Most community college students qualifying for national competition would be ecstatic to finish fifth in the United States.
Southwestern Michigan College’s Justin Desjardin, 26, of Dowagiac, is not most students.
After competing in criminal justice at the 51st annual SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference showcase of career and technical education June 22-26 in Louisville, the Afghanistan veteran is plotting a victorious 2016 return.
More than 16,000 people, including students, teachers and business partners, participate in the weeklong event, with criminal justice medalists from Georgia, North Carolina and Illinois.
“It was a good learning experience competing against all the states, and I’d never been to Louisville,” Desjardin said, “but I’m not happy with fifth. I’m going for first or I’m not happy. I competed against a 20-year retired police officer going for his master’s degree. I’m coming for him next year. I’m going to start training earlier, as soon as fall semester starts, and hit it every single week. Now that I know what to do, next year should be a whole different game.”
“I’ll be here a couple more years, going for my bachelor’s degree through Ferris (State University),” ultimately hoping to become a Dowagiac Police Department officer.
“That’s my end goal with school,” he said. “It evolved. I didn’t have a set plan when I came. I tried criminal justice and the club and it caught my interest. I’m also interested in opening a business after I get my degree.”
The two-year Chieftain wrestler was a member of Union High School’s Class of 2007 until dropping out, finishing his diploma in Cassopolis and joining the Marine Corps for five years.
Military valor distinguishes him from most students.
As a Marine lance corporal, Desjardin started 2011 “with a bang” due to an improvised explosive device (IED) to which he lost his left leg.
“Serving in the military was always a life goal for me,” he said. “When I dropped out, I was a dumb kid, getting in trouble doing dumb kid stuff. Then I cleaned up my act and joined the Marine Corps. Best choice I ever made. I planned on making that a career, but the injury cut my career short.
“I had never considered police work until coming here. Matt Behnke always mentioned it to me. (Criminal Justice Program Director Donald) Ricker talked me into joining Criminal Justice Club, which sparked my interest.”
As a club volunteer Justin worked with middle school students at Educational Talent Search’s CSI Academy.
CJ Club “is a good networking tool because I’ve met state troopers and county and Dowagiac officers,” said Desjardin, who attends summer classes four days a week.
In individual competition at nationals, “You get up at 7 a.m., line up, then sit in a room, walled off from everybody. You stay until your number is called. Only numbers, no names. You have to be in full uniform. They inspect your shoes, all the way up to your gear, which is right up my alley.
“They sit you down between three job interviewers and grade you on how you answer questions and make eye contact. Then you run through scenarios —calls for assistance, a store robbery, where you have to interview the clerk and witness and take notes for your report. For the traffic stop, you run the plates and (they evaluate) your approach to the vehicle. You decide whether to write them a ticket or give them a verbal or written warning.”
“They threw a trick at us with the suspicious person,” Desjardin said. “An uncooperative homeless guy at a bus stop ended up hiding a pistol, drugs and needles, to see how you handle the situation. You have to run the pistol’s serial number. Radio communication was a big part.”
One variable out of his control was waiting until afternoon for his number to be drawn randomly.
“I probably started my scenarios about 1,” Desjardin said. “It was a long wait and you can’t talk or use cell phones. You have to stay in your chair and need an escort to go to the bathroom. It took two hours to run through the scenarios.”
He’s undecided what type of ventures to pursue with his business management degree, but considered acquiring the Goerlich warehouse.
“I looked into that three-story factory building they’re tearing down. I almost bought that last summer for a brewery-type business,” Desjardin said.
He and his wife, Laura, have two daughters, Natalaya, 7, and Paityn, 5.
“Getting blown up was not a good way to end New Year’s Day,” he said. “I spent a year and a half in a wheelchair going through 24 surgeries. Now,” with a prosthesis where he lost his leg below the knee, “I can do basically everything I used to — just not as fast. I get around just fine.”
He had been in Afghanistan four months before the blast after training at Camp Pendleton, Calif., before deploying.
“It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience I wouldn’t trade for the world,” he said. “It’s a learning experience that brings you into a different culture and a different way of thinking. Criminal justice is the closest I can get as a civilian to what I did in the Marine Corps. We have the same mindset and ability to operate under pressure.”