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War hero’s family blocked from White House tour

Wed., Sept. 29, 2010, 11:51 a.m.

The family of World War II hero and Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Vernon Baker was denied access to a White House tour on Saturday because Baker’s grandson was wearing a T-shirt and shorts.

The boy’s T-shirt was emblazoned with the image of his celebrated grandfather, who had been buried just a day earlier at Arlington National Cemetery. Also turned away was another Medal of Honor recipient and North Idaho resident, Thomas Norris, who accompanied the family to Washington, D.C., for the military burial.

Norris, a retired FBI agent and Navy SEAL, said he was turned away at the White House by an employee of the Office of Management and Budget because the Secret Service had not run a security clearance on him.

“He apologized,” Norris said. “He told me the Secret Service has informed me they haven’t had time to do a background check and you can’t get in.”

Moments later, after Norris gave up his place in the tour to the Baker family’s driver, who had clearance, Baker’s grandson, Vernon Pawlik, 10, was denied entry because he was wearing shorts and a T-Shirt bearing his grandfather’s image. Also on the tour were Vernon Baker’s widow, Heidy, and her daughter Alexandra.

At that point the family gave up and left the White House, Norris said.

In general, there’s no dress code for White House tours and the St. Maries Gazette newspaper in the family’s hometown reported today that the family had checked about possible dress codes ahead of time just to make sure.

However, congressional officials say the Baker family was given access to the more prestigious West Wing tour, which does have a dress code prohibiting most casual wear, including jeans, shorts and T-shirts.

Still, Norris said he wondered why when questions arose no one in charge stepped forward to assess the circumstances.

“You would think there would be someone there to stand up and say, ‘I’m a supervisor and we can make an exception” for a living Medal of Honor recipient and the grandson of another, Norris said.

Norris said that little Vernon was looking forward to the tour and the chance to meet President Obama. He even bought a copy of Obama’s book, in case he got a chance to get the president’s signature.

As it turned out, Obama was out of town on Saturday.

The staff members of Idaho’s congressional delegation today were crafting a letter to the White House about the incident, according to Susan Wheeler, communications director for Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho. Wheeler said the letter will ask for an “apology, an explanation and a clarification” of policy from the White House.

Dean Ferguson, communications director for Rep. Walt Minnick, D-Idaho, said his boss was “Very upset.”

“Vernon Baker was one of our nation’s greatest heroes, and Walt has asked the White House to contact the family,” Ferguson said.

The whole incident “is beyond understanding,” said Norris, who was awarded the nation’s highest honor for military service in 1976 from President Gerald Ford for his actions in Vietnam in 1972.

Norris, then a SEAL adviser with the Strategic Technical Directorate Assistance Team, rescued two downed Air Force officers on separate missions behind enemy lines in Quang Tri Province.

In 1979, Norris became an FBI agent after overcoming a disabling head wound during his service in Vietnam.

Vernon Baker, the boy’s grandfather, was the only living black World War II veteran to receive the Medal of Honor for uncommon valor. In 1945 he rallied the troops after their commander deserted and took a German stronghold in Italy, taking out three machine gun nests, two bunkers and an observation post.

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