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Command Sgt. Maj. Phillip Barber, then a squad leader, took a position on a rooftop in the Abu Graib neighborhood of Baghdad in 2005 so he could get a better vantage point on the enemy’s attack on his Soldiers.
“Black Hawk Six is in enroute” he heard over his radio. Maj. Gen. Mark Jackson of Frankfort, Illinois, then a lieutenant colonel and his battalion commander, had decided to see the situation firsthand.
“He always led from the front,” said Barber, now the Illinois Army National Guard’s state command sergeant major. The command sergeant major’s career would intersect often with Maj. Gen. Mark Jackson; including the 2nd Battalion, 130th Infantry Regiment’s 18-month deployment to Iraq and the general’s last assignment as the Deputy Commanding General of Operations of First Army.
Jackson retired in June after more than 38 years of service. Those who knew him best talked about his courage and cool under fire, his off-beat sense of humor dotted with outrageous movie lines, his ability to build teams and relationships, and his genuine caring for his Soldiers and their families.
But, 18 years later, Barber admits that he had mixed emotions when he heard his commander was responding.
“My first thought was ‘God damn, the BC is coming out here?’” Barber said. The squad was responding to some insurgents who had fired some rockets into Camp Liberty, a coalition base in Baghdad. When the Soldiers responded, they found that the insurgents had set up improvised explosive devices along the routes leading to the site. A couple of the unit’s vehicles had already been hit by IEDs.
Barber said the Soldiers respected their battalion commander and his willingness to share the risk with his Soldiers, but, at the same time, he didn’t want the battalion’s leadership to get hurt or killed on his watch. This fear became all too real when a plume of smoke arose from the battalion commander’s direction. Jackson’s vehicle was hit.
Luckily, the IED, which Barber believes was an explosively formed penetrator, passed right through the vehicle’s transmission, but left Jackson and Command Sgt. Maj. Gary Fulk unharmed. Col. (ret.) Glen Peterson, who was the battalion operations officer on the deployment, said Jackson went on patrol a lot – and the vehicles he was in got hit multiple times. However, Jackson wasn’t out with the troops because of bravado or just to be seen or heard, Peterson said.
“He was out in sector with the units to get a much deeper understanding of what they were facing and the resources they needed,” Peterson said. “A lot of good work gets done over the hood of a Humvee as opposed to a briefing room.”
“I just couldn’t sit back and ask people to do something that I wasn’t willing to do myself,” Jackson said. “I always felt most comfortable being amongst the Soldiers.”
Sometimes that comfort bordered on the absurd. Peterson recalled sitting in a Humvee with Jackson enjoying a cold soft drink in the middle of a massive Iraqi Army cordon and search. “The Iraqi Soldiers are running all around us, tracer rounds are going off in the background, and there we are very calmly enjoying a cold soda in the back of a Humvee,” Peterson said.
Jackson said that as a leader his job was to provide his Soldiers with resources and overall guidance, and then “step out of the way and let them do their job.” Those who worked for Jackson throughout his career appreciated his ability to tell them what needed to be done, but not dictate how to do it.
“He empowered us to make a lot of decisions on our own. He empowered us to be leaders,” said Brig. Gen. Mark Alessia, the Illinois National Guard’s Director of the Joint Staff, who worked under Jackson multiple times. Jackson also served as the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team Commander and the Director of the Joint Staff before Alessia took those same leadership positions. When a subordinate’s decision didn’t quite work out as expected, Jackson saw it as a learning opportunity. “He’d sit you down and say ‘Ok, let’s talk through why this happened,’” Alessia said.
Few have ever seen Jackson get agitated. Perhaps this was a skill he cultivated from his decades as an Illinois State Police trooper and being placed in tense and volatile situations daily. Or maybe it is just his nature.
“He’s unflappable. He doesn’t change his bearing,” said Col. (ret.) Clay Kuetemeyer. Jackson was a platoon leader and Kuetemeyer was an ROTC cadet when the two met in 1989. The two worked together off and on for more than 30 years.
