Lessons of Leadership: Old Boy Finds Career as Life-Saving Flight Paramedic

“St. John’s taught me that you need to be disciplined to do well in school. The military environment helped me to get back on track with my academics.”Justin Holton
SJMS Graduate

Justin Holton did not set out to live a life of selfless heroism, but as with so many true leaders, a commitment to serving others just came naturally. Today Holton works as a critical care flight paramedic and for Vanderbilt LifeFlight, a critical care air medical transport service in Nashville, Tennessee. It is a position that requires confidence under pressure, bravery in the face of adversity, and commitment to a higher cause—lessons that Holton was first exposed to during his time as a cadet at St. John’s Military School.

The Road to St. John’s Military School

Born in San Jose, California, Holton and his family moved to several cities, all before Holton entered high school.

“I was born in Southern California, then my family moved to Arizona, then Georgia, and then Colorado,” recalls Holton.

As a freshman, Holton enrolled in a large public high school in Greenwood Village, Colorado. Having experienced so many school transitions and academic interruptions, Holton struggled to engage in his academics fully.

“I had a difficult time transitioning into high school,” recalls Holton. “The school fostered an open environment and allowed led me to leave campus often and skip classes. I wasn’t doing well academically, especially because I was missing so much school, so my parents decided to withdraw my enrollment halfway through my freshman year.”

Realizing that Holton would benefit from an environment with more structure and oversight, his parents spent the next several months searching for an alternative education program that would help Holton recommit to his education.

“I had no idea my parents were looking at a military school,” Holton says with a smile in his voice. “Just that they were looking for something more structured, and St. John’s is definitely more structured.”

Holton arrived at St. John’s to continue his education during the second semester of his freshman year.

“I remember, vividly, being excited when I first arrived,” recalls Holton. “When my parents left, and new boy training officially began, I was anxious.”

For Holton, adapting to a life of discipline was not a challenge. Instead, the struggles he faced surrounded his need to catch up to his peers academically. Fortunately, the structure of military school helped Holton remain focused and provided him with the distraction-free environment he needed to be successful.

“St. John’s taught me that you need to be disciplined to do well in school. The military environment helped me to get back on track with my academics after being out of the classroom for six months, and unengaged in school for even longer. Fortunately, military life came easily to me, and everything quickly started to improve. I had always played sports, and being in a place that encouraged good health and physical activity was something else I enjoyed.”

For Holton, it was not long before his hard work and commitment were validated.

“After the first four weeks, at the end of training, all the new boys take a written and verbal test,” recalls Holton. “If you get 100 percent on the test, you advance past the rank of private and earn the ranking of private first class. I was one of two new boys in my class to earn 100 percent on the test. That was a big win for me. After having such a difficult time transitioning to high school when I got my test results, I felt like I had hit it out of the park.”

The Influence of Leaders

Not only did Holton benefit from a structured learning environment, but he was also inspired to succeed by the influence of the school’s faculty and staff. Today, Holton recalls the positive impact of one leader in particular.

“The first person I met on campus was First Sergeant Tidmore,” said Holton. “He was in charge of the New Boys when I enrolled. He was tough on me, but fair, and he was always encouraging.”

Continued Academic Success

To Holton’s disappointment, he transitioned to a private academy in Colorado to complete his junior and senior years of high school.

“My parents chose to enroll me in a private academy back in Colorado,” says Holton. “It was extremely different from the disciplined environment at St. John’s. The school operated on a weekly point system. If you earned a required level of points by doing well in your classes each week and completed all of your work by Thursday, you could earn the right to have Friday off. After learning how to be disciplined and focus on my academics at St. John’s, I reached the point goal every week and enjoyed a four-day week for a year and a half. After being at St. John’s my academics just came easily to me. In fact, I even graduated a semester early.”

The Road to a Career in Emergency Medicine

After graduating high school, Holton worked in the restaurant industry, working his way up from a position as a host and a server to a manager.”

“By late 2001, I realized I hated it,” laughs Holton. “I had just turned 21, and I just knew I didn’t want to work in the restaurant industry anymore. I friend of mine had just enrolled in an EMT course and asked if I wanted to take it with him. It was not an option I had ever thought about before, yet, 16 years later, here I am.”

When Holton began his paramedic training, something about the course material, the need for disciplined hard work, and the opportunity to help others clicked for him in a way his previous work never had.

“Medicine just made sense to me,” says Holton. “It was like a puzzle that I was able to put together, and so I embraced it. As an EMT, there is a bit of a military feel to the work. It reminded me of being back at St. John’s. In fact, the very first basic first aid training I ever received was in Maj. Stelljes’ class my sophomore year.”

Holton became an EMT in May of 2002, and a paramedic in January 2009. He has worked in the Critical Care Emergency Medical Transport Program at Vanderbilt LifeFlight since July of 2014.

Lessons of Leadership

When asked if his experiences at St. John’s have impacted the success he has had as an EMT, Holton answers quickly.

“Absolutely. St. John’s taught me how to think critically, and how to prioritize challenges, breaking them down and working through problems from start to finish.”

Today, a husband and a parent of a six-year-old and a nine-year-old, Holton has some advice for parents considering a military school education for their children.

“I would say, if you can, send your son to St. John’s. As an adult, my biggest personal regret is not being able to finish my junior and senior year at St. John’s.” Holton has advice for future new boys as well.

“It’s okay to be nervous but be excited too. St. John’s teaches you how to be a young man. There were tough times at St. John’s but at the end of the day, no matter your background, or what challenges you faced before enrolling, St. John’s brings everyone up to the same level. They built me back up, and I can’t thank them enough. They saved my life.”

To the faculty and staff at St. John’s who helped Holton attain his current level of success he has a simple, heartfelt message.

“Thank you. Thank for your helping me to become the man I am today.”