Looking Back: OSI’s First Senior Enlisted Leader

  • Published
  • By Robert Vanderpool
  • OSI Command Historian

In July 1973, Chief Master Sgt. Donald B. Baxter assumed responsibility as the first Senior Enlisted Advisor in Office of Special Investigations history. The position of Senior Enlisted Advisor within OSI was created following a recommendation from the Headquarters Enlisted Council which suggested that having an advocate at the highest levels of the command would be beneficial to the nearly 1,500 enlisted military members serving within OSI at that time. The OSI commander accepted the council’s proposal, and Baxter was selected. The Senior Enlisted Advisor title was changed to Command Chief later during the early 2000’s.   

Baxter was born in Missouri on May 30, 1930. When he was six years old, he and his family moved to Medford, Oregon. Baxter attended school there through the 10th grade, when he left at 17 years old to join the Air Force. He graduated from basic military training at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, in 1948 and spent his first full year in the Air Force as a Military Training Instructor. In 1949, Baxter was transferred to Eglin AFB, Florida, where he became a military policeman. 

In 1952, Baxter transferred to Kansas City, Missouri, where he applied for duty with OSI. He was accepted and joined the command in September 1954. On Oct. 11, 1954, he reported to the U.S. Air Force Special Investigations School in Washington, D.C. Baxter graduated from the school as a member of Class 54-I on Dec. 17, 1954, and then returned to Kansas City. Shortly thereafter, additional opportunity knocked.

“I went into the office one day when the boss put a piece of mail on my desk from headquarters about language school,” Baxter remembered. “I looked at it, initialed it, and put it back on his desk.  He asked if I was going to answer it, so I told him I didn’t believe they’d ever select me. When he said, “How do you know if you don’t put in for it?” So I answered the letter and sixty days later he came and asked me if I wanted to go to German language school.”

Baxter was accepted into the language program and was transferred to Washington, D.C., where he entered a six-month intensified language and linguistics course at Georgetown University.  After completing the course, Baxter was transferred to Wiesbaden, Germany, where he spent the next five years. Baxter’s duties in Wiesbaden focused largely on procurement fraud, criminal investigation, counterintelligence and counter-espionage. 

During his time in Germany, Baxter had the unique opportunity to serve directly with OSI’s former commander, Lt. Gen. Joseph Carroll. Lt. Gen Carroll commanded OSI from 1948 to 1955, serving as the first commander in OSI history. Between 1958 and 1960, Lt. Gen. Carroll served in Europe as the Deputy Commander and Chief of Staff for U.S. Air Forces in Europe. 

“I knew General Carroll personally,” Baxter remembered.  “I was in Europe when he was Chief over there.  Being a German linguist, I was called upon several times to work with the General.  It was a delight because he was a great guy…another guy with a great sense of humor.” 

After Germany, Baxter served a short stint in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, before moving to Los Angeles Air Force Station, California, where he was primarily responsible for reviewing caseloads and helping to manage day-to-day operations. Mission priorities in California included personnel security investigations and industrial security. One day, Baxter was approached by a second lieutenant new to OSI. The young officer told him: “Baxter, my dad told me if I was ever to be worth a damn in this organization, I need to find a good enlisted man that knows what’s going on and you’re it! I want you to teach me what you know.”  

Baxter appreciated the compliment and over the next couple of years he took the second lieutenant under his wing, sharing his experience and expertise. That lieutenant would eventually rise to the rank of Colonel and serve as a district commander for OSI.

After a few years in Los Angeles, Baxter returned to Germany for another three years, again at Wiesbaden. From there, he went to Travis AFB, California. In 1970, while at Travis, Baxter was asked by his district commander what he thought of an assignment to Bangor, Maine. 

Baxter replied: “Well Sir, to be quite frank, I don’t think much of it at all.  I don’t want to go to Bangor, Maine!” The commander told Baxter that he would see what he could do about it. A couple of days later, the commander came back and told Baxter that he had a choice:  Baxter could either go to Bangor, Maine or New York City. This time, Baxter replied: “Wow, Bangor, Maine sounds great!” 

