APHA

Stargazer

Celestial dreams led Lt. Col Val Baker on a 25-year journey around the world, punctuated by the universal language of global horse lovers.

By Jessica Hein

When the final rays of an ombré sunset melts into the horizon, streaks of yellow, pink, and orange give way to royal purples and midnight blues, fading to an inky black curtain that preludes the evening’s main attraction. House lights fade and twinkling dancers make their way onto the stage—stars and moons and other celestial bodies waltz in heavenly rhythm, punctuated by leaping comets and shooting stars that lend a bold stroke of action to the elegant spectacle.

Val Baker has stared up, fascinated, at that sky since she was a child, and it still never fails to draw her into its depths. Even when she’s half a world away, touring Africa, the Middle East or Europe as a U.S. Air Force Lt. Colonel, Val simply looks skyward to reconnect with the source of childhood aspirations that set her career in motion. There’s a certain comfort, too, in knowing her family back home in Nebraska can look up and enjoy the same performance, half a world away.

Dreams that couldn’t be contained terrestrially spurred a career that took Val around the world. But no matter where she laid her head during her 25-year military career, Val discovered a universal language spoken through a love of horses—fluently, the horsewoman composed a rich masterpiece of memories set to the rhythm of hoof beats.

Shooting Star

The wilderness of Colorado and expansive grasslands of Minatare, Nebraska, offered Val a wide-open childhood, free to grow into a self-assured cowgirl on the back of trusty ranch horses.

Yet, despite miles to roam and a fenceless horizon, Val felt contained, in a sense. The freedom of the blue sky, cloaked in imagination, mystique and limitless potential called to Val and gave root to a singular focus in her mind’s eye.

“I love the stars and planets and always wanted to get as close to them as possible. Since first grade, my goal was to be the first female commanding pilot of a space shuttle,” Val said. “The fastest way to get there, I found, was to enter and fly in the military before becoming a test pilot and then a shuttle pilot. The Air Force and Navy have the fast jets,and since I didn’t like swimming, I was nominated and appointed to the United States Air Force Academy. At the time, their rodeo team was awful, though, so I took a full-ride ROTC scholarship to Colorado State University, which had a better rodeo team and an indoor practice arena—that was the decision-making skills of an 18-year-old!”

Though a broken leg in 1989—suffered in a freak accident when her horse slipped and fell—derailed Val’s opportunity to see space firsthand, the trajectory of her military career continued flying forward. She graduated from CSU with a computer engineering/science degree in 1991 and embarked on her service commitment, heading first to the U.S. Strategic Command center in Omaha, Nebraska, as a second lieutenant, and later to assignments in Wyoming, Texas, Arizona, deployments to the Philippines, Iraq, Italy and more.

The cowgirl confidence of her youth, rooted in dusty branding pens and daily care of horses, chickens and 100 cow-calf pairs that call her family’s Nebraska ranch home,complemented Val’s military duties as a communications officer, which included helping ensure U.S. security in areas like nuclear missile defense and cyber security and even defusing minefields. Assertiveness and tenacity are valued skills on the range, and they’re equally essential when commanding flight crews, coordinating nuclear missile launch codes and protecting the nation’s cyber security.

“I loved it because everything seemed wrapped around me,” Val said. “I got to tell pilotswhere to go and how high to fly, at least all nuclear assets and the communications equipment used to engage them. Getting the job done no matter what is a farm kiddo’s natural reaction; speaking in public and conveying what you need others to do to get the job done grows with you as you work your way up.”

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This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2019 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.

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