2019 Liberty High School graduate Justin Baker worked at Ace Hardware and then was hired on at an HVAC company right before the COVID-19 shutdowns. Just as he was about to begin his new vocation, the world shutdown, and he was laid off. Justin’s mom, Kim Baker, was exhausted, toiling even harder during the lockdown as an essential worker at the United States Postal Service. She became concerned that her son had lost his motivation. She shares, “He was sleeping in a lot and playing video games. I was trying to encourage him to get out there and find something. Well, one day he informed me that he and a friend were looking into joining the Marines. He said he wanted an adventure!”
He and his friend went to talk to an Army veteran they knew and became convinced that the Army was a better choice. They were to enlist on a buddy system, but his friend changed his mind and went to LMC instead. Still, Justin announced to his mother, “It’s time for this bird to fly the nest.”
Says Kim, “I made his father go with him to sign up. On August 17, 2020, I dropped him off, and he boarded a plane to Fort Benning in Georgia for basic training. You cannot talk with your kid when they are in basic training. The only form of communication I received came in the form of letters from my son telling me how he underestimated how hard this was going to be. He said he was starving all the time. Some friends in his group started sharing their food with him, and he was better able to get through it after that.”
“JUSTIN WENT THROUGH NEARLY A YEAR OF TRAINING AND GRADUATED ACHIEVING THE DESIGNATION OF AIRBORNE INFANTRY.”
Justin went through nearly a year of training and graduated achieving the designation of Airborne Infantry. He became a paratrooper. His mother missed out on watching him graduate because of COVID-19 restrictions. Although Justin was able to come home for a visit over the summer, Kim was supposed to finally visit her son on base during a scheduled all-American week at his duty station in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, but things took a turn in early August 2021.
On Friday, August 6, Kim got a text from her son asking her if she could call when she had a moment. Kim became alarmed. Justin informed her that his commander had put him on the IRS (Immediate Response Force) and that he would probably be deployed shortly. That is a moment that any military mother dreads. Yes, they are soldiers, trained and ready to serve and protect our country, but they are also our precious sons and daughters whom mothers want to cloak in a protection bubble—free from any harm, forever.
Justin had made good friends with another soldier during basic training, and Kim and the boy’s mother also became friends. The two mothers talked, and Kim learned that her son’s friend had to give his cell phone to his sergeant. With pending deployment facing her, Kim was afraid that she wouldn’t know where her son was going! On Friday, August 13, she got a text that her son was leaving that day. He made mention of Kuwait. Kim again had to wait for an update, all the while wondering what situation her son was being sent into. On August 19, she finally heard from Justin who was at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
For many days, there were scenes of the Afghan people desperate to escape the country by plane, swarming the airport. As US soldiers were trying to come home, there were also some being sent to keep the peace and hold the line in the war-torn town of Kabul. Justin was on the front lines of the evacuation. Says Kim, “I couldn’t understand it. He had only been in the Army for one year, and they sent him to one of the most heated moments of our occupation there in the Middle East! I was a wreck. I literally thought I would break down from the fear of him being there. There were suicide bombs going off, explosions. I didn’t know from one minute to the next what he was going through. People I hadn’t heard from in years were reaching out, checking on me to make sure I was getting through it. At least I had his Army friend’s mother back in Illinois to talk to. I got word that he was moving on to Kuwait on August 28. He finally touched down on American soil on September 17. That’s when I could breathe again.”
“HE AND ALL WHO SERVE AND HAVE SERVED, HERE AND ABROAD, ARE DESERVING OF SO MUCH ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF THEIR EFFORTS, BRAVERY, AND SERVICE. THEY DESERVE ALL OUR GRATITUDE FOR BEING WILLING TO LAY THEMSELVES DOWN FOR THEIR COUNTRY AND ALL WHO INHABIT IT.”
“AS US SOLDIERS WERE TRYING TO COME HOME, THERE WERE ALSO SOME BEING SENT TO KEEP THE PEACE AND HOLD THE LINE IN THE WAR-TORN TOWN OF KABUL.”
When Justin got back to North Carolina, he and his returning friends all went to the beach for a stress-free day. Kim says, “They needed to cut loose a little bit and be in a calm environment.”
After experiencing the recent turmoil in Afghanistan, Private First-Class Justin Baker certainly is deserving of a bit of peace for himself. He and all who serve and have served, here and abroad, are deserving of so much acknowledgment of their efforts, bravery, and service. They deserve all our gratitude for being willing to lay themselves down for their country and all who inhabit it. And to the families of these soldiers, who live in constant fear of their loved one coming into danger, we owe you the greatest of respect for staying strong too. Fighting off that fear is a battle in and of itself.