At first glance, Tom Baker looks almost exactly as he did in 1994, when he graduated from Berlin Brothersvalley High School.
Sure, his close-cropped hair might start a little higher on the forehead, and he has added a few pounds to his still-fit frame. But Baker is remarkably similar to the 18-year-old boy who traded in his cap and gown for military fatigues, heading off to become a man.
But a peek at the frightening scar on Baker’s right arm reveals that there is much more to his story. The underside of his forearm serves as a reminder of pain and suffering, of setbacks and triumphs, and of rehabilitation and renewal.
Above all, it is a symbol of Baker’s motto: Don’t ever give up.
Those words are scrawled in black marker on a piece of paper tacked up in the wrestling room at Hyndman High School in Bedford County, where Baker now serves as an assistant coach.
But more than a slogan, the words serve as a life lesson for Baker – a reminder not only of what’s to come, but also of where he’s been.
Baker, who is a seargent first class in the Pennsylvania National Guard unit serving out of Erie, is still not sure exactly what happened on Oct. 29, 2005, in Habbaniyah, Iraq.
A tank commander, Baker and his squad of four were patrolling the four-lane highway that runs through the lake town located between Ramadi and Fallujah – dangerous territory for American soldiers.
The six-hour patrols could be both monotonous and deadly – sometimes in the same shift. Baker’s crew – which consisted of a driver, gunner and loader – was responsible for scouring a mile-long stretch of highway for roadside bombs. It was the kind of duty that kept Baker on edge, looking left and right, constantly glancing over his shoulder, even after his shift had ended.
There was never a chance to get comfortable while on patrol, because comfort could lead to complacency and complacency could lead to deadly explosions.
One of the biggest risks soldiers on patrol face is of falling into a pattern. Turn around at the same spot two or three times in a row and insurgents will catch on and place a bomb at exactly at the right time and place.
That means that a tank’s every movement, while calculated, has to seem completely random. Stop here for 30 seconds. Wait there for three minutes. Turn around in this spot, then go 50 yards down the road the next time.
Creeping along inside 63 tons of metal, Baker’s tank-mates had to be wary of everything and anything out of the ordinary – from a pile of trash at the side of the road, to a broken curb, to a spot in the dirt that was slightly darker than the land around it.
“As we went on, we learned what to look for and what to spot,” said Baker, whose crew had successfully found and detonated seven roadside bombs without any injuries before the life-altering attack. “We found several (explosive devices) just because they didn’t look right. We saw one because we saw handprints in the sand to cover it up.”
They never saw the one that hit him.
As he had done so many times before, Baker reached out of his hatch to grab his M16 rifle or maybe even his water bottle – he’s not really sure – on that afternoon, just as the roadside bomb exploded. The device sent shrapnel – possibly ball bearings – hurtling through the air at such high speeds that they left pockmarks on the nearly impenetrable tank.
Hit ‘by a hammer’
They also sent a searing pain through Baker’s right arm. Shrapnel hit the underside of his forearm so violently that it forced bits of bone and tissue through the top side of his arm.
“If I had my upper body outside of the hatch to reach the whole way out, it probably would have been much worse,” Baker recalled in an interview at his home in Bedford. “It felt like I got hit in my arm by a hammer. I didn’t realize how bad it was. I couldn’t move my hand.”
Ten minutes later, Baker was receiving treatment at the nearest aid station. He underwent surgery soon thereafter to repair the gaping hole, broken bone and tattered muscles in his arm. Within 24 hours, Baker was airlifted to a medical hospital in Germany, where he spent the next week before flying back to the United States for more evaluation and rehabilitation.
But it wasn’t his arm that concerned Baker shortly after the injury.
By getting sent home, he had inadvertently violated the Army’s Warrior Ethos: I will always place the mission first. I will never accept defeat. I will never quit. I will never leave a fallen comrade.
“I felt really guilty because I got hurt and I left,” he said. “I left my crew. I left what was essentially my family, that I had lived with for eight months. That was really hard.”
‘Honor and pride’
Hyndman High School is located just a few miles from the Mason-Dixon Line. It is part of the Bedford School District, and Bedford High School is about 20 miles to the north. But for decades, the two schools were light years apart in the wrestling world.
While the Bisons established themselves as one of the state’s most storied programs under former coach Bill Creps, the Hornets languished near the bottom of District 5 wrestling standings. Hyndman has never won a district team championship and didn’t claim its first individual title until 1996.
Kurt Stahlman’s 171-pound championship that year began a boom for Hyndman that produced 14 more district titles and led to a handful of state medals in the next decade.
