One man reflects on his US military experience and the lessons learned in honor of Veterans Day.
Many Americans live every day to its fullest. From dealing with various issues, spending time with family to enjoying laughter and fun moments, it is easy for Americans to get caught up in their own lives, forgetting the reason why they are able to engage in The American Dream.
Veterans Day serves as a reminder of how soldiers in the United States military impact the lives of citizens. For retired Col. Wilton Jackson, Veterans Day is not just a holiday of remembrance, it allows him to reflect on his contribution to his country, appreciate the lessons he learned and encourage young soldiers who are dealing with the life of being a soldier in the military. It also allows him to think back on why he first joined the military: to jump out of airplanes.
Born in McComb, Mississippi but growing up in New Orleans, Louisiana, Jackson devoted 29 years of service to the United States Army. He said Veterans Day is a very special day for him.
“It is not just a time where I reflect on service members who paved the way for me to serve as a soldier and officer in the US military,” Jackson said. “This is one time during the year that people like myself get a little thanks for what we do in protecting America.”
After graduating from McComb High School in 1977, Jackson attended Jackson State University to earn a degree in accounting. Jackson said, however, he knew that he wanted to serve in the US Army.
“I was getting my degree in accounting but the Reserved Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) Department was recruiting people for the program. There was a commercial called ‘Be all you can Be’ with a guy jumping out of an airplane and I wanted to jump,” Jackson said. “I told the recruiter if I could jump out of airplanes, I would join ROTC.”
Indeed, Jackson made the jump of his life, graduating from Jackson State University in May 1982 to joining the US Army in August 1982. Jackson said he can remember how different life was as a young second lieutenant in the military.
His first assignment was in Berlin, Germany where he said the majority of the officers did not share his life experience or views on the world.
“It was so different from the friendly confines of JSU. ROTC prepared me for being and officer tactically but not for being an African American officer in a white field predominately,” Jackson said. “I learned quickly that as an officer, you are in charge. Whatever happens or fails to happen in your respective unit of soldiers, it is your responsibility.”
Jackson, now 56, also said the value of leadership was instilled in him early on in his military career.
“If your unit did well, the unit got the credit. If things went wrong or did not go well, it was your personal leadership on the line,” Jackson stated. “You are only as good as your soldiers and you must always take care of them no matter what.”
Jackson’s military experience spans nearly 30 years. Jackson entered the military as a second lieutenant, moving up to first lieutenant, captain, major, lieutenant colonel and retiring as colonel.
Jackson said at each rank he learned how to manage and handle different roles.
“As an infantry officer and lieutenant, I served as a platoon leader,” Jackson said. “As a captain, I served as a company commander along with other staff positions. When I reached the rank of major, I served strictly as a staff officer and battalion executive officer. At the lieutenant colonel and colonel ranks, I commanded a battalion and brigade.”
Jackson understood very well that with promotion, came responsibility. During his 29 years of service, he toured Germany, Korea, Italy, Puerto Rico, Iraq, Egypt and Afghanistan.
Jackson’s leadership skills were put to the test in his two separate tours to Iraq. He toured in 2004 and 2010, for six and nine months respectively. He said these tours were truly eye-opening experiences that he will never forget.
In 2004, Jackson served as a training advisor on a 10-man team to train a 750-man battalion of Iraqi soldiers, known as the First Battalion of the First Brigade of the new Iraqi Army. Of the 750 soldiers, a third of the soldiers were Kurdish, Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites.
When Jackson found out his first mission with the battalion, he went to inform them. After he told the soldiers about the mission, Jackson recalled that nearly 350 soldiers left and never returned.
Initially, Jackson did not trust the soldiers after this incident. The next day, however, Jackson began his work to establish a relationship with the soldiers.
“I told them if you are going to kill me, kill me where I can see you” Jackson said. “ From that point on, they began to respect and trust me and I began to respect and trust them.”
Jackson also recalled an experience where he was sitting in his hooch (room) and a Sunni sergeant major told him that a Kurdish major threatened to kill the battalion commander of the Iraqi soldiers. The battalion commander was of Sunni descent.
