Widow of Medal of Honor recipient needs the Midlands' help

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - It's hard for Donnell Baker to talk about why she's working on a huge project.

"I don't know. It's part of my life now I guess," she said as she collected herself.

Baker needs help transforming some fenced-off woods at the corner of Garners Ferry and Old Woodlands Roads into a Fisher House – a home away from home for veterans' families.

"No. There is no reason not to have one," said the Columbia woman.

The homes are run by the VA and serve as no-cost hotels for family members who have to travel great lengths to be with their veteran loved ones at their most critical times. Fisher Houses have been built across the country but not in Columbia.

Baker and others are working hard to change that.

"We have to raise $3.5 million. The Fisher House Foundation will match dollar-for-dollar for us at what we raise," she said.

Now, back to the question of why Baker is leading the charge. The reason started in Waikiki decades ago.

"Like in the movies, music was playing, the tourists separated, and here came this soldier in his tropicals with ribbons across his chest. He had a tan. His blue eyes just stood out," she said with a smile.

She fell in love with a young man from Illinois, Medal of Honor Recipient John Baker, a Vietnam War "tunnel rat."

"Viet Cong would bury their dead in the tunnels, so one of the jobs for John was to go into the tunnels and bring out the bodies," Baker's widow remembered.

But President Lyndon B. Johnson bestowed the highest honor on her husband for a different reason. He saved eight lives in a firefight.

"You look out for your buddies, that's the main thing, and bringing them home," Baker told WIS in a 2007 interview.

The couple moved to Columbia in 1992. He worked at Dorn V.A. Medical Center. He died in 2012.

Five years later, his widow hopes his spirit will guide her in helping others by giving them a home away from home.

"His spirit is always with us," she said. A leader at Dorn, by the way, agreed that one is desperately needed in this community and told WIS that having family near veteran and military patients helps in healing them. Dorn serves about two-thirds of the state.

While the campaign to raise money for a Fisher House is still in its early stages, a website for donations has already been established.

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