Franklin native, Army general retires after long tenure

Published 10:45 pm Friday, November 21, 2008

Brigadier Gen. Sheila R. Baxter has retired after serving more than 30 years in the United States Army.

Baxter grew up in Franklin and said her parents were huge influences in her life.

“My parents were the most influential people in my life,” she said. “They instilled a strong spiritual background in all five of their children.”

Her father and two uncles served in World War ll and her brother, numerous cousins and a niece have all served in the military. Both of her parents, John Henry and Mary, are now deceased.

Baxter a 1973 graduate of Franklin High School, played basketball and was the first African-American homecoming queen in 1972.

Mona Sumblin, athletic director and girl’s basketball coach at Franklin High School was a former teammate.

“She was the best lefthander that I have ever seen and she could shoot the lights out,” Sumblin said.

Upon graduation in 1973, Baxter enrolled at Virginia State College and was a health and physical education major. But she was not sure what she was going to do when she graduated.

After visiting a relative who was in the military at Fort Bragg, N.C., the picture became clearer. She loved what she saw, and decided to enroll in the ROTC program at Virginia State College. She was one of a few women who were enrolled in the program.

Baxter, a lover of the game of basketball, was an all-time standout at Virginia State. She was named to the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association all conference team each year that she played between 1973 and 1977. In 1976, she earned the title of tournament Most Valuable Player. She was the first Virginia State player to accumulate 1,000 points in four years and was voted to the Muhammad Ali Women’s Collegiate All-American team. Because of her great skills on the hard wood, Baxter was inducted into the CIAA hall of Fame at a ceremony held in Charlotte, N.C. in March of 2007.

After graduating from Virginia State, Baxter entered the Army as a Medical Service Corps officer in 1978 with the rank of a second lieutenant and was stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland. There she observed her battalion commander Lt. Col. Robert Bowles and decided that she wanted to be like him. Baxter set her goal to become a battalion commander in a medical unit. Returning to the states after being stationed in Korea, she was assigned to Fort Sam in Houston, Texas. There she met Brig. General Richard Ursone, who has been her mentor since she was a captain.

Continuing her education while in the military, Baxter received her master’s degree in 1986 from Webster University’s Fort Sam Houston campus in Texas.

On Feb. 27, 2003, then Sec. of State Donald Rumsfeld announced that President Bush had nominated Baxter to be promoted to the rank of Brigadier General.

In 2005, Baxter was listed as one of Newsweek magazine’s “20 of America’s Most Powerful Women.”

At the time of retirement, General Baxter had accomplished her goal. She was the commanding general for both Western Regional Medical Command and Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash. She was responsible for the care of more than 300,000 beneficiaries and 10,000 medical service corps officers. Tasked with overseeing military health care operation for most of the Northwest United States, Baxter was one of the Medical Service Corps most integral leaders and she never stopped creating personal relationships with the people around her. She was a counselor to some, a friend to many and an inspiration to everyone, both as a woman who never viewed gender as an obstacle and as a leader.

Her travels in the military have carried her outside of the United States to have served in Korea, Germany and Iraq.

A retirement ceremony was held for Baxter at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma and a luncheon was hosted by the National Capital Region MSC Officers at the Fort Belvoir Officers Club, Fort Bevoir.

“I have been extremely blessed to have the opportunity to serve soldiers for 30 years.,” she said. “I only have three words: I am grateful.”

She also added that she is appreciative to her family and the many friends in her hometown of Franklin that have been very supportive of her during her career.

Since retirement, Baxter has been licensed with the Church of God in Christ and she begun work on a master of divinity degree from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta.