Unyielding dedication: Soldier is making defense of a nation a career
October 26, 2007
CAMP TAJI, Iraq - 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. He wanted to join the Army full time. He wanted to become a full-time warrior.
Since one week after he graduated high school, Lt. Col. Tom Jessee, the executive officer for the 1st Air Cavalry "Warrior" Brigade, 1st Cavalry Division, has been in the Army.
Jessee, who grew up in Tecumseh, Okla., knew he was going to follow his father's footsteps and join the military one day, he just didn't know in what capacity, he said.
"A friend of mine at church introduced me to the National Guard. My father (spent) 20 years (in the) Air Force so I always kind of thought that I'd join the military of some type," said Jessee.
So he did join the military, and more specifically he enlisted in the Army National Guard as an air traffic control radar operator.
The National Guard, at the time, afforded Jessee some perks, like 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 said.
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," said Jessee.
The atmosphere he experienced 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 2nd Lieutenant in the Army National Guard and graduated from flight school March 1989.
Up to this point Jessee had very much enjoyed the National Guard, but after flight school, that's when he knew he wanted to be a full-time leader and pilot in the Army, he said.
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, they told Jessee.
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,'" said Jessee.
"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. He had just returned from the UH-60 Black Hawk course when, two weeks later, 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 U.S. was going to go to war in the near future - he wanted to pray for any service members 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.
That was it; it was settled. He needed no other signs.
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," said Jessee.
This personal deadline was based on his date of rank, as he was now 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 assessed with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment based out of Fort Campbell, Ky., and was accepted.
The 160th SOAR is an elite unit of aviators that primarily move 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, then he would be at risk of being passed up for consideration for 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 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. 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," said Carol.
His wife and two children, Garrett, 6, and Clayton, 9, went right along with him to Korea, but not without some worry, said Carol.
"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."
As for joining the Army as his career, Carol was at first "a little nervous," but behind her husband 100 percent, she said.
"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, said Carol.
"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, for the reorganization taking place in the Army, he said.
They reflagged his company to Company B, 2nd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st ACB, 1st Cav. Div., Jessee said.
When he settled down in Fort Hood, he transitioned to the position of executive officer for 3rd Battalion, 227th Aviation Regiment, 1st ACB, 1st Cav. Div.
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 1st Cav. Division's aviation brigade. He plans on continuing on until retirement.
Jessee has 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," said Jessee.
The Army life is for some, and not for others, Jessee said. For those that choose the life, they are a different breed - they are warriors, he said.
"There have been warriors since the dawn of time and people that are on active duty and choose to make a career are warriors," said Jessee.
Fighting daily toward a peaceful Iraq, Jessee just happens to be one of those warriors.