Jackson, all by himself with the soldiers, had to diffuse the situation because he still had to have the unit as a whole. Jackson recalled one of soldiers of his 10-man team telling him that he could have been killed because he was all alone.
For Jackson, however, he did not think about the fact that he could have died. He said that he felt like he was doing his job as a soldier.
“ I chose to be an infantry officer,” Jackson said. “ If something happened to me, it was meant to happened.”
By the end of his 2004 tour in Iraq, Jackson said it was hard for him to leave the soldiers.
“We went through some really tough times, but I cried when I left,” Jackson said. “ The Iraqi soldiers and I were like a family. I was leaving them not knowing what would happen to them once I was gone.”
Jackson toured Iraq again in 2010 and remembered how difficult everyday life was. He said there were many days he was not sure if he would be dead or alive.
“When your vehicle is struck by an IED and you don’t know what is going to happen when you get out of the vehicle is not a good feeling,” Jackson said. “Having to explain to a dependent that their loved one was killed in combat was a difficult task.”
Jackson also remembered how dangerous missions were throughout the day and night.
“It was very routine to hear the sounds of incoming, incoming, incoming, Boom! The rockets are coming. As a soldier and leader, I heard people screaming. One soldier might be dead, one injured and some days I would ask myself why am I here to help them if they are not helping themselves,” Jackson said. “Each day, however, my soldiers and I would thank God for another day of life when we made it back to where we lived.”
Through it all, however, Jackson said it was his leadership early on that allowed him to never give up during those times.
“I never thought of giving up because I didn’t believe in it,” Jackson said. “I was a leader and it was my duty to lead the soldiers through it all.”
Jackson retired from the United States Army on Nov. 1, 2011 after finishing an assignment in Fort Hood, Texas. He said his age and family played a role in his retirement.
“I was getting older as well as my family. My son was getting older and I was not there for him. Active duty takes priority all of the time. The military always said it is family friendly but family always came somewhere second or third on the priority list,” Jackson said. “However, I enjoyed my time and I would go back tomorrow.”
Jackson said his favorite part of serving in military was commanding and helping soldiers to become better people and better leaders.
“Commanding at each level (platoon, company and battalion) was my favorite because I was in charge and you only answer to one boss,” Jackson said. Serving as an ROTC Instructor, however, was the most rewarding experience for me. It gave me a chance to give back to young, future officers the lessons I learned over the years.”
Jackson credited Col. Cardell Hunter for grooming him into the officer he became and instilling in him some of lessons of how to be a successful soldier in the Army.
“Colonel Hunter was the first Black officer I met who served as a mentor to me “Jackson said. “ We were not in the same unit but he could always see me when I could not see him.”
Four years later as a retired Colonel, Jackson said civilian life is different but he has embraced the idea of motivating young soldiers interested in joining the United States military.
“Life as a civilian is a great change from being in charge and some one that is looked up to,” Jackson said. “I love to encourage young soldiers to serve their country because the military is a good place for all young men and women to start because of the structure and discipline.”
In honor of Veterans Day, Jackson said his experiences in the military helped him become the husband, father and man he is today.
“Serving in the military helped me deal with the politics in life and how to deal with them to be successful in the military and other jobs,” Jackson said. “Those lessons that go as far back as being a second lieutenant still sit with me 33 years today through areas of my life.
Jackson has been married to Jacqueline Jackson for 32 years. They have three children, Lauren, 30, Natasha, 27, and Wilton II, 22.
When he is not spending time with family, participating in 5K runs and working as the director of property accounting for the Jackson Public School District, Jackson thinks back on his military career and appreciates all things in life.
“ I sit on the back porch, look at the sky and think back to my days of being in Iraq. I think of enjoying the simple things that we as Americans sometime take for granted,” Jackson said. “In America, you see trees and houses for example. In Iraq, you don’t see those things. I have come to appreciate even the simpler things in life.”