WASHINGTON — Following her retirement from three decades of Army service, Sheila Baxter provided veterans with spiritual counseling as a staff chaplain at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.
This job was important to her, she said, because it was another way she could give back and make an impact on people’s lives.
One day, she received a call from a psychologist telling her there was a patient that could use her help. He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
The Marine veteran struggled with the guilt of losing three men during a firefight overseas years ago. The anguish was taking a toll on him and his family. It even got to a point where he couldn’t keep a job.
Baxter called him to set up a meeting, and the two quickly bonded over their shared military experience.
“I was grateful to God that we were able to connect,” Baxter said. “Marines are tough. Sometimes they don’t open up like that, especially to a woman.”
They started meeting twice a month as they charted a path to improve his spiritual life. He slowly started making progress.
During their talks, Baxter learned he was holding so much pain inside because he never mourned the men he lost. He had pushed everything down and tried to forget. She knew he needed closure and asked if he wanted to hold a special ceremony in their honor.
During the memorial, he cried and called out their names.
“After that, I saw a change in him,” Baxter said. “It was a release. He was finally able to honor them.”
Seeing him find peace gave her joy. That was because service was her passion and she had been doing it all her life.
Coming from the small town of Franklin, Virginia, just southwest of Norfolk, she always had a sense of community. She grew up with her four siblings and several cousins who lived in the neighborhood.
Her father, an Army veteran who fought in the Korean War, was always helping people. He was a local contractor and owned an oil truck business with his brothers. He would help people with their rent or anything else they needed.
“He would give the clothes off his back to help you,” she said. “My parents always taught us the value of God, family and public service.”
She also learned teamwork and discipline early on by playing basketball with her siblings and cousins in her aunt’s backyard. She would take the skills she learned there all the way to Virginia State University where she became the first female basketball player to score 1,000 career points.
During her junior year, she would go with her cousin to visit her husband, an Army logistics officer stationed at Fort Bragg, now called Fort Liberty. He would take them around the base to show them different aspects of the Army.
While they were visiting, a feeling came over her.
“It was my light bulb moment,” she explained. “This is what I want to do, I want to lead troops.”
She saw the Army as a team sport like basketball with everyone working together toward a common goal. A week later, she went to the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps at her school and signed up.
She commissioned in 1978 as a Medical Service Corps officer after earning her bachelor’s degree in health and physical education. She chose the service corps because of the variety of jobs it presented and the chance it gave her to help people.
“I’m a people person,” she explained. “If you love people, your life is never boring.”
Throughout her career, mentors played a critical role in setting her up for success.
As a young medical logistics officer at her first assignment, her battalion commander asked her to give him a 20-year plan for her career.
She looked at him and said “Sir, I don’t know what I want to do in 20 minutes, and you want me to map out my career?”
That was exactly what he wanted her to do. She had to show him in five-year increments where she wanted to be and what goals she had. She went home that weekend and thought about it.
The next week, she told him she wanted to lead troops and be like him.
He helped her map it out and told her what she had to focus on to get there.
“That was a turning point early on in my career,” she said. “He really was a great mentor.”
She took his advice and steadily progressed in her career as she was promoted to major a year earlier than her peers.
Things didn’t always go to plan, however. While she was the logistics lead for a medical group, she dealt with a verbally abusive boss that would often curse at his staff. This behavior didn’t sit well with her.
After leaving a meeting one day, she thought she had enough and was ready to quit the Army. At that moment, she heard a voice within her say, “No you’re not, you’re going to hang in there.”
She prayed for her boss. With the help of her pastor, she was able to take her focus off him and put it on God. She changed her perspective and instead leaned on the positive things in her life like her staff.
"I learned everything isn't going to be peaches and cream, but you've got to hang in there because it's making you who you should be,” she explained. “Sometimes we have to have a little resistance in order to understand you can overcome the situation. You just have to change your perspective."
She carried the lessons she learned throughout her career and tried to pass them on to those around her, just as the officers and noncommissioned officers had done in her life.
As she continued down her career path, she became the commander of the 226th Medical Battalion in Germany. Even after reaching this milestone, she knew she needed to continue to rely on those around her.
“If you don’t listen to your mentors, you are doing yourself a disservice because mentors can see in you what you cannot see in yourself,” she said.
Listening to the advice of one mentor, Brig Gen. Richard Ursone, she invited the lieutenant general in her chain of command for a visit to the battalion. Three weeks later, he stopped by.
During the visit, Baxter let her NCOs and civilians lead the briefs.
“It’s about highlighting the people that work with you and giving them a voice,” she said.
The general was impressed.
A year later, she received a call from the Army surgeon general saying she was selected to brigadier general.
“He must’ve thought I dropped the phone because I couldn’t speak, I was so blown away,” she recalled. “It was such a surprise, but I was humbled and grateful for the opportunity.”
She became the first female chief of the Medical Service Corps, leading more than 9,000 officers across the Army Medical Department. Her vision for the corps was competence, courage and compassion. She wanted them to be the best they could be and to help others along the way, just as she was helped.
“I am extremely proud to be a Medical Service Corps officer,” she said. “When I look back at our history, we just keep going to higher levels because of the quality of Soldiers and leaders that we have.”
Throughout her time as chief, she traveled around the Army listening to the troops and hoping to inspire them.
As she went through a dining facility on one of her visits, a young private first class ran up to her and told her she was going back to school so she could be like her.
“The promotion to brigadier general wasn’t about me, it was for other people to see that if God could do it for me, he could do it for them,” she said. “I told her ‘thank you, please do that because you can make it.’”
After 30 years of service, she retired from the Army but not from helping others. She couldn’t just sit and relax following her years of being around Soldiers. She wanted to continue with her passion of service. So, she applied for the Clinical Pastoral Education Program through the Veterans Affairs in Atlanta.
This program eventually led her to a full-time chaplain position where she helped veterans with their spiritual care for another 10 years.
“When I think about why I continue to give back, I believe it’s in my DNA,” she said. “It’s something that makes me proud in terms of giving my life meaning and purpose. Service gives me joy; gives me passion.”
Baxter retired from the VA in 2021 to pursue her doctorate in ministry, which she will complete next year. She continues to give back and goes out every Sunday to help homeless women and men.