A father of four, Baxter’s primary concern regarding an assignment to New York City was raising his children there. He reported to Detachment 103 at Bangor, Maine, and at the rank of Senior Master Sergeant he was named the detachment commander. This made him one of the earliest, if not the first, of OSI’s enlisted personnel to lead a detachment. Det. 103’s personnel consisted of two special agents, one of those being Baxter. The primary mission there was personnel security investigations.  

“Even as detachment commander,” Baxter later recalled.  “I worked and had my cases just like the other guy had his. I was just that one guy that signed the papers and had the responsibility. That was my first supervisory job in OSI. I got a little feel of what it was like to be boss. Wow, was that ever neat!” 

Despite Baxter’s enthusiasm for his command assignment, the idea of allowing enlisted personnel to serve in such a role wasn’t universally accepted across the command. At the time, the total personnel assigned to OSI numbered around 2,000, with approximately 80 percent of all military members being enlisted, versus the other 20 percent who were officers. There was also roughly 200 civilians assigned to the command.

“I don’t mean to say there were people striking against it,” Baxter recalled.  “But there was just a feeling among the enlisted people. We felt we were quite capable of doing some of these jobs.  As a matter of fact, we felt as though we were more qualified in a lot of instances than some of the junior officers. That’s not to say they were bad people, but that they didn’t have the experience that the enlisted people had. So we felt very strongly we were quite capable of taking on these responsibilities if we were just given the opportunity. So we were encouraged when this happened.”

Baxter’s tenure as a detachment commander was considered by his superiors to be quite successful. Even though it was the only time in his career that he formally served as a commander, supervisory responsibilities would continue to be a hallmark of his service throughout the remainder of his career. Having been with OSI throughout the entirety of the Vietnam War, Baxter had yet to serve in Southeast Asia. This was unusual as most special agents served at least a one year tour over there at some point during that conflict. Baxter attributed not being assigned there any earlier due in large part to the lack of a defined need for a German language specialist in Vietnam. As it turned out, he eventually got his turn and actually ended up being part of one of the last regular rotations of special agents to serve in Vietnam. 

Arriving in-country in early 1972, Baxter’s next assignment was to Tan Son Nhut Air Base, near Saigon. During the year he spent in Vietnam, Baxter served as a supervisory special agent, leading the investigations unit at the district headquarters there. He was no longer a commander, but he was responsible for managing the day-to-day operations and overseeing the caseloads for fifteen special agents. His unit was focused primarily on conducting investigations involving black market activities, money laundering, and narcotics possession and use among military members. He also played a small role in counterintelligence operations. Completing his tour of duty in Vietnam, Baxter returned to the United States in March 1973.

In July 1973, Baxter assumed his position as the first Senior Enlisted Advisor in OSI history.  His one year tour was served under Maj. Gen. William Temple, who served as OSI commander from 1972 to 1975. As Senior Enlisted Advisor, Baxter was tasked with performing a job which at the time really did not have a defined role. Though the Air Force instituted the role of Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force six years earlier in 1967, the entire concept of what a Senior Enlisted Advisor would do for an organization like OSI was very new within the service.  Further, because of OSI’s position as an independent entity within the overall command structure, in many ways OSI was isolated from what other organizations within the greater Air Force were doing when it came to incorporating a Senior Enlisted Advisor into their operations.   

When asked what were the greatest challenges facing the OSI enlisted force when he became Senior Enlisted Advisor, Baxter replied: “I didn’t see a lot of changes in OSI in the time that I was there, and maybe that was the problem. There weren’t changes. We weren’t advancing and maybe we were going the wrong way. Maybe we were becoming more and more isolated. This is the great wisdom of retrospect. I can look back and see, but I’m trying to envision some changes material, vast changes organizational, or otherwise that took place in the first 15 years I was in OSI, but I don’t recall any. Maybe it was just that I was a part of them, and as the changes came about I changed with them, but I don’t recall anything in particular. Things just didn’t change.” 

