Baumgardner, who has served in Bosnia, Iraq and most recently Afghanistan with the 108th Cavalry, a Calhoun-based National Guard unit, said he took the wrong path when he was in school.
But last week, when Baumgardner received the 7th annual GEDD Award, given to an adult learner whose has achieved success after earning a GED, Baumgardner’s message was simple. “Stay on track and stay on goal,” Baumgardner said during the award ceremony at Georgia Northwestern Technical College (GNTC).
“Back in high school, I went on the wrong track, but the military brought me back and made me what I am today,” Baumgardner said.
He attended high school and dropped out of high school at Calhoun and then Gordon Central. He participated in track and quit track. He made choices during those hectic teen years, most of them ill-advised and wrong. Then, he decided to attend Coosa Valley Technical College, now GNTC, and attain the GED certificate, a prerequisite to joining the 108th Calvary of the Georgia National Guard, his ultimate goal.
“And the military, saved my life,” he said. Baumgardner also credited several dedicated teachers, including Coleen Brooks, who taught him at Calhoun Middle School and later was his adult education teacher when he returned to school at Coosa Valley Tech to earn his GED.
“When I dropped out of school, Mrs. Coleen Brooks stepped in again and helped me get back on the right track,” Baumgardner said. “I want to make sure she knows how much she meant to me.”
“I first met Justin when I was teaching seventh grade at Calhoun Middle School. He had a cockiness about him, more so than most his age. He was also a very intelligent kid who was not living up to his potential, and at that time, didn’t care,” Brooks said earlier. “ After I left public school and went into Adult Education, he showed up at our door along with his mother, Mary. They both studied a short while, and went on to become part of the Class of ’92. It does my heart good to know that this young man took that cockiness and turned it into self-assuredness and used his intelligence in a positive way by becoming an outstanding soldier. I always knew that he had it in him.”
Baumgardner earned his GED in June of 1992 and enlisted in the National Guard in August of the same year. Now, 18 years and a Bronze Star later, Sgt. Baumgardner returned to the site of his life-changing experience to receive the school’s adult learning center’s ultimate post-graduate award, inclusion on the GED Wall of Honor and reception of the GEDD Award. GEDD is an acronym meaning: G, goals, E, excellence, D, determination, D (making a) difference.
As he accepted his award, Baumgardner made reference to the 13 members of the 108th that did not return from the unit’s deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I would take all of the awards that I have won and give them back if it could bring back the friends I lost in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said. “I got to come home to my family and friends — they did not.”
Lt. Jeff Miller, also with the 108th Cavalry, said Baumgardner did a great job in Afghanistan, first in the Operations Coordination Center, where he helped the unit work together with the Afghan Army and Afghan National Police.
“Later, when our mission changed, he served as a platoon leader with Charlie Co., from Dalton, maneuvering in enemy-held territory on a daily basis,” Miller said. Both assignments are usually held by commissioned officers.
Baumgardner is the seventh recipient of the award since it was originated in May 2004 by The Calhoun-Gordon Council for a Literate Community and what is now Georgia Northwestern Technical College’s adult learning department. First winner was Jeremy Carlson, who victim of a plant closing, attained his GED certificate and used it to enroll in the nursing program at Dalton State University. He now heads up emergency room operations at a Michigan hospital.
“Justin is one of our most deserving recipients of the award,” says Wayne Minshew, executive director of the literacy council. “He hasn’t just served his community, as the award demands; he has served his country. And, considering his unit, the 108th Calvary has just returned from Afghanistan, his induction is one of our most important and timely. This one carries an extra measurement of anticipation and excitement.”