By joining the Army, Thomas D. Jackson not only continued a family military tradition, but also sought direction for his life.
A 1973 graduate of DeLand High School, Jackson attended Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and obtained his private pilot’s license before enlisting in the latter part of 1980.
The Iran hostage crisis prompted a rise in patriotism, as did the election of Ronald Reagan as president.
When he finished basic training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, early in 1981, Jackson trained as an Army air-traffic controller. With that military occupational specialty (MOS), one thing led to another in the making of a career.
“Right after the air-traffic controllers’ strike occurred [in 1981], I had my private pilot’s license. I thought this would be a good stepping stone to go over to the FAA,” Jackson told The Beacon. “I was initially an Army air-traffic controller at the Pennsylvania National Guard training center at Fort Indiantown Gap. There I met Karen, my wife. I also befriended a number of people, and some of them said, ‘Why don’t you apply for the Army flight program and warrant-officer training?’”
The idea was attractive, and Jackson, then a sergeant, followed up. The Army sent him to Fort Rucker, Alabama, in 1984, to be trained as a helicopter pilot.
After a year of intensive instruction, Jackson was qualified to fly Cobra and Apache attack helicopters, and he was commissioned as a WO-1.
“The first assignment was at Fort Bragg. I went from Fort Bragg to Germany from 1988 to 1991. I was in Operation Desert Shield. We were the first Apache unit to go from Germany to Saudi Arabia,” he said.
At that time, Jackson was part of the 5th Squadron, 6th Cavalry.
Those were rewarding times, he recalls, highlighting two particularly fond memories. The first was during the early flying days in the Army.
“I flew an Apache from Fort Bragg to Washington, D.C., and landed on the National Mall in front of the [Smithsonian] Air and Space Museum. I had the opportunity to talk about flying. How many people can say they landed on the National Mall?” Jackson said proudly.
Another cherished memory was his time as a senior aviation maintenance trainer at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California. That was between 2000 and his retirement from the Army in 2004.
“Approximately eight to 10 rotational units came there before they deployed to desert areas such as Iraq. I enjoyed that mission. I was nominated for Army Aviation Trainer of the Year. I did not win, but it spoke volumes about the folks I worked with,” Jackson said.
He was also sent in 1996 to South Korea. Like many other GIs, he remembers that country as “the most challenging” place in his military career.
Besides the tense border between the two Koreas and the possibility of renewed warfare, there was extreme weather. The icy temperatures of winter were matched by the torrid temperatures of summer, Jackson recalled.
“The humidity is as bad as it is here,” he added.
Jackson’s last tour of duty in the Army was in Iraq in 2003.
“As a maintenance guy, I was flying and repairing [helicopters],” he recalled.
Jackson went to work at the Pentagon as a civilian between 2004 and 2018, serving as an adviser on aviation-maintenance matters.
“I retired as a GS-14,” Jackson said, summarizing his climb in the civil service.
After retiring the second time, Jackson returned to DeLand, where he now resides.
Jackson is not shy about recommending military service to youngsters nearing graduation from high school.
“The reason is because, for an individual who doesn’t know what you want to do, it gives you training, and you can get the education benefits,” he said. “When I went into the Army, I had a little bit of college, but still didn’t know what I wanted to do.”