- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Joe Baxter was surprised when he reported for annual drill with his National Guard unit in Macon, Ga., last May. “We’ve been activated,” he was told. “We’re going to Iraq.”

A truck driver in civilian life, Sgt. Baxter had been a weapons instructor and served on the officers training staff of the 122nd ROC (Rear Operations Center) of the Georgia National Guard. But he had recently moved to Biloxi, Miss., where he had planned to be married in September and transfer to a National Guard unit near his new home. Instead, he and Barbara moved their wedding up to June, just a few weeks before he had to ship out.

By the end of the summer, Sgt. Baxter was in a strange land in the middle of a war with no front line, a war where ambushes and roadside bombs are a minute-to-minute reality. He had just returned from a patrol in Mosul when he learned Hurricane Katrina had devastated the Gulf Coast around Biloxi.

Each day, at the end of his 12-hour duty tour he tried to get in touch with Barbara but could not reach her. As news of the devastation and loss of life along the Gulf filtered in, Sgt. Baxter’s thoughts went back to the little brick house his wife had designed in a shady, pleasant neighborhood about a half mile from the Gulf.

Was his wife among the missing? Was the house still there? Finally, a text message from his wife’s niece in Florida: Barbara was alive — overwhelmed by the devastation to their home and community, but alive.

Sgt. Baxter’s commanding officer, Maj. Brian Borek, could see the toll the news was taking on the tall, wiry sergeant whom he had come to rely on as one of the key men in his command. “I told Joe he would almost certainly qualify for a ‘compassionate release’ from his mission in Iraq.”

Sgt. Baxter could have easily made a case for the permanent release. He was now 50 years old and had paid his dues. After leaving the Navy, where he had served on an aircraft carrier catapult crew, he had joined the National Guard and served 15 years. Instead of the normal two weeks of active duty each year, he had often served eight, while continuing to drive trucks out of the Avritt Express terminal in Macon.

But he knew there were plenty of soldiers like him, who had lost houses and even loved ones in the storm. “No sir,” Sgt. Baxter told his commander. “We’d all like to be home, but I’ll do my duty here.” Maj. Borek arranged for him to take his two-week leave immediately rather than midway through his Iraq tour. Sgt. Baxter was stunned by the destruction he saw as he and Barbara drove back from the airport. Hours after leaving Iraq, he said, “I had never seen that kind of devastation before.”

Officially, Sgt. Baxter’s two week pass was for “R&R;,” rest and relaxation, but this leave was different. Their “dream house” was barely standing: a huge oak tree had fallen through the roof and 14 hours of torrential rain had ruined virtually everything inside.

Those precious days home from Iraq were spent cleaning, removing debris, trying to salvage a few possessions, dealing with contractors and insurance claims and arranging temporary shelter for his wife. Barbara had been bent on making their home “just right for Joe when he got back from Iraq.” She was heartbroken to see so much, including all their wedding gifts, swept away. “But Joe helped me realize that it was just material things we’d lost and that we would take it one step at a time until we were back to normal.”

They both knew his two-week leave had to end. Joe Sgt. Baxter is reticent about putting it into words, but he is proud to serve and serious about duty. “I believe in what we are doing over there, and we’ve accomplished a lot.”

Barbara understood duty, too. She was a “military brat.” Her father, now 76 and battling cancer, was a senior master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, retiring after almost 30 years. One of her sisters had to leave the Air Force because of heart trouble. Both her other sisters are married to career Air Force retirees.

Sgt. Baxter is now serving in Baghdad, 12-hour shifts, seven days a week. Just two weeks after his return to duty he learned his sister in Brunswick, Ga., died but he could not attend her funeral. He doesn’t like to talk about his work, which involves coordinating patrols for base defense. He tries to keep in touch with Barbara. If they are lucky, they can sometimes talk briefly in midafternoon, Biloxi time. “I’m counting the days until he gets to come back home in July,” says Barbara, who lives in a FEMA trailer.

“Joe always puts his mission first and his personal needs second, every day, without fail,” says Maj. Borek. “Staff sections fight for guys like him, because they know he will get the job done — on time and to the highest standards.

“I just hope the people back home know what fine troops like Joe we have over here, and the sacrifices they are willing to make, every day, despite personal hardships.”

Robert Kinney Bennett is with the American Security Council Foundation. This story of courage is part of the Foundation’s “America’s Heroes” project.

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