Community service has always been important to former First Selectman Ray Baldwin, a Trumbull native and 70-year resident.

“It’s been my home for more than 70 years,” Baldwin said. “It’s where my children and grandchildren live.”

On Veterans Day, Baldwin was honored for a lifetime of service to country and community by the Veterans Council of Greater Bridgeport, which named him the 36th Stephen Koteles Memorial Award recipient. The award is named for Bridgeport native and Navy Chief Petty Officer Stephen Koteles (1900-1985), who fought in four wars and was the oldest man to complete Navy survival training before being discharged at age 62.

“Ray is an outstanding individual who has done a lot in support of veterans in the community,” said Col. Adele Hodges, who introduced Baldwin at the ceremony held at the Col. Henry Mucci Memorial Plaza in Bridgeport.

Baldwin, who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating St. Joseph High School, called his military service “a no-brainer.”

“I grew up during the time when John F. Kennedy was really exhorting the young men and women to do something of value to the community,” he said. “Me and everyone I knew, our fathers and uncles had served in World War II and Korea, I had two cousins that had been in the Corps, and I wanted to serve too.”

But his service would have to wait a few months. When he graduated high school in 1966, he was still too young to enlist without his parents’ permission.

“I think my father would have let me, but my mother was pretty adamant,” he said. “So I enrolled at Sacred Heart for a semester, but with where my head was, and what I wanted to do, college wasn’t right for me at that time.”

Baldwin signed up at age 18, thinking he was in for a grand adventure. Reality soon struck home, though, in May of 1968.

“There were four guys from our neighborhood that enlisted, three guys joined the Army, and I was in the Marines,” he said. “The night before I shipped out for Vietnam, I called home and I found out that Bob Leska, a guy that lived two doors down from me, that I went to elementary school with and went on double dates with, had been killed in Vietnam.”

During his time in Vietnam, Baldwin served as a radio operator with the 4th Battalion 11th Marines from May of 1968 to July of 1969, participating in 16 combat operations. For his Vietnam service he was awarded the Marine Corps Combat Action Ribbon, Vietnamese Cross of Gallantry, Vietnamese Campaign Service Ribbon, two meritorious Presidential Unit Citations and a Good Conduct Ribbon. He also made some lifelong friends, including one who spent 15 years thinking the friendship had ended tragically.

“In boot camp and radio school I was friends with a guy named Tom Brennan, from Montclair New Jersey, and we kept in touch up until we went to Vietnam and got assigned to our units,” Baldwin said. “About eight months later, there was a situation where a boy threw a grenade at us.”

The grenade killed the man who had been assigned to watch the unit’s equipment, including the radio. But the report erroneously listed the unit’s radio operator as being killed in action and Brennan assumed the worst.

For years Baldwin attempted to reconnect with his boot camp friend, placing phone calls from Trumbull to Montclair every year on Nov. 10, the traditional birthday of the Marine Corps. But in the days before the Internet, Baldwin had no way of knowing if his friend even still lived in that town.

“In Montclair, Brennans are like Smiths, there’s so many of them,” he said. “Finally, after 15 years I reached his mother, who gave me his number.”

The initial phone call, though, started off awkwardly.

“He cursed me out, thinking it was some kind of sick joke,” Baldwin said. “I had to tell him some stories that only he and I knew about.”

The physical reunion was a happy one, if somewhat painful at first.

“He’s a big guy, rugby player, and he wrapped me in this bear hug, actually lifted me off the ground,” said the 6’4” Baldwin. “I remember my wife saying, ‘Put him down, you’re hurting him.’”

Baldwin’s return from Vietnam was low-key, he said, and he never experienced the anger and protests that some returning servicemen did. Still, the homecoming was jarring. But the transition from warzone to suburbs was made easier by another of Baldwin’s neighborhood friends.

“You’re crawling through a rice paddy, and a few days later you’re back in Trumbull,” he said. “That was really a culture shock. But my friend Russ Benjamin, another Trumbull guy, we came back within a few minutes of each other. We spent a lot of time together because we really didn’t have anyone else to talk to. Everyone else was talking about going to Woodstock.”

Back home, Baldwin re-enrolled in college, then joined the Trumbull Police Dept. For 13 years he attended classes part-time, first earning his college degree, then graduating the University of Bridgeport’s law school in 1984.

From 1985 - 2001, Baldwin served on the Trumbull Town Council, Board of Finance, Golf Commission, Veteran’s Advisory Committee and as a town attorney. In 2001 he was elected first selectman, where he served four terms. He then spent eight years as President & CEO of St. Vincent’s Special Needs.

Currently Baldwin, who has been married to his wife Mary Ann for 46 years and has two children and 3 grandchildren, is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, Marine Corps League, Port 5 Naval Veterans, Trumbull Rotary Club and the Bridgeport Elks Club. And his work with veterans is not done. Next month he will begin work as a veterans liaison for Hartford Healthcare. In addition, he is chairman of a committee looking into rebuilding the Trumbull Veterans Center. The 2,800-square-foot building was used by the American Legion and VFW from 1940 until it was mothballed due to serious structural problems. The committee plans to present its report to the Town Council in January.

“It’s a big project, the floor is totally rotted out,” Baldwin said. “It’s definitely going to be a challenge. But I always like a challenge.”