Being All He Can Be
Jeff Jackson’s life story is the American dream. Although he grew up poor and lived in the “projects,” his life turned around. He joined the army, married his hometown sweetheart, rose to First Sergeant of over 200 soldiers in the Army Reserves, and today, works at CannonDesign as a leader in our federal group. Although he experienced a hard-knock life in the truest sense, he overcame adversity, and even to this day, he’s becoming all he can be.
Like most, Jeff will never forget the eight weeks he spent in boot camp — a moment in life where he learned discipline to the 100th degree.
One painful but important lesson came by way of a bee. “A bee flew into my helmet, and as is natural, I reacted,” said Jeff. “The next thing I knew I was doing pushups on the ground and my Drill Sergeant was yelling at me because my response could have gotten me and other soldiers killed in battle. He made a good point.”
After boot camp came nine months of technical training where Jeff developed a skillset focused on electronics and engineering, and four years of active duty. He then joined the Army Reserves and began working as a civilian technology technician and consultant for a number of companies, until reconnecting with an old colleague who introduced him to CannonDesign. Jeff joined CannonDesign in 2008, and six months later, he was deployed to Iraq.
Jeff’s assignment in Iraq was focused on working with the Corps of Engineers to help rebuild the country. On his first night, his base was bombed with mortars. “A mortar went directly over our building and I could hear the roof material peeling off. It was an eye-opening first day experience to say the least.”
For almost two years, Jeff acted as a project engineer, project manager and contracting officer representative for a number of large-scale construction projects in Iraq. He led teams in completing the Basra Children’s Hospital — the largest and first specialty care facility in Basra, Iraq — in addition to multiple police stations, the Iraqi Navy Seaport pier and a military base with 50 buildings. In 2010, Jeff returned home for a year before being deployed again — this time to Afghanistan. As a third world country, Afghanistan lacked the skilled labor force and leadership needed for large-scale construction projects, so Jeff spent much of his time training Afghan engineers.
“We were starting from scratch,” says Jeff. “For example, one day, an Afghan soldier without boots kept climbing into a bull dozer to learn, but I had to have him kicked out for safety reasons. After the third time, I told his sergeant that if the soldier did not have boots the next day I would give the sergeant’s boots to the soldier. The next day the soldier had boots and the sergeant had the knowledge that leaders take care of their people so they can do their jobs.”
Even with the language barrier and religious and cultural differences, Jeff connected with the Afghan people and engineers in ways he hadn’t experienced before. He began teaching English and math classes, which is a level of education typically experienced only by the wealthy. “I was teaching them the simple concept of ‘You can feed a man a fish and you fed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and you have fed him for a life time,” adds Jeff.
Jeff even went as far as fasting during the month of Ramadan. “I didn’t tell my team until the fast was almost over. I wanted the Commander and his staff to learn the concept of not asking your people to do something you would not do and to treat them as they wanted to be treated. ”
After a year in Afghanistan, Jeff was deployed yet again with the USACE to Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan where he worked with the host nation government and US Embassy to turn around a number of failing construction projects, before coming back to his civilian life.
When asked to reflect on the lessons learned in his 37 years of service, Jeff laughs and says there are many.
The Army changed my life. It taught me that being a leader has nothing to do with self-interest and everything to do with being a servant to others.