Growing up in San Benito County as the oldest of six siblings, playing three sports in school, and excelling in the Boy Scouts, 22-year-old Matthew Gastello thought of himself as a natural leader. The U.S. Army agreed when it promoted him to second lieutenant after he graduated from the United States Military Academy West Point in 2020.
Gastello came home to Hollister during Christmas to be with family and met with his fellow academy classmate Zane Rojas, grandson of this reporter, who was also visiting family, before they both returned to Georgia for training to become Army Airborne Rangers.
Gastello shared his story of coming from a small town and how he learned of the existence of military academies in his junior year of high school as he searched for college choices.
Gastello moved to Hollister when he was three. His mother, Kathleen Gastello, whose maiden name is Nino, is from a family with a large presence in San Benito County. She and eight siblings share ownership of a cattle ranch in south county, where Matthew learned to ride, rope and brand cattle. He said his father Felix Gastello was born and raised in Hollister and that his mother’s family came from Los Gatos. Felix is an electrician who works in San Jose, and Kathleen works at Nino Real Estate in Hollister.
Gastello grew up in the county and attended Sacred Heart Parish School through eighth grade, and then Palma High School, a college prep school in Salinas. He described growing up in Hollister as a great experience, especially being part of a large family.
“I have a lot of siblings and cousins relatively near my age,” he said. “I played a lot of little league for the Yankees for four years.” He was also in Boy Scout Troop 436, where he reached the pinnacle of Eagle Scout.
At Palma High School, he ran cross country and played on the school’s soccer and lacrosse teams.
“I stopped playing baseball in high school and lacrosse was becoming a big thing, so I gave that a shot and I really enjoyed it,” he said.
Gastello graduated in 2016, but he had been looking at colleges since his junior year. Early on, West Point was not even on his radar.
“It wasn’t until my college counselor made an off-handed comment about considering the military and asked if I had ever heard of the academies,” he said. “I had never heard of them.”
He said the military academies offer summer camps, or Summer Leadership Experience (SLE), after junior year of high school. He decided to go and see what it was about.
“SLE was a week-long immersion in the military lifestyle to give you a taste of what cadet life would be like,” he said. “We stayed at the barracks at West Point and cadets who were juniors showed us around to practice military skills and classroom applications to see if this was something we’d be willing to do.”
He said he was still in the application phase of the process and had not been accepted yet. He also attended SLE at the Annapolis Naval Academy in Maryland.
“I was torn between Annapolis and West Point,” he said. “I loved Annapolis. It’s a beautiful campus. The cultures are different, but I decided the Army was probably a better fit. I think I would have enjoyed the Navy if I had gone that way. I don’t think one is necessarily better than the other, but I was won over by the Army.”
He said part of the attraction to the Army was the emphasis on “people first” because it doesn’t have “expensive toys” like ships and the emphasis is on the infantry and the soldiers rather than technology.
“I really liked that aspect, it’s about the men and women that are serving,” he said.
For any student thinking of one day applying to a military academy, Gastello said they should keep in mind they will need to present a “whole-person package” to be considered a candidate.
“You should be well-rounded in your academics,” he said. “I was lucky to go to Palma, which is a good college-prep school, but anyone attending a public school can make it in an academy. It also takes being well-rounded outside of school. They really look at the extra-curricular activities. They told me they liked the fact that I was a three-sport athlete rather than focusing on one sport, and that I was an Eagle Scout.”
He said the academies look for leadership skills, whether as a team captain in sports, scouts or any other activity. He said at West Point, leadership experience and potential leaders are paramount considerations.
“The fact that I’m the oldest of six kids is something I leaned on because it forced me to be somewhat of a leader in my own home,” Gastello said. “It was something I thought was unique about myself and I was able to use that in my application.”
The application process can be lengthy, Gastello said, and students must be nominated by their Congressional representative. In his case, former congressman Sam Farr nominated him and three others in his district. He said because he only learned about the academies late in his search, his application was rushed over a period of several weeks and he was lucky to receive his appointment. He said it’s better to start during sophomore year.
“At the academy you’re not just judged by your grades,” he said. “There’s academics, the military or professional development, and physical. If they accept you, they want you to be able to succeed in all three.”
He said he was not aware of any San Benito High School student ever being nominated, but hopes after learning about his experience students might consider applying to one of the academies, which he said are estimated to be valued at $400,000 if students had to pay for it themselves. After graduating, the newly minted second lieutenants serve a minimum of five years of active duty.
“One of the true privileges of this job is the opportunity to select local students to attend our nation’s military service academies. However, that also can be a tough part of the job as it is difficult to choose from so many talented and diverse individuals from our many local high schools who apply to attend those academies,” said Congressman Jimmy Panetta. “I’m so honored that the young men and women that I select come from all over my district, have such different backgrounds, and are so dedicated to giving back to the United States of America. It’s one of the many reasons why I am so proud to be from and represent the Central Coast knowing that there are so many smart, strong, and service oriented students, and gives me great hope in the future of our community and country.”
After visiting with family over the Christmas holiday, Gastello returned to Airborne Ranger training in Georgia, and then on to his first duty station at Fort Lewis-McChord, Washington, to serve as a Stryker platoon leader. He said if he decides not to stay in the Army, he will be around 27 years old and will transition back into civilian life by going to law school.
“That’s something I’m passionate about and I think West Point has prepared me for that,” he said.
Beyond a fully paid for college education, there are a number of reasons for high school students to consider attending a military academy. These academies have a long history of training future leaders not only for military careers, but leaders in industry and government. All four academies have similar missions. The Air Force Academy’s stated mission is to educate, train and inspire men and women to become leaders of character, motivated to lead in serving the nation.
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