He had a way of building relationships, a skill that proved vital in Iraq where the Blackhawks went through seven different transfers of authority and the unit was moved around to shore up different trouble areas, Peterson said. “He built trusting relationships with our multi-national partners, which is really tough to do because the Iraqis had a whole other way of doing things.”
Jackson’s relationship building, his down-to-earth calm leadership style, and his willingness to share danger with his Soldiers was vital to unit morale when the 2nd Battalion, 130th Infantry was preparing to go home only to be extended when the fighting in al Anbar Province, particularly Fallujah and Ramadi, intensified.
“That was hard,” Barber said. “But there was work still to be done. Our brothers were out there fighting and they needed us.” He said that the extension required good leadership across the entire unit starting with Jackson.
It helped that the 2nd Battalion, 130th Infantry was a closeknit group. Many of the unit’s members, including Jackson and Barber, deployed to Kuwait in 2000 for Operation Desert Spring. Then the unit deployed again in 2002, just after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, to Germany as part of Task Force Santa Fe.
“He was always Soldier-first,” said Alessia, who was on the Kuwait and Task Force Sante Fe deployments. “He had high standards and he didn’t lose sight of the fact that there was a person behind every decision.”
Jackson was vital in developing the Tailored Mobilization Plan while at First Army, a program that allows units to do more pre-mobilization requirements at home station prior to activation, giving Soldiers more time at home with their families before they mobilize and deploy overseas.
Army Reserve Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Jurasek, First Army’s Deputy Commanding General – Support and Commanding General of U.S. Army Support Command – First Army, worked hand-in-hand with Jackson on Tailored Mobilization Plan and other initiatives to improve training across Army components. The two were both deputy commanding generals at First Army, Jackson in the National Guard and Jurasek in the Army Reserves, working with Lt. Gen. Antonio Aguto, then the First Army Commander. Aguto is now deployed as the Commander of the Security Assistance Group – Ukraine as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve in Germany.
“We were able change the paradigm,” Jurasek said. The Tailored Mobilization Plan not only allows Soldiers to spend more time with their families, but it also made the process of mobilizing reserve component units more streamlined and efficient, Jurasek added.
Jackson cultivated a “free exchange” of ideas between the National Guard, Army Reserve, and the active Army, Jurasek said of his colleague and friend. Their staffs affectionately dubbed them “Step Brothers” after the movie starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly.
“We would hang out together and we played off each other,” Jurasek said. The climate that they fostered was as productive as it was fun, according to those who worked at First Army during Jackson’s tenure. “It really was like a family,” Jurasek said.
Jackson has a tremendous depth of knowledge and was “one of the most organized guys I’ve ever met,” Jurasek said. “Everything he needed, he had it in this three-ring binder. If you need the TAG of Idaho’s home phone number, he’d just pull it out of that binder...anything.”
But even more impressive was the relationships Jackson had built up. “He handled all-things National Guard. He was the point man with all the TAGs of the states and territories. He knew everyone by name. If we needed someone with specialized knowledge, he knew someone,” Jurasek said.
Maj. (ret.) Jen Welker worked for Jackson when he commanded the 65th Troop Command from 2009-2012, serving as the brigade’s assistant personnel officer (S-1) and later as his executive officer when he was First Army’s deputy commanding general for operations from 2021 until his retirement.
Jackson understood the need to balance work with family, said Welker, a mother of four who had a three-hour round-trip commute to First Army headquarters on Rock Island Arsenal and whose husband, Lt. Col. Sean Welker, worked at Illinois National Guard headquarters in the opposite direction. “He was always understanding if we had a sick kid or other emergency. He’d say ‘Go take care of your family.’ He also knew we gave that time back.”
The command climate was fun despite the serious work that needed to be done. Jackson gave each of the staff a nickname from NBC’s ‘The Office.’ Welker was ‘Pam.’
