COEUR d’ALENE — As far as six-year Air Force veteran Hank Thornton is concerned, the country can’t do enough for Medal of Honor recipients.

“Those special heroes with the Medal of Honor need to be recognized more and more because it’s an inspiration for the rest of us to do better and do more,” the St. Maries man said. “When we see what they’ve done we should step that extra step and give that extra 10% because they certainly have done that and did it without question.”

An emotional ceremony for local Medal of Honor winners attended by veterans was held in the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs North Idaho Community Clinic in Coeur d’Alene on Monday, National Medal of Honor Day.

Lt. Thomas Norris, who served with the Navy in the Vietnam War, and Heidi Baker, widow of Vernon Baker who served with the Army in World War II, were recognized. 

Norris received the Medal of Honor in 1976, and Vernon Baker in 1996.

The work of Army veteran and artist Austin Waggoner was also featured and will be displayed on the clinic walls for years to come.

Jessica Stockton, Department of Veterans Affairs social worker, said there have been 3,517 Medals of Honor awarded by U.S. presidents since the Civil War. Sixty-three are still living.

“We honor all veterans, including past, present and future Medal of Honor recipients, who have and continue to display valor and sacrifice for our country everyday,” Stockton said.

Sam McComas, associate director of patient care services at the Spokane VA medical center, said that in 1972 during the Vietnam War, over four days, Norris completed “an unprecedented ground rescue of two downed pilots deep within heavily controlled enemy territory.”

He was one of three Navy SEALS to receive the Medal of Honor for his actions during the war. 

“He displayed decisive leadership, undaunted courage and selfless dedication in the face of extreme danger,” McComas said.

Norris, who lives in Hayden Lake, was pleased to be recognized for his service, “but that honor should go to everyone in this room.”

He said given the time, place and situation, “I think anyone in the position would have done what I did.”

“I’m humbled by the honors that I’ve received because of that action,” Norris said.

He said his father served in World War II.

“I can’t think of a greater generation that served our country,” Norris said, as he paused to fight back tears.

“It gets to me deeply,” he said. “The service that they provided allowed us to have what we have today.”

McComas said 1st Lt. Vernon Baker received the Medal of Honor for his valor in World War II after he wiped out four German machine-gun nests on a hilltop in Italy. 

“His courageous efforts helped the Allies breach the Gothic line and drive the German Army out of northern Italy,” McComas said. 

He said Baker, “became a symbol of the selfless sacrifice and courage of black soldiers who fought valiantly. His fighting spirit and daring leadership are an inspiration to all.”

Heidi Baker, who still lives in St. Maries, was proud.

“I just want to thank everybody,” she said.

She said that in July it will have been 14 years since her husband died.

“To me, it’s just like yesterday he left,” Heidi Baker said. “I miss him so much.”

While her husband of 22 years is known nationally as a war hero, she said that at home he was a wonderful man and “very, very sweet.”

She said her husband and Norris shared traits of being humble and down to earth.

“He didn’t think of himself as a hero,” Heidi said.

Two pieces of art by Waggoner were also presented. The main piece, “The Cost of Freedom,” depicts the cycle of a soldier’s life.

Waggoner, who served 18 years in the Army with two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan before retiring in 2013, lives in Spokane. 

When he first tried to speak about his art in front of a crowd of about 25 people, Waggoner couldn’t find the words and handed off the microphone.

“It’s OK brother. It’s beautiful,” one man said.

Later, Waggoner said he battled Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and found comfort in art.

“This was my way back,” he said. 

McComas said when they approached Waggoner about collaborating with them, he brought “The Cost of Freedom” to their attention.

“He always felt it belonged in front of veterans,” McComas said. “Each time he showcases it at art events, veterans are always drawn to it and express how meaningful it is for them.”

Waggoner said he’s proud it will be displayed at the Coeur d’Alene VA clinic.

“It’s where I want it to be,” he said. “I want it to be seen by people who really understand it.”

    Heidi Baker, wife of the late Vernon Baker, Medal of Honor recipient, smiles as she looks on during a ceremony at the Veteran Affairs North Idaho Community Clinic in Coeur d’Alene on Monday, National Medal of Honor Day.
    Thomas Norris and Heidi Baker pose for pictures following a ceremony at the Veteran Affairs North Idaho Community Clinic in Coeur d’Alene on Monday, National Medal of Honor Day.
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