From Navy to Army Reserve to the American Legion, Craig’s Brian Baxter has a heart for service
Brian Baxter presents his own story with an amusing understatement.
“I haven’t done anything totally interesting,” Baxter said. “I’ve just done a lot of things.”
Baxter, an 86-year-old resident of Craig, has seen most corners of the planet — whether through his service in the Navy or through his and his wife’s passion for traveling which both acquired during his time in the service.
He’s learned a lot about people throughout his life, and maybe that’s part of what drives him to serve them still.
But Baxter, who works within the local American Legion and is married to Moffat County School Board president Jo Ann Baxter, the journey hasn’t been particularly typical.
“I’m, shall we say, unique,” he said with a chuckle.
Baxter started his service career in 1954, jumping into active duty in the Navy. He volunteered after graduating high school in Omaha, Nebraska, during a time when the draft meant he was likely to end up in the service one way or another, Baxter said.
“I knew, being able-bodied, it was 99% certain I’d end up either drafted or volunteered,” Baxter said. “So I volunteered.”
He spent a few years on an attack transport, mostly in the Caribbean Sea. While there, Baxter said, he spent time in Haiti — “I look at pictures of Haiti today, Port au Prince, and I look at pictures from when I was there, and they look exactly the same,” he said. And he pulled into port a time or two in Havana, Cuba, in the waning years of the pre-Castro era.
Then came the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, marriage, time spent in the reserves and eventually an officer’s commission, which is where Baxter was when war broke out in Vietnam. He spent time at sea in the Mediterranean and later in the Pacific, but, despite leaving the first of eventually three sons home with his young wife, Baxter was fortunate not to be separated from his family for too long.
“My wife got on an airplane and flew to Frankfurt, Germany,” Baxter said. “She hadn’t been outside the United States, but she picked up a Volkswagen and met me in Barcelona with a 22-month-old. Marriage in the Navy is tough because you’re gone so much. When you’re at sea, you’re at sea, but she and our son met me in every port. She put 13,000 miles on that Volkswagen Beetle driving across Europe, and my son had his second birthday in Naples, Italy.”
In the Pacific, Baxter was stationed on an aircraft carrier sending bombing runs.
“I didn’t have that much contact with civilians or with the community then,” he said, with perhaps a tinge of regret in his voice. “We were just kind of there.”
If that was regret, it was because the young officer had grown quickly to love his far-flung neighbors from all climes and cultures.
By way of example: When the Bay of Pigs Incident broke out in 1961, followed shortly by the Cuban Missile Crisis, Baxter was at school, safe in Nebraska — maybe as far from any likely hypothetical first strike location as he could have been. But his heart was closer to the action. He’d been in Havana only a couple years earlier more than once. There, Baxter had developed friendships with Cubans whose lives had surely been turned upside down since their last meetings — and who were now, nominally, his enemy.
“I have found, everywhere I have been, the civilian population was wonderfully friendly,” Baxter said. “As a short patrol officer (in the Caribbean), I couldn’t believe how much the people helped us out to keep sailors out of problems. They wanted to be friendly. My wife, when she was traveling, how fantastic it would be walking down the street with my wife and son and the smiles and greetings we’d get — me in uniform — everyone was very friendly. Every place. Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Malta, Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines. Everywhere. People in the world are great.”
That love for people of all kinds seems to have translated to his post-Naval service in the Army National Guard, and, since his retirement, with the American Legion. That comes with struggles, too.
“We’re having trouble getting younger people, younger veterans known to us,” Baxter said. “These younger veterans are really in need of the comradeship and the help of the organizations. But they’re trying to fight it on their own.”
With Veterans’ Day approaching, Baxter appreciates the more positive approach to those who have served in recent years. He’s seen it both ways.
“After Vietnam, things were pretty touchy,” he said. “When we left to go to Vietnam, we had a senior petty officer on the ship who deserted because he didn’t want to go. Now, the Navy is in Navy towns, but there was still a lot that was against veterans and the military in the 70s. Now, we have kids in Craig, quite a few, who join up and serve. It’s good. People say thank you for serving, and I always say I appreciate being able to have had the honor to serve.”
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