He is a hero in every sense of the word, as a citizen- soldier, as a citizen and a soldier and as a patriot in good standing. He has served his country without complaint and with a feeling of need and necessity. He has served bravely and courageously, even eagerly.
It was, however, with a wayward journey that he reached his goal to serve. He attended high school and dropped out of high school at Calhoun and then Gordon Central. He participated in track and quit track. He made choices during those hectic teen years, most of them ill-advised and wrong. Then, he decided to attend Coosa Valley Technical College and attain the GED certificate, a pre-requisite to joining the 108th Calvary of the Georgia National Guard, his ultimate goal.
“And the military,” he says today, “saved my life.”
It was his decision to gain a GED diploma that, ultimately, turned things around. He graduated in June of 1992 and enlisted in the Guard in August of the same year. Now, 18 years and a Bronze Star later, Sgt. Baumgardner returns to the site of his life-changing experience to receive the school’s adult learning center’s ultimate post-graduate award, inclusion on the GED Wall of Honor and reception of the GEDD Award. GEDD is an acronym meaning: G, goals, E, excellence, D, determination, D (making a) difference.
Baumgardner is the seventh recipient of the award since it was originated in May 2004 by The Calhoun-Gordon Council for a Literate Community and what is now Georgia Northwestern Technical College’s adult learning department. First winner was Jeremy Carlson, who victim of a plant closing, attained his GED certificate and used it to enroll in the nursing program at Dalton State University. He now heads up emergency room operations at a Michigan hospital.
Induction ceremonies for Baumgardner are scheduled Thursday May 27 at 11 a.m. at The King Auditorium on the Georgia Northwestern Technical College Calhoun campus. He will receive the GEDD Award at that time; the unveiling of his GED Wall of Honor plaque will follow. State Adjutant General (Maj. Gen.) Terry Nesbitt, a Calhoun native, is invited to make remarks on behalf of the Georgia National Guard, while Capt. Chris Powell will represent the 108th Cavalry.
“I first met Justin when I was teaching seventh grade at Calhoun Middle School. He had a cockiness about him, more so than most his age. He was also a very intelligent kid who was not living up to his potential, and at that time, didn’t care,” says adult learning lead instructor Coleen Brooks. “ After I left public school and went into Adult Education, he showed up at our door along with his mother, Mary. They both studied a short while, and went on to become part of the Class of ’92. It does my heart good to know that this young man took that cockiness and turned it into self-assuredness and used his intelligence in a positive way by becoming an outstanding soldier. I always knew that he had it in him.”
“Justin is one of our most deserving recipients of the award,” says Wayne Minshew, executive director of the literacy council. “He hasn’t just served his community, as the award demands; he has served his country. And, considering his unit, the 108th Calvary, has just returned from Afghanistan, his induction is one of our most important and timely. This one carries an extra measurement of anticipation and excitement.”
The apparent danger, the intrigue, the step-lightly demeanor demanded in Afghanistan remains with Baumgardner a couple months after returning home to happy, tearful, waving, cheering, flag-waving family and friends on parade routes here and in Dalton, where Justin now resides.
“It was hard, long days there,” he says. “There were scary moments, but you had to overcome them and adapt.”
Baumgardner served first in a operations coordinating center – “a kind of 911 operation,” he says – then as a platoon leader, meeting demands required of soldiers, officers, above his rank at the time. He obviously did it well, considering he was awarded the Bronze Star while on duty in a country he probably didn’t know existed during wild and carefree teen-age years.
There was one particularly scary moment, although it came as after-thought.
“Local police led us through this little town, to the other side,” he recalls. “But we had wanted to stop in the town, something the police were unaware of. We told them we had to turn around and go back. We were in five Ranger pickups, so it required a wide space for us to turn them around. All the time, I noticed towns people waving frantically at us, but I assumed it was just them being excited.”
When the turn was completed, Baumgardner spoke to one of the elderly onlookers.
“We just wanted to let you know that was not a good place to turn around,” said the elder.
“Why not?” asked the sergeant.
“Because that was a mine field you just turned around in.”
It was one of several “Whew!” moments for Baumgardner and his fellow soldiers. They kept an eye on roof tops, behind buildings, on suspicious characters, all the time their weapons drawn and at the ready.
Fortunately, Baumgardner and most of his troops came home. However, 13 from Afghanistan and, before that, Iraq, where Justin also served, did not. He knew them, most of them, and turns sad, even misty-eyed, when he discusses them.
“I watched them all go home,” he says, his voice low. “People who died in combat . . . anytime I heard about it, I made sure I was there at the ramp where they shipped them back. We called it the fallen comrade ceremony.” His voice trails off; it is clear the memories are private ones.
He is asked about being back home, and it cheers him.
“I’m loving it,” he says. “It’s a good feeling being back. It takes time to get going again, but it is great to be home. I’m back at work, at Shaw Industries in Plant One as an electrician.”
Justin pauses and adds, “But part of you is left there, in Afghanistan. We did a lot of good things; we left some undone. We just ran out of time.”
“I think anything Uncle Sam tells me is worthwhile,” he says. “I do my job for him to the best of my ability . . . always.”