The tiny school had put itself on the wrestling map, with twins Jake and Josh Snyder and their cousin, Brent Willison, racking up wins and recognition.
But The Big Three, as they became known, graduated last year, and Hyndman is again searching for a wrestling identity.
That’s where Baker has stepped in, joining coach Gary Satzer’s program as an assistant coach.
“It’s been a great asset to have someone like Tom in the program,” said Satzer, who is in his fifth year as Hyndman’s head coach and has been a part of the program for the past 14 years. “Coming in with his experience, especially in the times that we are right now, a man like him who has done so much in the Iraq war, it brings a lot of honor and pride into our program. Our boys really respond whenever Tom leads the practice.”
Baker’s military mentality has also been a key factor for a team that has only nine wrestlers, all of whom are underclassmen.
“Our effort is what we’re gauging this year,” Satzer said. “We have a very, very young team. But they’re responding real well. We’re looking for a team leader this year and it’s based on the effort that they apply on the mat and never giving up. Tom’s the one who brought that into the room.”
Individual and team
Baker teaches social studies at Hyndman. When he talks about never giving up or quitting, he truly understands what those concepts mean.
He took up wrestling while in elementary school at Berlin, but abandoned it in junior high. He also wrestled during his sophomore and senior years of high school, but never reached the level of success that he had hoped to achieve.
“Now, when I look back on it, I wish I wouldn’t have taken a break, because I could have been better than what I was,” he said. “This is, I guess, my way to give the kids at Hyndman something.”
Baker says wrestling and the military have much in common.
“Wrestling is essentially an individual and a team sport,” he said. “The Army is the same way. You’re an individual, but part of the team. There are a lot of similarities between wrestling and the Army – the dedication, the responsibility, the work ethic.”
Baker incorporates some of his military training into conditioning workouts in the wrestling room. He said he takes the same approach to both.
“When you’re training, you’re essentially practicing,” he said. “There are different scenarios, different situations, different ways that you’re going to react to the enemy and what they’re going to do – just like in wrestling.”
‘Prove it ... to myself’
Somewhere along the long, painful road to rehabilitation, Baker’s passion for the sport of wrestling returned. Shortly after the bomb blast, his right arm was essentially useless. He had to learn how to do everyday tasks such as writing or brushing his teeth with his left hand.
“When I first got to Georgia, I couldn’t make a fist,” Baker said. “I couldn’t grab one finger and hold on because my arm didn’t work. I could only lift about two pounds.”
As he underwent about a half-dozen operations – including arthroscopic shoulder surgery to correct problems linked to being in a sling for so long – and grueling hours of physical therapy in Georgia and Erie, Baker wondered about his future.
And that gave him a goal: To coach the sport that he had once abandoned.
“I still would have wanted to be a coach, but this gave me more of a reason to do it,” Baker said. “Anytime you break an arm, break a leg – you wonder, ‘Can I still do everything I did before I got hurt?’ That was my biggest concern, that I couldn’t do push-ups, do sit-ups, do everything that the Army wants me to do.
“So I needed to prove it not only to them, but to myself,” he said, “because that’s really the only person you need to prove anything to.”
Baker got his opportunity when he returned home to teach at Hyndman and found that Satzer needed an assistant coach. Baker never told his doctors about his plan to take up wrestling – he figured that if he was healthy enough to serve in the National Guard, he was healthy enough to participate in sports – but it was with some trepidation that he hit the mats.
“I was scared that a kid was going to grab hold of it and it was going to snap or the metal rod was going to get jarred loose, or I was going to fall and it was going to break again,” he admitted. “(That fear is) still there, but not as bad as it was before.”
What lies ahead
Baker expected to wade slowly into his role as an assistant coach, taking on more responsibility as the season progressed.
But a tragic set of circumstances thrust him into the spotlight in the Hornets’ first competition. Satzer’s brother, Bob, died shortly before the season-opening Conemaugh Township Holiday Wrestling Tournament in Davidsville, forcing Baker to assume the head coaching duties for the opening weekend.
“I was in my first year of coaching – my first two weeks of coaching – and he found out that his brother had passed away, and that I’m (serving as) him,” Baker recalled. “It was a little overwhelming. I’m just glad that some of the wrestlers’ fathers were there to help out, because they made it a lot easier.”
But, just as he has done with everything that life has thrown at him, Baker took it all in stride.
That’s the same way that he looks at his future in the National Guard, which will likely include another deployment before retirement.
“There’s always a chance, the way the world is, that I could be deployed to Afghanistan or Iraq,” he said. “But you can’t sit there and dwell on it, or wait. If it happens, it happens. I’m going to deal with that when it comes, if it comes.”
Spoken like a true warrior.