By 69th Public Affairs DetachmentFebruary 10, 2009
It's the year 1976 and a 13-year-old boy walks down a dark alley on his way to visit his best friend after a long day at school. As he's walking, he hears a trash can lid fall and hit the ground. He clenches his fists and turns to face his opponent, just to find out it was a local-stray dog searching for a meal. Relieved, the young man turns around and continues on his journey, for he knows his neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, is full of gangs and fights are common.
Sergeant Gilbert Baptist of Troop B, 1st Squadron, 18th Cavalry, based in Escondido, Calif., lived such a life. As a California Army National Guardsmen his life is now on track, but it wasn't always that way.
As a kid, what started out as a need for self-defense turned into a passion for boxing. At the age of nine, he received his first pair of boxing gloves from his mother for Christmas.
"I was always interested in boxing," said Baptist. "That gift is what got me on my way."
His daily routine growing up was a quick prayer in the morning followed by a run, school, homework, and finally going to the local gym or YMCA to train. Although street fights were common, they were mainly for defense or for gaining respect.
"Back in my day, we didn't do all this gun stuff like now a' days," said Baptist, "we used our fists. When you got into a fight and lost, you did one of two things; you stayed away from each other out of respect or you became good friends."
Although Baptist's mother was the pastor at the local Baptist church; problems always had ways of finding him. In fact, street life got him in so much trouble that he was given the choice of joining the Military or going to jail.
"It wasn't that hard of a choice to make," joked Baptist. "I chose the military of course." Upon arriving at Camp Pendleton, Calif., for Marine Corps boot camp, he stumbled upon the Marine's boxing team. He tried out and made the team with ease, thus getting him stationed in Okinawa, Japan. Throughout that time he boxed opponents from other services and civilians alike, becoming a well known Marine Corps boxer.
"I traveled all over the world with the Corps," recalled Baptist. "I've boxed in Poland, Germany, Italy, France and all over the United States just to name a couple of places."
Once his service was completed in the Marine Corps, he stayed in the ring and boxed in the amateur circuit, quickly advancing into the professional ranks where he gained the alias 'Gilbert Sweet Sensation Baptist.' During his career as a professional fighter he won 28 matches with 12 knockouts and lost 17 matches, being knocked out twice. He once went twelve rounds with famous boxer Bernard Hopkins in a title fight.
"It's not how many times you get knocked down, it's how many times you get back up," proudly stated Baptist.
However, misfortune found him as his career abruptly ended when his boxing manager chose drugs over him. This knockout blow left him homeless for two days until an old friend found him and helped him back on his feet.
"My friend gave me some money and a place to sleep for a little while," said Baptist, wincing at the memory. "When he wasn't looking his wife slipped me an additional twenty bucks."
He got back on his feet to continue the fight of life. Eventually he moved to California and tried to find a steady job there. He looked everywhere and continuously slipped in and out of employment. Then one night while watching TV, he saw a commercial for the Department of Corrections.
"I knew this was my last chance and had to go for it," remembered Baptist. Baptist was told by a friend to talk to the department chief for an interview and finally caught the break he needed. He was hired.
"I had to start from the bottom and work my way up," said Baptist. "I got my work ethic from boxing and used it to my advantage."
He started working with troubled teens, trying to get them on the right track. "I get torn apart by watching a kid go down the wrong path," said an emotional Baptist. He would spend one-on-one time with them helping them get over their issues by using the lessons he learned growing up and those learned throughout his life.
"[Baptist] tries to guide you the right way," said Specialist Pedro Cortes, a fellow squad member. "He gives you advice on how to progress yourself, making you a better person."
He would reward the locked up teens for their progress by giving them extra food, more time in the common area or by extending lights out by a couple of minutes.
"The kids loved me. I would never do them wrong," stated Baptist. "But I also never spared them punishment when they deserved it."
Even though he was doing what he loved to do, Baptist remained patriotic. After the events of September 11, Baptist felt the 'Call to Duty' and enlisted in the California Army National Guard three days later. After being out of the military for more than 17 years, he joined a Southern California unit as a mortar man. Since joining the National Guard he has lent a hand to citizens recovering from Hurricane Katrina and has helped secure the California-Mexico border.
Now he prepares at Camp Atterbury, Ind., for his very first deployment in support of Kosovo Force 11, a peacekeeping mission to Kosovo. He hopes to continue to mentor the younger troops and sometime during the deployment, wants to buy a computer so the troops that he teaches can give him a lesson on how to use it.
"I'm very proud to have him as part of my team," said First Sergeant Douglas Woellhof, Troop Bravo, 1-18th Cav., the top non-commissioned officer in charge of Troop B.
Baptist is no stranger to being knocked down in life. However, he always gets back up and continues on, teaching and caring along the way.