Knollwood Students Get Vets’ Lesson in Leadership

Knollwood School students recently got a lesson in leadership, courtesy of a U.S. Air Force vet and former teacher.

Students in grades four through eight attended assemblies presented by an organization dubbed Lead U on Nov. 7.

Lead U was created in 2016 by Air Force veteran and former teacher JD Wilson to empower students to embrace their leadership potential. The assembly at Knollwood featured Wilson and fellow Air Force veteran Bill Gaskins as well as Lead U co-founder Dan Effenberger.

Held a few days in advance of the Veteran’s Day holiday, the presentation focused on qualities of leadership, respect for veterans, and the many sacrifices associated with deployment.

Wilson served with U.S. security forces in Iraq from 2006 to 2010.

Gaskins served with U.S. security forces from 1992 through 2013, and was deployed three times to five bases including one in Iraq. A dog training/handling specialist, he trained 624 dog teams during his career.

“Life in the military entails so more than what is shown in games and in popular culture,” said Gaskins. “The reality is that I left behind my two-year-old daughter and my wife, who is a kindergarten teacher.

“I missed out on doing a lot of things that dads are supposed to do.”

Gaskins told the students that he does not consider himself a hero.

“I truly wanted to do what I had to do, and that is because I wanted to keep all of you safe … I wanted to make sure that you would continue to have a good life.”

In a highly effective demonstration, two students at each assembly were selected by Gaskins and Wilson to “gear up” in the heavy protective items currently worn by U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The required gear can weigh up to 63 pounds, and the temperature in Iraq is often higher than 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Think about the soldiers who are out there right now, who are our friends — they are putting on this gear, and they are doing it for you,” Wilson said.

In another instructive exercise, the students “built” a successful leader by naming qualities they considered essential: hard-working, confident, determined, independent, loyal, helpful, kind, and mature.

Wilson told the assembled students that “every single one of you has the quality and characteristics inside of you to be a leader.

“I want you to think about one quality that makes you a leader, and I want you to embrace it. For example, you may think you of yourself as hardworking — but how do you show it?”

In conclusion, the students were presented with a follow-up challenge — writing letters to members of currently deployed U.S. troops using patriotic stationery and addresses provided to their teachers by Lead U.

“Especially as Veteran’s Day approaches, we need to remember and show respect for our leaders who are veterans,” said Wilson. “Whatever you can write and share will be very much appreciated, I can guarantee it.”

Lead U offers leadership camps for high school students, one-day workshops for middle and high school students, and assemblies for middle school students. For more information, visit or Lead_U_ on Instagram.

John Caroli
BCS Wealth Management