One major organizational change that occurred just prior to Baxter taking on the role as Senior Enlisted Advisor, involved the activation of the Defense Investigative Service in 1972 (today’s Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency). When this new departmental agency was activated, OSI lost approximately 30 percent of its total manpower through the transfer of personnel, some of them voluntarily but many of them automatically. The sudden loss of so many people and their experience was difficult to manage.

“Trauma,” Baxter later recalled. “I don’t have a better word for it, devastation perhaps, but from the command point, I think also frustration. There wasn’t a lot you could do about it. You just had to buck up and take it.”

Baxter spent much of his time the year he was the Senior Enlisted Advisor meeting individually with the people in both organizations who were affected by this change, trying to help them alleviate some of the stresses that came along with it. Baxter described his efforts as a “one-foot-in-front-of-the-other-type of thing,” with the overall goal to provide “care and nurture for our people,” as they navigated the change. Baxter retired from OSI at the rank of Chief Master Sergeant in July 1974, after serving twenty-six years of active duty with the Air Force. 

Following Baxter’s tenure, the Senior Enlisted Advisor position remained vacant for two years as OSI took some additional time to plan and decide just what the job was going to be all about.  Baxter’s successor, Chief Master Sergeant Billy Johnson, assumed responsibility as Senior Enlisted Advisor in July 1976.       

Looking back on his time as Senior Enlisted Advisor, when asked what he thought his significant accomplishments were serving in that position, Baxter candidly recalled: “You know, and I don’t say this without having given it a great deal of thought, but I don’t know that I did anything. I don’t know if I really did anything that I could say really improved the organization. Number one, I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t have the slightest idea what I was doing.  I had a vision of what I might want to do. Even that vision didn’t get the opportunity to come to fruition…Yes, perhaps something that I might not know about. There might have been something there.  I mean you go out and you run an investigation and, maybe do some different things and you get through with it and you say, “Yay, I did that!” I got it done in this way. I can’t do that or make any kind of objective assessment of what I did that comes up with anything positive…I thought about this a lot, an awful lot.”

Despite his own uncertainties with what effects his tenure as OSI’s first Senior Enlisted Advisor might have been, Baxter remains a pioneer within the history of the command. During the year that he served in that role, he helped guide the command through a difficult transition period and he did so be reaching out to people on a personal level and tangibly helping them to deal with the change. This style of leadership was something he demonstrated throughout his military career, which no doubt influenced the careers and lives of many others within the command over his two decades of service with OSI. Further, by being the first, he was the benchmark for all the positive changes that would follow. His tenure demonstrated the need for OSI to reassess and reevaluate the role the Senior Enlisted Advisor should serve within the command. This allowed OSI to better support his successors as they, in turn, provided better support to the command.

During a 2005 interview, when he was asked what he thought of the current state of OSI, then 31 years after his retirement, Baxter commented:  “I appreciate what you guys are doing.  I mean what all of you are doing, what this program has developed into and the great feeling I have now.  You are all dedicated to what you are doing. I think number one is you’re dedicated to the mission of the United States Air Force to fly and fight and to give our fighters the opportunity to do the job they have to do. You’re all committed to that and you’re all very much committed to making sure that our people are well armed, that they’re well trained, and that they’re taken care of.  I just know you’re doing a great job and I’m proud of that and each of you.” 

Donald B. Baxter passed away on April 19, 2011, at the age of 80 years old. 

Historian’s Note:  OSI has had a total of 17 Senior Enlisted Advisors and Command Chiefs since 1973. The current incumbent, Chief Master Sgt. Gregg Gow, assumed responsibility as OSI’s Command Chief on May 18, 2021.

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh installment in the Looking Back Series, spotlighting the storied legacy of OSI.