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By Matt Velazquez
Sheila Baxter faced an important decision in the spring of 1973. A standout high school basketball player in Franklin, Va., Baxter had the ability to play at the highest level of college basketball and had to figure out what university fit her best.
Though she received at least one scholarship offer from a Division I school, Baxter chose to stay close to home and attend Virginia State University, a Division II program. It was a decision that Baxter never regretted and now views as one of the integral stepping stones on her journey to becoming the first woman to be promoted to Brigadier General in the Army Medical Service Corps.
Virginia State turned out to be the exact experience for which Baxter was looking. Along with being close to home, Baxter found a tight-knit campus community that suited her well. On the basketball court, she encountered camaraderie with teammates who became lifelong friends, and learned valuable lessons on the way to becoming an All-American as a senior as well as the first VSU woman to score 1,000 points.
One of the best aspects of playing basketball and going to school at Virginia State was the time it afforded to explore her other interests instead of investing large amounts of time exclusively in basketball. Of course, Baxter spent plenty of time on basketball—she and her teammates would play pickup games on weekends when they didn’t have official games scheduled. But she found a new love while at college: the military.
In the summer of 1976, following her junior year, Baxter went with her cousin to Fort Bragg in North Carolina where her cousin’s husband was stationed as a captain. It was on that trip that Baxter says, “a light bulb went on,” and she realized her calling.
Upon returning to VSU, Baxter joined the ROTC on campus despite the low number of women in the program at the time. After graduating with her bachelor’s degree, Baxter stayed at Virginia State to continue her studies and training. While there, she served as an assistant coach for the women’s basketball team.
After being commissioned as a second lieutenant in 1978, Baxter worked her way through the ranks of the Medical Service Corps over a 30-year career. She served in Korea, Germany, and Iraq along with many other domestic locations. Baxter became the top-ranked female in the Army Medical Service Corps in 2003, earning the rank of Brigadier General, where she was put in charge of more than 9,000 servicemen and women.
“I never dreamed—being a general officer is something that you don’t aspire to,” Baxter said. “For me it was about serving soldiers. The day that the surgeon general called me and said, ‘Sergeant Baxter, the army is going to promote you to a one-star,’ I think he thought I dropped the phone. It just took me by surprise.”
Looking back at her college experience, Baxter admits to wondering fleetingly about the path her life might have taken if she accepted the scholarship she was offered to play basketball at Boston College. Had she been in Boston, she probably wouldn’t have taken that trip to Fort Bragg. If she had played Division I basketball, she doubts that she would have had time to investigate her interest in the military or join the ROTC.
“I truly know that it was my path to be at Division II Virginia State because if I had not been there, I wouldn’t have made it into the army I don’t think,” Baxter said. “It’s all about opportunities that come your way.”
On the court at Virginia State, Baxter learned some of the most valuable life lessons that she believes helped her military career. She draws numerous parallels between basketball and the military, including teamwork, the benefits of mentorship, treating others with dignity and respect, discipline, and the importance of preparation.
“I learned from basketball skills that practice makes perfect,” she said. “It was one of the things that always ran over and over in my mind. When I got into the military everything was done by practice.”
Baxter has used her experience to continue helping veterans since retiring from the military in 2008 through her work at veteran’s hospitals and homeless shelters. This past December, she was named the chaplain for the homeless program at the Atlanta Veterans Administration Medical Center in Decatur, Ga.
Looking back at her career and the path that it has taken, she recognizes that it all started because she made the choice—the right one for her—to attend Virginia State. From there, she made the most of the opportunities that came her way.
“I think you have better opportunities to hone your skills at a Division II—whether it is leadership, discipline, any of those things,” Baxter said. “But it’s up to the person; they have to take advantage of those opportunities to maximize their skills and talents.”