Achieving Excellence: Battalion Commander Justin Gilbert

Don and Susan Gilbert wanted something better for their son, Justin. Like so many parents, they wanted to give him every opportunity to excel academically, personally, and socially. They wanted him to learn to lead, and to learn the values of hard work, team work, and personal accountability. While the hardest part of giving their 11-year old son these gifts, was saying goodbye to him on the steps of St. John’s Military School, today they look on that decision with confidence, and they look at their son with pride.

Justin Gilbert grew up with his parents in Las Vegas, Nevada. According to his mother, Susan, she and her husband were concerned that the Las Vegas school system would not provide Justin with the high-quality education they wanted for him.

“Justin had always been a good child,” remembers Susan. “As he got older we thought about the school system in Las Vegas, and we just weren’t satisfied with the idea of Justin continuing in that environment.”

Knowing that the Gilbert’s wanted to give Justin the best possible junior and high school education that would most prepare him for college, a family friend of the Gilbert’s, who is a parent of a former St. John’s cadet, recommended that Don and Susan consider St. John’s Military School.

Prepared to give their son every opportunity for success, Don and Susan drove their son 17 hours from Las Vegas to Salina, Kansas to visit the campus.

“We toured the school and just fell in love with it,” said Susan. “We asked Justin if attending St. John’s was what he wanted too, and he said yes.”

The hardest part came the day the Gilbert’s moved Justin to St. John’s to begin sixth grade.

“I was happy because I knew the journey was going to be good for him, and that the school would be good for him, but leaving him was the most difficult day of my life,” said Susan. “After we drove away I called the school immediately to ask how he was doing. I called the school three times that first night.”

For Susan and Don, the transparency and level of communication that St. John’s provided was a comfort during the first six weeks. During this period of “New Boy” orientation, new cadets are only allowed to communicate with their families by letter, a process designed to enable the cadets to adjust to their new routines and bond with one another. Understanding that parents want and need to know how their sons are progressing, the St. John’s administrative staff provide continual updates to parents not just during new boy orientation, but throughout the cadets’ careers.

“Whenever we’ve had a question, they’ve been right there,” Susan added with gratitude.

For Justin, the separation from his parents was equally unsettling.

“I was pretty nervous,” Justin remembers. “It was hard not being in contact with them, and not being able to talk to them on the phone. Letters just aren’t the same, but after the first few weeks it got easier.”

Justin immediately realized that the best way to succeed at St. John’s would be to follow the direction of his leaders and take advantage of the opportunities the school afforded. For Justin, a young man who had always done well academically and socially, life at St. John’s Military School gave him an opportunity to take his natural inclination toward leadership and use it to better himself, his fellow cadets, and the school itself.

As Justin progressed through school at St. John’s, he continued to prove he had the skills needed to lead. With each year, his achievements earned him higher ranking cadet positions. With each step, Justin was given more responsibilities and more opportunities to mentor others, and develop his own personal style of leadership.

By the time Justin entered his senior year, he had held every position at the company level to include company commander. His time leading a company would prove invaluable as he sought to add battalion commander to his St. John’s resume. For this position, however, he would need to apply and be interviewed by some of the highest levels of administration at St. John’s.

“The interview consisted of situational questions,” said Justin. “I was asked how I would respond if someone violated our cadet code of conduct, and I was asked what I’d change to make the school a better place.”

Proving to the leadership at St. John’s that he had the discipline and vision to hold the highest-ranking cadet leadership position on campus, Justin was awarded the title of battalion commander. It is an achievement he never would have experienced had he remained in the Las Vegas school system, and it has been an opportunity that has given him the type of real-world leadership experience that is too often lacking in the lives of young people before they enter college and the workplace.

“It’s hard being battalion commander,” Justin states with sincerity. “You have to get your own work done, and ensure that others do their jobs too. As the most senior level member of the corps, it’s my job to ensure my fellow cadets are following the rules.”

Such lessons in personal and team accountability, are exactly what St. John’s hopes its cadets learn during their enrollment. It’s what Don and Susan hoped for their son too, and they are filled with pride to see the level of success he has achieved.

“We wanted Justin to get the best possible education that he could get, and that’s exactly what they’ve given him at St. John’s,” Susan said. “He’s grown within himself. He’s so mature. He’s able to figure things out. I’m so impressed with what he’s accomplished and all the experiences he’s had. Being away from home he’s had to learn to handle things on his own. He’s become a good leader and a good friend to a lot of cadets. We’re just so proud of him.”

When asked what lessons in leadership St. John’s has taught him, Justin doesn’t hesitate before answering.

“Before I make any decisions, I ask my fellow leaders for their opinions. We discuss things as a team, rather than me deciding on my own what’s best, so I’d say the importance of listening first is the most important leadership lesson I’ve learned. Before St. John’s, I was the type of person who would make decisions based on what I wanted to do, rather than what others thought was right. Not anymore. I want to do what’s best for everyone.”

Possibly Justin’s most impressive personal achievement while at St. John’s has been his commitment to his personal health and wellbeing.

“Since I’ve been at St. John’s I’ve made a life change,” said Justin with pride in his voice. “I’ve lost 107 pounds. Today, fitness and wellness is extremely important to me. It’s become my passion, and it’s something I want to share with others.”

Building on his entrepreneurial leadership skills, Justin is already working toward his goal of establishing and managing his own gym and personal fitness center once he’s completed college.

“I’m in charge of the weight lifting program at St. John’s,” said Justin. “And I and a fellow cadet have started our own YouTube channel. It’s called Gibby&Bop. We post fitness videos and challenges, and other content that we hope will inspire people to take responsibility for their health wellness.”

As he’s about to reach the end of his career at St. John’s, a path to future achievements laid out before him, Justin is grateful to his parents for the opportunity to attend St. John’s, and hopes to inspire future cadets to achieve their own goals while at the school. Reflecting back on his own first days at St. John’s, he hopes future new boys understand the value and importance of those first few challenging weeks away from home.

“What I’d like to tell future cadets is to be patient in the beginning,” said Justin. “They need to understand that it is going to be hard at first, but if you’re patient, and you do what’s asked of you, and you don’t fight the system, everything will work out. The point of New Boy orientation is to build you up for success. If you’re patient, you’ll see everything gets better.”

For Don and Susan, their hope is that more parents make the selfless decision to provide their sons with an education at St. John’s. When asked what advice she would give to other parents considering enrollment at St. John’s, Susan is resolute,

“I’d tell them they have to do it. St. John’s has provided the best education and the best life lessons we could have ever given to Justin. I wish I could tell every parent, especially if their son isn’t doing well academically in his current school that they have to be willing to let him go. Other parents have asked us how we could send our son away, and I always respond by saying, ‘how could I not do it?’ It’s never been easy to say goodbye, but we look at Justin’s achievements, and just think that we’ve never been so proud.”