SHEPHERD — A U.S. Army veteran in Shepherd is on a mission to raise money to create a long lasting memorial in Yellowstone County honoring every soldier from Montana who was killed in action in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Frederick Baker, known to his friends as Rick, grew up in Shepherd and Huntley and served as an infantryman in the Army from 2002 to 2007. He now owns his own metal fabrication shop, Metal Tech, in Shepherd.
The idea to create a memorial was sparked about a year ago when Baker was in line at the DMV at the Yellowstone County Courthouse in Billings. He took a number and went to walk around the building and stopped by the memorial garden on the courthouse lawn.
While looking at the names carved in stone honoring soldiers who died in Vietnam, Baker thought about Staff Sgt. Terry Lynch. Lynch was from Shepherd and was killed in Afghanistan in 2009.
"With me going to school here in Shepherd and Huntley, I knew him and his family. It made me emotional and I started thinking, well there’s no memorial for these Afghanistan and these Iraq veterans. I said to myself right then and there, if I do this table thing and pull the trigger on it, I’ll have the ability to make that happen and that’s what I’m going to do," Baker said.
The table that Baker mentioned is a four by eight foot table plasma cutter. The tool allows Baker to create designs in a computer program and the automated machine will cut the designs into flat pieces of steel and aluminum.
He opened his fabrication business about one year ago, cutting artful designs into personal and commercial signs for homes and businesses. He started out inside an eight by 40 foot shipping container parked in the yard at his home in Shepherd. Baker moved out of the "CONEX box" about six weeks ago and into larger shop space in Shepherd.
“It’s kind of evolved into this thing where one day, I’ll be doing pie pans for my buddy at Outlaw Racing for sweet hill climb bikes. And the next day, I’ll be doing a commercial sign for Montana Customs or something. There’s never a dull moment. Sometimes it’s just as simple as brackets for the farmer next door," Baker said.
For the memorial for the Montana soldiers killed in action, Baker will donate all of the time to create it, but he estimated it will cost $17,500 for materials and contractors to do the work he can't, like laying concrete.
“I’m going to donate my time and my labor, as far as getting it built. We’ve just got to raise the money for stainless steel, fasteners, concrete. All the things that I don’t do," Baker said.
To start raising money, Baker started up his Hoodies for Heroes campaign. For $45, people can buy a hoodie at the cost of production and donate additional money to the memorial fund. Baker said 100 percent of the additional donations will go to make the memorial a reality.
The sweat shirt is special, because printed on it are all of the names that will eventually be etched into the memorial.
“We don’t lose out if you buy a hoodie, because their names are still being out there. They are being honored. They are being remembered. Obviously it is going to raise attention and hopefully more money towards the memorial," Baker said.
So far, the hoodies have been selling like hot cakes. In the first two and a half weeks of sales, the first batch of 50 has so far brought in $400. Baker said there's about 14 hoodies left from the first batch as of Sunday and he's got another batch already ordered.
“I’m a metal fabricator. I’m not a designer. I’m not a merchandise seller. I’m not in retail sales, but this was the best idea I could come up with to raise money to get this thing going," Baker said.
Find a link to purchase a hoodie on Metal Tech's website by clicking here.
The final location for the memorial hasn't been set in stone, but Baker said he's sure he wants it in Yellowstone County. He's been in contact with the Shepherd Lion's Club and its members have offered to host something in Shepherd at the cemetery.
And Baker has worked with Montana 13th District Court Judge Mary Jane Knisley about the possibility of adding a memorial to the Yellowstone County Courthouse lawn.
“It’s important for me to keep this thing inside Yellowstone County, which will happen. We’re definitely going to have something here local for Sgt. Lynch, we just don’t know if it’s going to be this one specific or another one on top of this," Baker said.
While in the military, Baker was stationed at Fort Meyer in Washington D.C. as part of the Army's 3rd US Infantry Regiment. In 2002, he was deployed to Africa for a nine-month tour during Operation Enduring Freedom, spending time in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Djibouti.
“When I was there, they got called for deployment, which was the first time since Vietnam and they only took one company. Well, I was in that company," Baker said.
He came back from his tour and spent time in D.C. performing funerals for active duty service members who were killed overseas. Baker said the perspective he gained from witnessing families grieve at those funerals and at the national war monuments in D.C. highlighted the need for a physical monument for people in Montana.
“I think a spot where a person can go and touch it and actually have something tangible. To feel the warmth or the cold. A place to go grieve. A place to be happy. A place to be sad and a place to go pay your respects to these heroes, because that’s what they are. They’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice," said Baker.
Baker said he was eventually honorably discharged from the military after receiving an injury while wrestling for the Army's World Class Athlete Program.
“Then I tore my shoulder out and had to have surgery at Walter Reed And that was the end of my military career. Ended up getting out with a honorable medical discharge, service-connected for my shoulder. I’ve had four or five shoulder surgeries, but we’re still hanging in there," Baker said.
Baker said he could have stayed in the military to work his way up the chain and become a sergeant, but he didn't like the idea of being stuck behind a desk and instead went back to civilian life.
While trying to manage the pain from his multiple shoulder surgeries, Baker said he spent about 10 years after the military addicted to opiate pain killers. He's said he's been clean for the past four years and has a goal to help other veterans with PTSD and addiction issues.
For the past two years, Baker has attended college at MSUB in Billings, studying to be a licensed addiction counselor. To take some time to focus on himself, and not his full-time credit load at school, Baker said he fell back into metalworking as a sort of therapy and then decided to open up his business.
“I found out that pumping the brakes a little bit on the school and evolving and spending more time in metal, creating things with my hands I found out became very therapeutic. Especially the art. All the custom commercial signs, the residential signs and stuff like that. To take something raw metal and be able to piece it together and create it and do a custom sign or a custom fire pit, I find it super, super helpful as far as anxiety, sleep, depression. All these things. I try not to take any medication. I try to work it out at the gym," Baker said.
“Metal kind of made its way back into my life and it gives me something that’s therapeutic and fun to do. The people love them. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise.”