By his own account, John Baca was a problem kid. Growing up in the San Diego area, he was in and out of juvenile hall for a variety of petty crimes. At seventeen, after serving a brief sentence in a California Youth Authority correctional facility, he wanted to join the military but couldn't because he was still on parole. Two years later, in 1969, he was drafted.
Early in 1970, Baca was a specialist fourth class in a heavy-weapons platoon with the 12th Cavalry, 1st Cavalry Division in Phuoc Long Province, Vietnam. Engagements with the enemy had become more intense as his unit moved closer to the Cambodian border. In one of them, the unit was pinned down by the enemy for hours. Ankle-deep in red clay, Baca had just bent over to set up recoilless rifle when he heard the snapping sound of a sniper's bullet pass right over his back.
On the morning of February 10, after being in the bush for almost a month, Baca's company returned to its base. The men were to have a few days of rest before going out again, but late that afternoon they and a rifle platoon were ordered to set up a night ambush and were helicoptered to the target area at dusk.
The Americans established a position near a trail and placed warning devices -- trip wires connected to claymore mines - -on either end of it that would alert them to the presence of the enemy. When an eight-man patrol from the rifle platoon went out to investigate a mine explosion, it soon came under attack from enemy soldiers concealed along the trail. Baca, sprinting through heavy fire with his recoilless rifle to aid the patrol, had just set up a firing position for his weapon and fired one round when a grenade landed close by. He would later remember thinking, "Do I pick it up? Do I run?" Then he ripped off his helmet, put it over the grenade, and covered it with his body.
The grenade exploded, and several GIs picked Baca up and carried him to the shelter of a tree. Leaning against the trunk, he felt no pain, although when he looked down at his stomach he could see his intestines poking out of his uniform. He remembers wondering if his mother, whom he had called that morning and told that he would remain in the rear for a few days, would be angry with him. The noises of the battle raging all around him seemed distant, and the movement of his comrades seemed to be in slow motion. With death very near, Baca felt he was held in the arms of an angel -- peaceful and gentle moments.
It was close to two hours before Baca was carried to a landing zone and helicoptered out. On the flight back to the base, he gripped the hand of another wounded soldier, then began to hemorrhage and lost consciousness. After being treated in Long Binh for a week, he was sent to a hospital in Japan. His mother, told that he might survive, flew to his bedside and stayed with him for a few weeks, then accompanied him back to the States in late April. Over the next several months, he continued to improve, although he wound up in intensive care on two occasions.