Aiken High School's Naval Junior ROTC cadets never met John Kalsbeek, yet they were clearly moved at the Veterans Day observance on Friday, which included a tribute to the young man.
Kalsbeek, 23, a 2012 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, died unexpectedly on Oct. 27 at the age of 23. He graduated from Aiken High in 2008, having served as the ROTC unit's commanding officer.
Attending the event were his wife, Amie; his parents, Paul and Julita; and his brother, Abe.
Dozens of veterans participated in the program and were recognized formally with the “Armed Forces Salute,” presented by the Aiken High band. They, too, were saddened by the loss of a military man who was appreciated and admired at many levels during his life.
Tony Negron, the NJROTC unit's commander, arrived at Aiken High in 2005, and “John was certainly at the top of the list of the COs,” he said. “He had a magnetic personality, and he led by the example of who he was. People would follow him, wanting to do whatever he asked them.”
In a 2008 interview during his senior year at the high school, Kalsbeek talked about the opportunity to appreciate the different cultures of his parents – one American, the other Filipino. When they moved to Aiken four years earlier, he initially found it difficult to make new friends.
That changed when he joined ROTC as a freshman, where he met another first-year cadet, Peter Quinn.
They became inseparable friends, and on Friday, Quinn described how he got Kalsbeek interested in athletics and, in turn, Kalsbeek helped him with academics.
Kalsbeek's father had been surprised when John joined ROTC and how he had succeeded.
“It was just wonderful how the other students reacted to him,” Paul said. “His teachers, too, shocked me by how much they liked him. He was just an easy kid to raise.”
By the end of his sophomore year, Kalsbeek had been influenced by the older ROTC officers and by Negron.
“He wanted me to be a platoon leader and threw me into a leadership role, sink or swim,” Kalsbeek said at the time. “Then I started thinking about the Naval Academy and went to the Summer Seminar there. It was the best experience of my life.”
Linda Strojan, Aiken High's senior guidance counselor, worked with Kalsbeek on the arduous application requirements. He got other support, as well, from Negron and his teachers, but it took a lot of effort on his part. He would do what it took to accomplish a goal.
“The day we heard that he had gotten the appointment, it was an exciting day for me and his family,” Strojan said. “It brings tears to my eyes thinking about it.”
Kalsbeek knew the academy's demands would be rough, but he was already prepared for that, his father said. The years there were very good for him, and, “He took a lot of pride in that,” Paul said.
At the Veterans Day program, Adam DePriest performed the touching “Oh, Danny Boy,” in Kalsbeek's honor. DePriest, too, knew him well, serving as the ROTC unit's commanding officer a year earlier. He was impressed with how Kalsbeek committed himself to such high standards.
After graduating from the Naval Academy with a degree in ocean engineering, Kalsbeek was commissioned into the Navy as a Surface Warfare Officer, serving as the Gunnery Officer onboard the USS Milius, home-ported in San Diego.
In high school, Quinn and Kalsbeek considered themselves kindred souls. Quinn enlisted in the Navy and was delighted to be in San Diego at the same time in the past year. Kalsbeek quickly challenged his friend to a trail run, but then, he liked to challenge Quinn and himself.
“He was always giving me goals to look forward to,” Quinn said.
Negron said he also was pleased with the good work from his cadets in preparing the Veterans Day program, among them Commanding Officer Kyle Burney and Executive Officer Joshua Strickland. Another cadet, Katie Swearingen, sang the national anthem.
The guest speaker was Sgt. 1st Class Keith Bucklin, an Army recruiter in Aiken. He served three tours in Iraq as a sniper team leader and then a sniper section leader. He earned more than a dozen awards.
Senior writer Rob Novit is the Aiken Standard's education reporter and has been with the newspaper since September 2001. He is a native of Walterboro and majored in journalism at the University of Georgia.
STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT At the Aiken High School Veterans Day observance on Friday, Adam DePriest performs “Oh, Danny Boy,” in tribute to John Kalsbeek, his longtime friend who died unexpectedly last week at age 23. DePriest served as the high school’s Naval Junior ROTC unit’s commanding officer in 2006-07, and Kalsbeek followed in that role the next year.×
STAFF PHOTO BY ROB NOVIT At the Aiken High School Veterans Day program, the family of the late Ensign John Kalsbeek watch solemnly at the table with a single candle, a red rose, a red ribbon and more – symbols that commemorate a comrade who will not return. Kalsbeek, who died on Sunday, Oct. 27, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2012. Pictured, from left, are Peter Quinn, a close friend; John's brother, Abe; John's parents, Paul and Julita; and his wife, Amie.×