Sometimes it takes a lot of internal reflection and a true examination of one’s self over a number of years to realize how important some of your accomplishments are and what some things truly meant to you.
A perfect example of this is John Billingsley, who attended the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., from 1973 to 1975 with the intention of becoming an officer in military one day.
“It was very arduous. A friend of mine has said that, ‘After West Point, everything else is easy,’” John said. “They just give you more than you can possibly get done, but you have to get it done. You are subjected to unremitting stress.
“Every day, there was somebody beating the (spit) out of you in some form or fashion — physically or mentally or both. It was very challenging, but I did very well there.”
John said in his first year, he was at the top of his class, and he was top in English his second year. He even made the Commandants list for military excellence, which is reserved for the top 10 percent of the class for military aptitude and leadership.
One accomplishment he is most proud of from his days at West Point is a report he did on the B-1A military bomber program. His report would later be modified and implemented by the military and was later republished as part of the U.S. Department of Defense Strategic Bomber Study.
In April of 1975, then Air Force Secretary John Lucas presented the study to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
John said he didn’t know about any of this until decades later because, in 1975, his time at West Point took an unexpected twist.
“I was doing really well, and then I got hurt,” John said. “I got hurt, and then I got hurt again. Once you’re injured, it’s tough to keep up. My second year, I worked really hard to get back on the active list. I volunteered for jump school and ranger school.”
Academically, John was still doing very well at West Point but his injuries were limiting him physically. In spite of his best efforts to overcome them, he could sense the metaphorical writing on the wall at West Point.
“One day I was summoned to this hearing,” John said. “There was a panel of three officers and they had my records and everything and they asked me a bunch of questions. Finally, one them says, ‘Well Mr. Billingsley, it appears there’s not much you are going to be able to do for us.’”
John said the committee told him they wanted to send him, while still injured, to Northern Warfare School in Fort Wainwright, Ala. Rather than going to Alaska, John chose a different path.
“So I saluted, about faced and left the room and resigned my appointment to the military,” John said.
Leaving the military was not an easy decision for John. He has long had a love of military history and he’d come from a long line of servicemen.
“There was a family tradition of military service in our family,” John said.” My father (served). Both of my grandfathers had been in World War I. When I was a little kid, my dad was a captain, my uncles were combat veterans of World War II. My great-great grandfathers were in the Civil War.
“I had an ancestor that was in the Revolutionary War. It was something (we did) in our family. I don’t think there were any career military servers, but everybody showed up and did something.”
Although his tenure was brief, John did his part in keeping up the family tradition and he also had another option. When he was in high school, John said he took a career aptitude test and it listed two professions he would be perfect at: military officer and attorney.
Upon leaving West Point, he transferred to the University of Colorado and majored in English with a minor in mathematics. After graduating, he worked as a seasonal surveyor and part-time forest firefighter for the U.S. Forest Service.
While doing that job, opportunity struck in the form of a letter from the U.S. Veterans Administration requesting his presence in Indianapolis.
“That’s when this guy told me I qualify for these benefits,” John said. “He said, ‘Have you ever thought about going back to graduate school?’ And I realized I had to think really fast and I said, ‘Uh, yeah.’” He said, ‘What in? and I said, ‘Law school. I’ve always wanted to go to law school.’”
John was told that if he got himself into law school, the VA would pay for it. He applied to several schools and eventually settled on Drake’s law school. Although John was born in Iowa, he spent most of his life moving around the county, and this was a chance to get an education and get reacquainted with his family in Iowa, particularly his grandfather who lived in Newton.
While attending Drake, John did his internship at several legal offices in Newton including the Jasper County Attorney’s Office.
“I started coming out to Newton, and I would visit granddad at the end of the day and work at the county attorney’s office or work for legal aid,” John said. “One of the old lawyers in town one day says, ‘Come and see me when you get out of school.’
“I ended up doing that and I’ve been at the same law firm ever since.”
John went on to become a successful attorney, and is now a partner at the firm of Walker, Billingsley & Bair. He has also previously served as county attorney and assistant county attorney.
For a long time, John didn’t realize the impact that West Point made on his life since he never became a commissioned military officer. Although he didn’t graduate with the class of 1977, when his classes’ 35th reunion occurred, he saw how much impact his time there truly had on him.
“I’m thankful I was given the opportunity. I’m thankful for the generosity of my country that afforded me the chance, that gave me the training and gave me re-training — after I got hurt,” John said. “I tried to always be a good citizen in that regard, to make the investment in me worth it.”