JOINT BASE MCGUIRE-DIX-LAKEHURST, N.J. - Months ago, Sgt. Juan Jackson sat on a bus full of Soldiers staring out the window.
That moment. He remembers it still.
His palm supported his chin, arm propped up at the elbow against the window; hardly an image of a Warrior in most eyes. The rest of the Soldiers on the bus joked and frolicked with a buzz of energy and high spirits. Jackson's face, however, matched the mood of the Wisconsin late April weather.
Murky clouds blanketed the sky. Rain started and stopped but mostly drizzled, making Soldiers wonder whether to bother with their ponchos and wet-weather jackets or just suck it up. The ground was a mixture of soft mud and patchy grass.
This moment - Jackson's window stare - is caught in a photograph depicting the waiting that unfolds between events at these types of competitions. It doesn't paint sadness or boredom or any intense drama, but fatigue.
"Right at that moment, I was stilling my heart, because I had not done good at the weapons qual," said Jackson, a resident of Lakewood, Washington. "So I was facing a difficult time with making sure that I continued to perform my best effort."
At the time, he was in the midst of the Best Warrior Competition hosted by the 412th and 416th Theater Engineer Commands.
That turmoil would linger a while longer. Rain picked up again, and the schedule promised three hours of land navigation across the mountainous woods of Fort McCoy.
"Three hours," said Jackson, an internment specialist with the 493rd Military Police Company. "So you know that you're about to put in some work."
In fact, the course lasted longer than that. Competitors didn't finish until 10 p.m. that night and didn't go to sleep until almost midnight, before waking up again at 3 a.m. to brave a 6-mile ruck march.
From that photo of him looking out the window, it might be hard to guess that Jackson would be beaming two nights later when announced the Best Warrior winner for the 416th TEC in the noncommissioned officer category. That victory advanced him here: the 2014 Army Reserve Best Warrior Competition.After that win, he spent three straight weeks training. He filled his days with rigorous studying and even more rigorous fitness routines. He bear-crawled up hills, hit the gym and ran daily to maximize his body's potential.This time around, the competition schedule has been more secretive, revealing only times and general event topics.
"I have no idea (what to expect next), but as each day passes, I get more and more juiced. I'm excited ... I get more amped and pumped. So I'm just kind of excited to be doing this," Said Jackson, who is a native of Rancho Cucamonga, California.
That's a far emotional stance from how he felt on that bus months ago.
That moment was a rare one; Jackson's personality is energetic. Confident. Infectious. He smiles when he talks, and there are few times when he's not joking around with fellow competitors. When he talks about leadership, caring for his fellow Soldiers or maintaining discipline, a quiet strength resides in his voice.
When the struggles come, he relies on meditation and self-focus to endure through the moment.This practice of stilling his heart comes from both his faith in God and from the discipline of Muay Thai. Jackson has been training in the martial arts for more than a year. Soldiers are expected to assemble and disassemble half a dozen different weapon systems at these competitions, but Muay Thai frees the body to use its own weapons."I fill my free time with the art of eight limbs," said Jackson. "In the martial arts, it teaches you that you have eight weapons of your body. (They) are your hands, your feet, your knees and your elbows."In Muay Thai, striking your opponent is allowed, but in modern Army combatives - a key event in most Best Warrior Competitions - there's none of that. It's all about grappling and applying joint pressure to force a submission. Despite this difference, Jackson takes his stamina and strength from Muay Thai to the combatives mat.At the engineer competition, he had defeated every one of his opponents. He earned extra points through submissions. This allowed him to edge for the lead, and ensured him a spot in New Jersey, where the air fills with muggy heat even in the early hours."Your mental grit is what keeps you in a competition," said Jackson.One of his favorite anime series is "Naruto," based on a ninja with a character that never quits, even when the world seems to cave around him, he said. For Jackson, these competitions are about perseverance and resiliency, words he correlated to his character. His fighting spirit, he said, is what allowed him to win the TEC competition in spite of taking hits in a few events."When you're fighting, there's no time-out. There's no, 'OK, I'll come back tomorrow and do it better.' So I take that, and, you know, I take my fighting character, and I incorporate it into this competition, because when you do it, you do it today," said Jackson.That's the same fighting attitude he's brought to this competition. He knows that every day he's among the best Soldiers he's ever met. He welcomes the challenge. He's excited to be among a group of the highest caliber of Soldiers. He knows this will be more intense than all the previous competitions.It doesn't matter.He'll continue fighting, regardless of weather or internal turmoil."I came to get it in. I didn't come to play around. So regardless if the competition is hard or a breeze, I'm going to put in work," said Jackson. "I'm going to come through like a tornado."