Colin Powell hailed Vernon Baker Sunday night as an inspirational hero who helped pave the way for Powell to become the nation’s top military officer.
“I came along at a time when most of the barriers were down in the Army,” Powell said following a reception honoring Baker.
“Their sacrifice produced the opportunities that were open to me.
In an interview, Powell said he stood on the shoulders of men like Baker.
“While I was privileged, I will never forget those who went before me and those who were willing to serve their country which was not willing to serve them,” Powell said.
The retired general sat next to Baker on a couch, occasionally grasping the St. Maries, Idaho, hero’s arm and looking at him with reverence.
During his Army career, which culminated in his chairing the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Powell thought often of the more than 200 years in which black men and women served this country.
“I have never failed to recognize the inspiration that this gave me to do my very best,” Powell said.
Bestowing the Medal of Honor on Baker today is appropriate. It will never be enough.
“It doesn’t take away the indignity, it doesn’t wipe out history,” Powell said.
Still, Powell doesn’t believe the nation owes him or Baker anything. “You owe the youngsters that are coming along,” he said. “I’m sure if it’s the difference between Mr. Baker getting his Medal of Honor and every inner city child getting a good education, he would want them to have an education.”
Powell also lauded Baker because he is a quiet, gracious role model.
“So many people are role models today because they have their face on television all of the time, Powell said.
“He’s just quietly going about life believing in the country and service to his country,” Powell said. “It wasn’t just one day in combat, but decades of service. He will continue to inspire me, and more important, he will inspire a lot of younger blacks.”
Earlier in the evening, several other famous and important Washingtonians gathered at the swank Cosmos Club to pay tribute to Baker.
Army Secretary Togo West was there to hail Baker and his black comrades for “the contribution they made for people they never knew … under circumstances we cannot imagine.”
Soldiers who served with Baker in the 92nd Infantry Division shared in the reception.
Despite the impressive guest list and eloquent speakers, none matched Baker.
“As I look out, I don’t see colors,” Baker said when asked to address the group. “I see America. America, I love you.”