It is a cool April day in the mountains above Julian, and Medal of Honor recipient John Baca climbs in his tiny, beat-up red truck, reaches over and opens the passenger door for me because, well, the handle is long gone.

We pull away from his small rustic cabin and rattle and bounce down a dirt road as Baca distributes mail to shut-ins, gives out apple pies and makes sure that folks without know that someone cares.

It’s a typical day for an extraordinary Vietnam veteran, a man who threw himself on a grenade in 1970 so that his Army buddies could live. Miraculously, Baca survived, and while still suffering from injuries, he pays it forward by giving away just about everything.

Heck, Baca even gave away his house in Huntington Beach. It was near the park named after him.

But in a unique moment last weekend before hundreds of fellow veterans, the Medal of Honor recipient finally allowed that sometimes accepting a gift means more than giving a gift.

Baca’s eyes grew wide when he saw his present. Civilians, as well as men who once faced battle as their brothers bled, brushed away tears.

And this man awarded the nation’s highest medal for valor in combat found some healing.


Buying a car is easy. Getting a vehicle for a man who gives away everything is tough.

Enter Annie Nelson. She graduated from Mission Viejo High School and Cal State Long Beach, then modeled and became a flight attendant.

Life was good – until she suffered a work-related back injury. Sidelined, she found her calling after 9/11: helping men and women in uniform.

She formed American Soldier Network, began writing letters to troops in Iraq and wound up pen pals with three Marines. Just before Christmas 2004, a suicide bomber hit a convoy. One pen pal was killed and another was badly injured.

She found herself mourning. But how do you mourn people when you’ve never met them?

You struggle.

A month later, the phone rang. It was Cpl. Jesse Schertz’s mother. Now being treated in Texas, the young Marine wanted to see his pen pal. Her support made a difference.

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