REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. (May 8, 2023) – Col. Justin Highley applied to West Point on a dare.
Spurred on by classmates who had watched a television special about the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Highley, with that typical teenage swagger, told them that he could get accepted. Then he actually was.
“I had no intention of going to West Point, I just wanted to prove that I could get in,” said Highley, commander of the Technology Development Directorate-Aviation operations at the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command Aviation & Missile Center’s Fort Eustis, Virginia, location. Highley is also currently serving as the Center’s acting military deputy.
Fortunately, several teachers and mentors convinced him that West Point was an opportunity that he could not pass up, so he went to the Academy and graduated in 1995 as an Army aviation officer. After multiple assignments and flight training in the OH-58 Kiowa, AH-64 Apache and the C-12 King Air, he eventually found himself back at West Point as an instructor in the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering. But even after nearly a decade in service, he did not see the Army as a long-term career. When his wife Missy experienced some health issues, Highley, who has a master’s degree in aerospace engineering and a professional engineer license, made the decision “to get off the deployment merry-go-round” and become an engineer in the civilian sector.
Then the Acquisition Corps became an opportunity – with the help of the West Point Dean who recognized that the Army was about to lose a talented Soldier – and Highley found the perfect fit for him. What has resulted is a decorated, 28-year Army career that has “given me much more than I could ever give back,” he said.
Highley said that what he loves about his current commander role, on which he stands firm is “the greatest job in the Army,” is that it combines a passion for engineering that he found teaching at West Point, with his operational experience in aviation. But he is most proud of working for an organization that provides technologies and systems that keep Army pilots safe.
“Our job is to develop, demonstrate and deliver capabilities that make our aviators safer and more effective. We do everything from developing advanced composites for aircraft fuselages to flight testing new missiles on an Apache – we’re a pretty diverse organization. And regardless of where you sit in our team, everyone plays a role in that.”
The Army recognizes that impact - which is evidenced by the number of senior Army leaders regularly visiting the Fort Eustis operation.
“We do a lot of VIP tours,” Highley quipped.
Looking back over his career in the Army, Highley sees that there were turning points when he could have left the service, but another door always opened.
“It’s three things: a gracious God, an awesome wife, and great mentors and teammates,” he said. “My wife and I met when I was 14 and have been together ever since – we got married after I graduated from West Point. She keeps me in check. When I got selected for promotion to colonel, she promoted herself to general. She even had a cake made that said, ‘Congratulations General Missy.’”
As a great leader does, Highley prefers to point to the successes of those within his organization rather than his own accomplishments.
“I have a great team with exceptional leaders. One of my lieutenant colonels was recently selected for promotion to colonel and will take over a colonel PM (program management) job next month,” Highley shared. “Another one of our lieutenant colonels is also leaving to take over a high visibility PM job. A few weeks ago, I got to promote Maj. Wes Ogden to lieutenant colonel. He was actually in the first class I ever taught at West Point and last summer he became the first Army aviator to ever fly an electric aircraft.
“I also have a rock star civilian leader that last year I promoted from a branch chief to division chief, and now she’s moving up to be my deputy. These are just a few examples of the great leaders and teammates I get to serve with. They do great work for our Army – I’m incredibly blessed to be part of this organization.”
When mentoring – from the newest employee to his leadership staff, Highley stresses that there are multiple paths to success.
“I'm proof that there are non-standard approaches (to success) and that you can deviate from the Army's checklist. Don’t just follow the proven path – do what’s right for you and your family and oftentimes the Army stuff will work out. I am definitely an example of that. You can still be successful, absolutely.
“Of course, being part of a great team helps.”
The DEVCOM Aviation & Missile Center, headquartered at Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, is the Army’s research and development focal point for advanced technology in aviation and missile systems. It is part of the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM), a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Futures Command. AvMC is responsible for delivering collaborative and innovative aviation and missile capabilities for responsive and cost-effective research, development and life cycle engineering solutions, as required by the Army’s strategic priorities and support to its Cross-Functional Teams.