“He knows when to be serious, but he also likes to ensure his staff loves being at work,” Welker, aka Pam, said. To paraphrase Michael Scott, Steve Carrell’s boss character in “The Office,” people did say that Jackson was the best boss and that he was hilarious and that he got “the best out of us.”
Those who worked with Jackson all encountered his unique brand of humor, often punctuated with one-liners from a long list of wacky movies – Airplane, Fletch, Animal House, Talladega Nights, Young Frankenstein, Meaning of Life, National Lampoon’s Vacation, and his all-time favorite, Blazing Saddles.
As the Director of the Joint Staff, Jackson pulled out a Blazing Saddles one-liner during a tense meeting during the Illinois National Guard’s COVID-19 response, Alessia said. During a stressful meeting, Jackson said “Mongo only pawn in game of life,” using the Blazing Saddles simpleton-brute’s voice. It cut the tension, instantly.
“He’s got a calm demeanor and the level of seriousness to get the job done, but he does it in a manner that allows people to excel and not be afraid to make mistakes. Mistakes happen, but he allows you the opportunity to learn from them and move on,” Alessia said.
Jackson was the Director of the Joint Staff during the COVID-19 response, multiple domestic disturbance call-ups, and a major flood – all of which had their own unique challenges and gravity. But the general realized that people do not perform as well under constant stress. “He tries to keep things light even during serious operations,” Alessia said.
Jackson is quick with one-liners from movie characters and he’s a character himself. He loves Rock-n-Roll and sports cars. You’ll see him laughing with some tough Soldiers well into the night, with a cigar clenched between his teeth and a glass of fine bourbon in his hand. Then again, you might see him with an easel and paint brush or a guitar or a wrench. “He’s a mental giant,” Barber said. “He’s got a ton of hobbies.” When Jackson mentioned becoming “a life coach as interpreted through modern dance” during his retirement ceremony, there may have been more than a few who believed him.
His most extensive interest is a passionate love affair he’s had with a tall blonde for decades – his spouse, Deanna. “Although Deanna couldn’t always be there, there was not a day that he didn’t talk about her,” Welker said. “They have such a loving relationship. Seeing how he always kept her in mind, I’d get excited from a wife’s point of view. Unfortunately, the military has a lot of divorce. They have a relationship to emulate.”
The couple have a great love and pride for their adult son, Tyler. Jackson is a devoted father and husband, and he helps his Soldiers balance work and family lives too.
Maj. Glen Mommsen served as Jackson’s aide-de-camp at First Army. “He always took care of his people,” said Mommsen, adding that the general was “instrumental” as he and his family transitioned from 10 years of active duty to the National Guard with three boys under the age of 5. Mommsen’s 4-year-old son, Beau, required treatments at the Mayo Clinic for a non-life threatening condition. “(Jackson) was always understanding.”
Mommsen, aka ‘Dwight,’ and Jackson spent many hours on the road where they got to know each other well, although not everything was copacetic. “Our taste in music was very different. We’d listen to (Jackson’s) 1980s hair music for hours on end,” Mommsen said. “I like country – Texas country.”
Despite their differing tastes in music, Mommsen said he enjoyed getting to know Jackson during their hours and hours of windshield time together.
“He always took care of his people,” Mommsen said. “When you take care of your people, they help you achieve the organization’s goals.”
Maj. Gen. Mark Jackson’s Seven Steps to Being an Effective Leader:
1.Ensure everyone understands your intent and purpose.
2. Do not micromanage. If you micromanage you are not giving your subordinates the opportunity to learn and develop.
3. Give praise and appreciation when and where it is appropriate.
4. Ensure everyone has a battle buddy.
5. Worry about your subordinate’s next promotion, not yours.
6. Trust your noncommissioned officers. Your NCOs wouldn’t be there if they didn’t have the experience and expertise.
7. Mission First, Soldiers Always