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There’s life after war Veteran transitions from soldier to student
November 05, 2015 Frank Marquez   

Read more by Frank Marquez

Photo by Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen Chris Baker sits in the lounge of the Veterans Upward Bound program at Western Nebraska Community College.

He doesn’t bear the clear markings of a soldier anymore, the close shorn hair and clean shaven face are gone. Now a student, Army veteran Chris Baker, 31, has grown his black hair longer and sports a goatee while continuing his education at Western Nebraska Community College. He calls the transition into civilian life a “mixed bag.”

Baker said, “I was a war veteran at 19.”

Like many area babies he was born in Scottsbluff, but grew up in Torrington, Wyo.

Then 9-11 happened. Baker signed up for the Army on delayed entry during the fall of his senior year in 2001. “It was the reason I joined,” he said. “I went in May 2002 and I got out in November 2008.” Baker spent a total of 6 ½-years on active duty, all with the same unit, all in the same location, except for his three deployments to Iraq, which added up to 34 months of total time supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.

“My parents were proud of me, because neither one of them had been in the military.”

Overseas in Iraq, Baker served as a crew chief for the Apache or AH-60 Delta (Longbow) attack helicopter. He was part of the invasion in 2003, serving with the 3rd Infantry Division 1-3 Aviation Battalion. His unit was based at Hunter Army Airfield part of Fort Stewart, Ga.

Baker’s first deployment lasted six months. “It was in the middle of the Iraqi desert. I was a private and didn’t have the maps.
So, I don’t exactly know where we were. We’re heading north through desert. There’s no power lines. No fences. No nothing. We were the first 1,000 troops over. Our convoy was miles long.”

Baker added, at the start of the tour, “We took up residence on Baghdad International Airport, and lived in a machine shop, which we used to house our aircraft.” Baker rotated to Iraq again in 2005, this time for 12 months. His unit stayed at Camp Taji, (also known as Camp Cooke) near Taji, Iraq, 20 miles north of Baghdad. He called it “cushy living compared to kicking in doors on the first deployment, and Taji’s main chow hall was the best free food I ever had.” Soldiers also had access to the Internet which he never used, but on the other hand, “we got mortared a lot. It was multiple times every week.”

By his final tour, Baker moved up the ranks from private to sergeant. He clearly remembers his unit leaving Fort Stewart on May 5, 2007, and returning July 20, 2008. “That final deployment was 15 months on Camp Taji, and there was a lot of mortar fire. I was a ‘Fobbit,’ which meant I got to stay on the FOB (forward operating base).”

Though Baker didn’t see direct combat, his request to go kick in doors with his infantry counterparts was denied by his battalion commander. “Everybody was for it, and the infantry guys were cool with it, and said they would only take a couple of days to train me up, and I’d be ready to go. And, I was like, sweet,” he said.
But ultimately, his battalion commander ruled the Army could not afford to lose a valuable crew chief.

At the end of the final deployment, Baker chose to hang up his boots, largely due to the number of deployments he served. “I wasn’t expecting to live half my career over there. Half the time I was deployed, the other half I was training. When we were back we didn’t get to enjoy it because we were training too much. It was a high-tempo pace for years, and I didn’t like it. I didn’t want to do it no more; didn’t want to go back to Iraq. I had enough of it. … I lost my first wife because of my last deployment. She couldn’t handle it. But I told her how long I might be gone, 12-18 months. Deployments are hard for everyone involved, especially the soldier.”

Baker has since remarried, and he gives a lot of credit to his wife Nicole for his accomplishments. They have been married for going on three years, but have known each other since 2009, when Baker got out of the Army. Together, they are raising their two-year-old daughter Trissa Rae. “Nicole is a huge part of my support. You got to have good family support. That’s a key thread in determining whether it’s going to go good, or it’s going to go bad. Education can be hugely helpful because it’s an outlet, a place to direct energies that could otherwise be misplaced. You see the world in a whole different way. It can be real bad, or it can be real good like it is here,” he said.

Upon being honorably discharged, Baker started classes at WNCC in January 2009. I got out, and a few months later, I was in school. (Veterans Upward Bound Advisor) Chris Wolfe is the reason I’m here. She called me about a week before school started. She got me signed up and the next Monday I was in classes. I love school,” he said.

Since then, Baker has earned an associates and bachelors in psychology, attending Chadron State to finish his four-year degree. “Now I’m back here finishing my pre-requisites – hard courses like Chemistry, Physics – for graduate school,” he said.

Meanwhile, he’s applying for placement in a physical therapy program, which carries about $60,000 dollar price tag. If he isn’t accepted, as part of his backup plan, he’ll take the MCAT and apply to medical school which Baker estimates will cost $180,000 dollars.

He admits, “It’s a little intimidating, because that’s a big test.” In his final decision, Baker said he must also weigh the amount of time it will take to complete each program – three years for physical therapy and about six to eight years to become a doctor.

He’s already decided, if he goes the med-school route, he’ll become a psychiatrist. He chose to study psychology because of human behavior. “Humans are the most fascinating things in the universe. Black holes are pretty cool, but they only do one thing,” he said.

Through his first two years at WNCC, Baker carried a 3.97 grade point average. In 2011, he was bestowed national awards for excellence in academics, including the New Century Gold Scholar, and Academic All-Nebraskan. He was at the top of 30 candidates chosen from 3,000 scholars in Nebraska who went on to compete for Academic All-American, though he was not selected.

The awards committees looked at leadership, community service, academic achievements, and an essay. “I got picked somehow, of all the people. I don’t know how that happened,” Baker said.

“This is top-notch here,” Baker said about the support he’s been given in the Veterans Upward Bound program. “This is the tops.
The benefits have been good. The people here help you to apply for benefits, let you know how to get them, and your entitlements. Life is so much easier when school is paid for, and you get a little extra something, that way you can pay bills and buy food.”

In pursuing long-term academic goals, Baker has used up most of his GI Bill money, and looks to take advantage of state Vocational Rehabilitation funds, which are earmarked for people with disabilities to continue his education. However, the rehabilitation funds come with a strict requirement for Baker to complete his program of study or refund the money.

On coming back from war, he says, “It’s a mixed bag. I was a young innocent kid, didn’t know nothing. I kind of got sold on this idea, and went for it. But you develop; you learn how to deal with hardship. You can see the worst the world has and survive it. So, you come back. I was not as shy when I got back.
The shyness went away completely, because I didn’t want to waste time. I saw how life can end. You learn to deal with it; you face it. I don’t like crowds now. I don’t mind standing up in front of people and talking, but if it’s disorganized, chaotic, like the fairgrounds... I’ll still do it, like the chili cook-off. Chili’s good, I don’t care. I don’t go out to clubs or bars. I did after my first deployment. But after my second deployment, I didn’t want to be around people that much. And after my third deployment, I would sit in a room where I could see the entryway.”

Baker paused, then thought, “School’s easy. Anything after deployment is easy.”

Courtesy photo Then Spc. Chris Baker meets with President Clinton at Camp Taji during one of his three deployments. Baker served with the 3rd Infantry Division during the initial invasion.
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