Carolyn, like he was uncomfortable with a spotlight on him, and asked, “What did you think about it?”
Lynn McGinnis, who served in the Air Force in the U.S. during Vietnam, said the honor was well deserved.
“He clearly is the outstanding veteran in Mike Gatto’s assembly district.” McGinnis said. “He’s got a big heart. He’s well respected amongst everybody. I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say anything bad about him.”
Baldwin doesn’t need time to think about why it was important for him to be in Sacramento last week, or why he’s leading a project to raise money for a war memorial at Two Strike Park, or why he led a handful of veterans to help clean up the CV High School’s Prom Plus event at the Crescenta-Cañada Y at 5 a.m. last month.
“I thought it was a nice gesture they recognized the veterans,” he said. “I think it’s important all veterans be recognized.”
He had already been married to Carolyn for five years when his service began in 1966. In Vietnam he served in Infantry Operations, “which means I didn’t have to crawl around in the jungle like I was supposed to. I worked with aircraft and talked to pilots all day.”
He and Carolyn, who set up an Army Wives Club in the Crescenta Valley, sent recorded tapes to each other, as well as letters. They also communicated through the Military Auxiliary Radio System (MARS), though that was uncomfortable, to say the least.
“You have a hundred people online listening to your conversation with your wife with whom you haven’t talked to in eight months,” Baldwin said.
He was honorably discharged in 1968, awarded a Bronze Star, two Army Commendation Medals and a Vietnam Service Ribbon. But when he came back to the U.S. he had still had six months of service left. He was stationed at a base in Virginia. Carolyn couldn’t take it.
“So I took a leave absence from work and drove out there and spent that time with Mike,” she said.
After the six months, they came back Southern California.
Baldwin hasn’t been one of those veterans whose emotional scarring cuts too deep.
“I was lucky. When I came home I had a wife, a job, and a home,” he said. “Some of my friends didn’t have that.”
War did change him in one way, though. Carolyn said she thought he learned a lot overseas. It made him, “more grown up,” she said.
“I think everyone grows up,” Baldwin said. “Regardless of how old you are. It’s a life-changing experience.”
Steve Pierce served in the Navy during Vietnam. His wife was classmates with Baldwin in high school, but Pierce and Baldwin never met until they were on Foothill Boulevard together honoring local veteran Nick Steinbacher, who was killed in Iraq in 2006.
Pierce said they bumped into each other, and started talking.
“I had no idea who this guy was, and we are now very dear friends,” he said. “So it’s a special time for me to see him honored.
“He’s always been there for the veterans. He doesn’t try to be overly perfect; he just tries to be Mike Baldwin.”
Pierce said sometimes while speaking at an event, Baldwin will mispronounce a name, and he’ll laugh about it along with everyone.
“He’ll be like, ‘There I go again, I mispronounced a name,’ and it’s funny,” Pierce said. “And that’s what makes us all normal people.”
Perhaps speaking isn’t really Baldwin’s thing. After all, he’s mostly been about doing, rather than saying, all these years.