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Guardsman Goes Full-Time to Answer Nation’s Call

By Cpl. Nathan Hoskins, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service

CAMP TAJI, Iraq, Oct. 26, 2007 – It didn’t matter that he already had a good job that paid well, and his convictions weren’t shaken after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Tom Jessee wanted to join the Army full time. He wanted to become a full-time warrior.

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Army Lt. Col. Tom Jessee, executive officer for the 1st Air Cavalry “Warrior” Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, sits on the flightline at Camp Taji, Iraq, in the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter he’ll be flying during missions that day. Photo by Cpl. Nathan Hoskins, USA

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Since one week after he graduated from high school, Jessee -- now a lieutenant colonel and the executive officer for the 1st Air Cavalry “Warrior” Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division -- has been in the Army.

While growing up in Tecumseh, Okla., Jessee knew he was going to follow in his father’s footsteps and join the military one day; he just didn’t know in what capacity, he said. His father had served a 20-year Air Force career.

Jessee enlisted in the Army National Guard as an air traffic control radar operator. The Guard, at the time, afforded him some perks, such as staying close to home, he said. “At the time, I wasn’t too keen on going active duty and moving away from home. I kind of wanted to stick around locally,” he explained.

As time went on and he spent more and more drill weekends at the airfield, he decided that flying was for him.

“The unit that I was in also had two companies of helicopters stationed at that same base. So I went down on the drill weekend while they were out there flying. I was very enamored with that whole environment,” he said.

The atmosphere drew him in, and he decided he was going to get his commission and go to flight school.

In 1987 he received his commission as a second lieutenant in the Army National Guard and graduated from flight school in March 1989. Up to this point, Jessee said, he had very much enjoyed the National Guard, but after flight school, he knew he wanted to be a full-time leader and pilot in the Army.

Shortly after he pinned his flight wings on, he went with a warrant officer buddy of his to the local recruiter’s station to see about changing over to the regular Army.

His friend was signed that very day, but he was rejected -- they just didn’t need any commissioned officers at the time, he was told.

In 1992, he married his wife, Carol, and then went off to the officer advance course – a course that prepares junior officers for company command. Every time he came back from one of these courses, he had a renewed urge to make the Army his full-time job, he said.

“Basically, every time that I would go to annual training or to a school or any prolonged period where I was in a uniform doing my military job, I would come back just going: ‘I love doing my job; I want to do this,’” he recalled. “I enjoyed my civilian job, but I always considered myself a part-time civilian, as opposed to a part-time soldier, because the soldier was really what was predominant in my life. That’s what drove me; that’s where my center of gravity was.”

Up to this point, he had flown CH-47 Chinooks and UH-1 Hueys. Two weeks after he returned from the UH-60 Black Hawk course, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, occurred.

“My days of getting laughed at for wanting to come on active duty were over,” he said.

When 9/11 happened, he and his family were living in Tulsa, Okla. He had a great sales job and was making a decent living, he said.

But they were at church one night when an evangelist whose flight was grounded due to the terrorist attacks visited and told the congregation that the United States was going to go to war in the near future – he wanted to pray for any servicemembers in the congregation, Jessee recalled.

That night he not only felt his own desire to join the Army full-time, but felt God was calling him to serve his nation in a more involved way, he said.

Although he tried his best, things didn’t line up well enough to enable him to transfer to the regular Army. So, in the meantime, he took a sales job in Michigan and transferred from the Oklahoma National Guard to the Michigan National Guard, he said.

While in Michigan, things came together, but barely.

“My packet (to transfer to regular Army) got approved two days before my personal deadline,” he said.

This personal deadline was based on his date of rank as a major – just two days later and his whole career as he now knows it would never have been.

After that bit of good news, he was accepted to serve with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment based at Fort Campbell, Ky., an elite unit of aviators that primarily moves special operations units across the battlefield.

Jessee and his family were three days away from buying a house and moving to the area when he found out that if he took the job with the 160th, he would be at risk of being passed over for consideration for promotion to lieutenant colonel. He couldn’t take that chance.

Instead, he packed up his family and moved to Korea to command the Company A “Black Cats,” 2nd Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment. He was now a full-time soldier.

The transition from a seemingly normal civilian life to being a full-time Army wife has added some responsibility to Carol that she didn’t expect, she said.

“Being the wife of a company commander whose company is the size of a battalion was a giant piece of responsibility that I did not realize was mine,” she said. “It was a lot of hard physical and mental work, but I embraced it and went to work. There's no time in life for pouting or crying.”

The family, including the couple’s children -- Garrett, 6, and Clayton, 9 -- went right along with Jessee to Korea, but not without some worry, Carol said.

“I was apprehensive for about two minutes, but then I got very excited about international travel; the adventure we were about to embark upon was thrilling,” she said. “We would go anywhere to be with Tom. We were privileged to experience a different culture. It makes us appreciate what we do have as Americans.”

Carol was at first “a little nervous” about her husband joining the Army full-time, she said, but she’s behind him 100 percent.

“I've always known deep down that Tom was born to fly and to lead. This is what brings him real joy; I want him to experience that joy daily,” she said.

It takes the whole family to work together to keep their full-time soldier on his game, she said.

“Active duty is nowhere near just a job. It is a calling for our entire family, and quickly adapting to change has been our key to success,” she said. “We both have a role in this venture; he can't do his part if I don't do mine. It's like a well-oiled machine that works as a whole and not as independently spinning parts.”

After serving for nearly 20 months in Korea, Jessee moved his family along with his company to Fort Hood, Texas, as part of the reorganization taking place in the Army, he said. His company was reflagged as Company B, 2nd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division. When he settled down in Fort Hood, he transitioned to the position of executive officer for the brigade’s 3rd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment.

Now, after being promoted to lieutenant colonel, Jessee is serving as the executive officer for the 1st Air Cavalry Brigade in Iraq, where he flies missions in the Black Hawk and pushes piles of paperwork across his desk – helping to keep the wheels turning in the division’s aviation brigade. He plans on continuing on until retirement.

Jessee offered a few thoughts for those who, like him, want to make the Army a career choice.

“For any soldier or officer coming into the military, if you’re going to make it a career, you really have to love your job. You have to believe in what the Army does as an organization. You have to believe in the people around you,” he said.

(Army Cpl. Nathan Hoskins is assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division’s 1st Air Cavalry Brigade Public Affairs Office.)

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Lt. Col. Tom Jessee, executive officer for the 1st Air Cavalry “Warrior” Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, goes through some preflight checks on a UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter at Camp Taji, Iraq, Oct. 24, 2007. Photo by Cpl. Nathan Hoskins, USA  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Lt. Col. Tom Jessee, executive officer for the 1st Air Cavalry “Warrior” Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, goes through some final preflight checks in his UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter at Camp Taji, Iraq, Oct. 24, 2007. Photo by Cpl. Nathan Hoskins, USA  
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