On their Way – Alex Baynes

On Their Way is an occasional series in which The Times introduces Island high school graduates who have moved on to establish themselves in careers on- or off-Island. We are looking for young people who have distinguished themselves by their accomplishments in business, in social services, in the military, in academics, in fact in any meaningful way you might imagine. Your suggestions will be welcomed by Nelson Sigelman or Whit Griswold, at The Times.

For Alex Baynes, figuring out what he wanted to do with his life came naturally, almost genetically. Growing up in Edgartown in the 1980s and ’90s, he was taken by the tales his father told about his own father, who had served as a navigator in the Royal Air Force.

“For me, that was where thinking about the military started — wanting to emulate my grandfather and live the kind of life like my dad had experienced growing up in the Middle East and seeing a lot before he’d ever been to London,” Lieutenant Baynes, now of the U.S. Navy, said in a phone conversation early this week. His parents, Leslie and Judy Baynes, continue to live in Edgartown; his sister, Amy, lives and works in London.

“My idea of wanting to get into the military started at 10 or 12 years old,” Lt. Baynes said. “It sounded like a pretty good deal.” Which sounds like pretty grounded thinking for someone just past halfway through the Edgartown School.

On December 17, The Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., presented the Navy League Award for the Highest Academic Achievement to Lt. Baynes “for his thesis research on the efficacy of meta-materials and transformational optics to defend against high-energy electromagnetic beams.” Not only was he the top student out of the 353 graduates honored that day, but he also came away with two degrees — Master of Science in Physics and Master of Science in Applied Mathematics.

At Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Alex Baynes made his public mark as an athlete, playing baseball, hockey, and running track. But he also excelled in academics.

“I was also ambitious with school,” he said. “That was always a priority in my house. My parents encouraged me to do sports, but that was after the homework got done.” He graduated from MVRHS in 2000.

A stellar record in high school led to acceptance at Cornell University, where he earned a B.S. in Applied and Engineering Physics in 2004. At college, studies still came first, but his intention to join the military held firm.

“My dad was always fine with me going into the military, but he wanted me first and foremost to get an education,” he said. “My academic ambition was to get into the best college I could, and do well there, and if I was going to join the military, figure that out. I started that process in my junior year in college.”

Accepted to the U.S. Navy’s Officer Candidate School, he headed for Pensacola, Florida. He was commissioned in 2005 with an aviation flight contract, and then attended Naval Flight Officer training, commonly known as flight school.

“I was in Pensacola for two years, and then I was attached to the E2C Hawkeye community which is out of Norfolk, Virginia, also for about two years,” Lt. Baynes said. As a “Backseater,” he ran the communication and navigation equipment that keep pilots in touch and on target.

After four years of active duty, Lt. Baynes then shifted gears, heading back to more traditional classrooms. “Going to the Naval Postgraduate School is the first tour when you accept orders to the engineering duty officer community,” he said. “Basically we are technological middlemen between the Navy and private business — you know, if Electric Boat or Lockheed Martin are building us a new piece of technology, there needs to be somebody representing the Navy in that contract.”

To do so, engineering duty officers have to be at least as well qualified as their civilian counterparts. Over 27 months at the Naval Postgraduate School, Lt. Baynes completed nine quarters, with two-week breaks in the summer, a little less in winter.

On January 8, Lt. Baynes will move to Port Hueneme (between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles) for a five-week Navy training course. On February 14, he’ll head for Japan, where he will start his 24-month engineering duty officer qualification.

“My first tour is to the Ship Repair Facility in Yohosuka, and I’ll be managing ship contracts for maintenance or repairs to keep the 7th Fleet up and going,” he said. “It’s a lot different than flying, but it shows how much variety there is in the military.”

After that, who knows? It’s impossible to predict where you’ll end up in the military, Lt. Baynes said, adding, “I thought I was going to be in San Diego, and then I got surprise orders to Japan. I heard some other officer say that the only place where you know you are not going to be in five years is the place where you are now.”

Despite the uncertainty and constant geographical dislocation that comes with life in the armed forces, Lt. Baynes is in it for the long haul. “Yeah, I’m definitely a career guy,” he said. “As much as there are ups and downs in the military, the ups and the benefits weigh heavily for me.”

Perhaps because of his training, perhaps because it’s the way he’s always been, Lt. Baynes sounds like he has measured the future carefully. “I’ve got about 15 years to retirement, but might try to go 25 depending on my career and what billets I get,” he said. “In the military, when you are done making rank, you start to get staged out. I plan to be in as long as they let me stay in.”

On his way to the other side of the Pacific Ocean, what does his native Island on this side of the Atlantic look like? “It looks very far away,” Lt. Baynes said. “I enjoy coming back to the Vineyard to see my family and to see friends, but for right now in my life… I know how Island life works, and I’ll always be a Vineyarder. I know that if I came back tomorrow I could fit right in again, but I’m not ready for that… Maybe in 20 or 30.”

Not long after that he might be sharing stories about the U.S. Navy with grandchildren of his own.