Many long time automotive aftermarket industry insiders will remember Paul Baffico as the onetime president of the Sears Automotive Group and CEO of Western Auto. They also will remember him as an individual who, after a 37-year stint at Sears Roebuck & Company working his way up through the ranks, retired in 1999 at the relatively young age of 53. His last act was the sale of Western Auto to Advance Auto Parts.
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But what was hidden from most were the wounds Baffico carried after a traumatic tour of duty in an unpopular war in Vietnam. It was not until after retirement that he began to process his war experience, which ultimately led him into a second career of giving back to other veterans who had faced similar psychological and physical wounds.
While retired from the industry for many years now, Baffico continues to remain connected to the aftermarket through his work as a member of the Polk Automotive Advisory Board.
Called to serve
Baffico served his country with distinction as a member of the U.S. military. A 1968 Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) graduate from the University of San Francisco, he earned a B.A. degree in psychology. Achieving the rank of 1st Lieutenant, Baffico was a member of the U.S. Army from 1969 to 1971.
Like many men of his era, the marking point of his military career was 10 months of combat duty from 1970-71 in the Vietnam War as a communications platoon leader in the 101st Airborne rappelling out of helicopters to set up communications for soldiers on the front lines. Baffico, a self-described “reluctant participant,” flew in 206 combat assaults earning the Bronze Star and the Air Medal.
He lost five of the 33 men in his platoon along the way and returned home to a culture that reviled those who went to fight in the war.
“When I came back from Vietnam in January 1971 to my hometown of San Francisco, it was the classic experience of most Vietnam vets,” explained Baffico. “I was spit on, I had urine and paint thrown on me.”
After checking papers at Travis Air Force just northeast of San Francisco, he got in a car with his father and his future wife and drove home. “I had to take the uniform off as fast as I could because we were getting flipped off and shouted invectives,” recalls Baffico of the harsh reception he received.
That was a Tuesday and by the next Monday he was taking graduate school classes. “I slammed the door on Vietnam as hard as I could, I slammed it as fast I could,” explained Baffico. He got married and after one semester quit graduate school because it was “unstimulating.”
He returned to Sears and buried himself in his career, unaware that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).