Fort Worth, Texas - The average time an employee spends at the same job is a little over four years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For military service members, it is between seven and eight years. Only one in five active duty service members make it to full retirement of 20 years or more. Statistically, one or two contracts leads to an honorable discharge and other civilian life callings.
Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John Baxter had no way of knowing when he joined the U.S. Navy as a 17-year-old high school senior in 2002 that he would defy statistics and accomplish so much in his career before the age of 40. He could not have fathomed setting up pyrotechnics for Blue Angels Flight Demonstrations, dining with former presidents or becoming a decorated Iraq Veteran.
He did all of this and more with retirement now on the horizon, a lifetime of stories, and a career to be proud of.
Baxter enlisted through the delayed entry program and graduated from Kirby High School in Memphis, Tennessee in 2002. He admits that his path to the Navy formed less from choice than pure happenstance.
“I did not really know what I wanted to do after high school, but I knew that I did not want to go to school anymore,” he said. “I had always thought that joining the military would be something I would like, so I figured ‘why not?’. I joined the Navy because my recruiter at the time, Aviation Structural Mechanic 2nd Class Sam Neil, was the first recruiter to talk to me. I was not exactly a hard sell.”
When it came time to choose a rating, Baxter was nudged toward the aviation community by Neil due to his own familiarity, but he was immediately disqualified from one option. Standing tall at 6 feet 9 inches, he knew becoming a pilot was not in the cards and landed on Aviation Ordnance (AO).
“My recruiter pushed that side of the fleet, and when they got to AO they mentioned explosives and bombs. That sounded pretty cool to a 17-year-old, so I said, ‘Done; sign me up.’,” Baxter explained.
After graduating at the top of his class from Recruit Training Command Great Lakes and completing “A” school at Naval Air Technical Training Center in Pensacola, Florida, Baxter was selected for the Training and Administration of the Reserve (TAR) Program career path, now known as the Full-Time Support, or FTS program. Enlisted FTS personnel serve in demanding billets both at sea and ashore, providing the support necessary to prepare Navy Reservists to deploy when needed.
For Baxter, all of his early billets as a junior Sailor would remain within the United States at Naval Air Stations in Oceana, Virginia and Fort Worth, Texas. He would still make the most of those opportunities, often assisting with explosive demonstrations at various air shows for the Blue Angels, as well as serving on honor guard details for funerals and events. During one such event while stationed in Texas, he even met and had a chance to be photographed with former President George H.W. Bush
In 2007, an opportunity presented itself to then Petty Officer Second Class Baxter to serve overseas, but not at sea.
“Strangely enough for a Chief with over 18 years of service, I have never set foot on a Naval vessel underway,” said Baxter. “None of my billets have taken me to a ship, but I had a chance to volunteer for a deployment to Iraq, so I have more sand time than sea time.”
He deployed to Basra, Iraq with the U.S. Army’s 3rd Infantry Division as an individual augmentee to their security quick reaction force out of Camp Bucca, a forward operating base near the Kuwait border. While there, he would spend his mobilization enhancing security forces during convoy and internment facility operations, and he would earn his Combat Action Ribbon for demonstrated performance and engagement while under enemy fire.
“Working with Air Force and Army units while I was there gave me a deep appreciation for Joint Force concepts, and, honestly, serving with a combat infantry unit teaches you a lot about yourself,” Baxter said.
While he was mainly operating in the South out of Bucca, Baxter’s younger brother, then an Army Civil Affairs Specialist, was simultaneously serving in Iraq supporting the 3rd Infantry Division out of Salman Pak. While the elder Baxter was getting ready to end his deployment and return home around Christmas 2007, his brother was due home for his two-week, mid-tour leave, and they hoped to spend some time together around the holidays.
An odd string of missed flights in Kuwait and pure luck would find the two surprised brothers reuniting at the same airport gate in Atlanta, and they would catch the same flight home, unbeknownst to family and friends waiting in the Memphis airport lobby until they showed up side by side.
Prior to his deployment to Iraq, Baxter met a girl - Christine - while out one night with friends in downtown Fort Worth, and they made a strong connection that would lead to the pair staying in touch while he was overseas. After his return home, the two would reconnect and be married later in 2008.
Back in the states, his career continued to advance while his wife began her secondary education to become a physician assistant, and the pair would move from Virginia to Texas to New Orleans. In 2012, Baxter was selected to advance to Chief Petty Officer, hitting a Navy professional milestone, and he found one of his most memorable units to date.
“Hands down, my favorite duty station was Strike Fighter Squadron 204 (VFA-204),” he recalled. “The morale at that command was unmatched, from top to bottom, and I am extremely proud of the work we accomplished while I was the Ordnance Officer there.”
Baxter and his wife welcomed two sons over the next five years and continued the journey of constantly moving, this time ending up back in Fort Worth for his latest assignment. He currently serves as the Explosive Safety Leading Chief Petty Officer for Naval Munitions Command Atlantic, Detachment Fort Worth.
Despite the challenging circumstances of COVID-19 over the last year, his unit’s mission was not altered dramatically, and he has been more concerned with decisions about hanging up the uniform and transitioning out of the Navy.
“Making the choice to put in for retirement and not re-enlist was difficult, since I still love the Navy and what I do,” he said. “The time has come for me to start the next evolution of my life.”
In a little under two years, Baxter will make it to full retirement status and begin the next chapter. He is currently finishing his online bachelor’s degree in supply chain management with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and he has turned over the geographic decision-making to his wife.
“I guess I will be going wherever she tells me we are going,” he said, lightheartedly. “She has been following me around for the last 13 years, so I figure it is my turn to follow her and go wherever her career takes us.”
Scattered across two walls of his upstairs family room, the photographs, engraved paddles, plaques and other memorabilia tell the story of Baxter’s Navy career and accolades, but his most rewarding achievement after all this time is not an award or tangible item.
“I am most proud when I see the Sailors who have worked for me in the past achieve rank,” he said. “It has always been a point of pride that the Sailors in my ordnance departments promote well, and it has been my great honor to watch some of them promote all the way up to Chief Petty Officer and to be able to welcome them into the Mess.”