After nearly two decades in the military, Lt. Col. Kyndra Jackson is finally taking a break. Sitting in her living room, perched behind her laptop on the other end of a ZOOM call, she talks frankly about her service career, her upcoming retirement, and where exactly she’ll go from here. The entire time, a picture of her family hangs over her left shoulder, acting as an audience of sorts – quietly watching, listening. It’s a reminder that no matter what the Jacksons are doing, they are always doing it together.
“We come as a package deal,” says Jackson, who currently serves as both the Deputy Division Chief and Chief Nurse, Division of Medicine, with USAMRDC’S U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases. “We are ‘Team Jackson’ – and that is how we’ve had to operate from day one.”
Like all good teams, Team Jackson presents a united front at all times. So it’s no coincidence then that Kyndra and her husband, Lt. Col. Dalmar Jackson – the latter of whom also serves at Fort Detrick as the Secretary of the General Staff for USAMRDC – are tackling one final military milestone together. After a combined 40 years of service between them, they will both be retiring from active duty in the coming months. That makes the tail end of 2021 an extended swan song of sorts for both; which in turn means it’s time for a good bit of reflection on a life’s journey so far.
“I don’t remember why exactly I knocked on her door,” says Dalmar Jackson when he’s asked how he met his wife, “but I knocked on her door to ask a question about the uniform.”
That first knock was all the way back in September 2001, when both Kyndra and Dalmar were in San Antonio, Texas, attending the Army’s Officer Basic Course. As luck would have it, they were assigned dorm rooms directly across from one another; Dalmar a new graduate from Morehouse College at the time and Kyndra a newly-minted nursing graduate from Clemson University. It was there, in a sea of hundreds of people, that both made a connection that would eventually culminate in marriage – and, in time, the start of a shared personal and professional journey across the globe.
Yet as a dual-military family, there are – as the Jacksons can certainly attest – unique challenges that come with trying to grow your own family within the larger Army family.
“There’s been many times where I’ve had to take a sick child with me in the office,” says Kyndra, referring to their children Donovan and Kyndall (now 13 and 9 years old, respectively). “There have been plenty of meetings that have been called at five and six in the morning, and my kids are in their pajamas – and they’re sitting in the conference room while we’re making the sausage and doing the work.”
To that end – and staying consistent with the Team Jackson ethos – Kyndra and Dalmar credit not only their extended family of loved ones and army colleagues picking up the slack during those difficult moments, but also their many and various supervisors over the years for recognizing those same challenges. That’s why they’re so keen on paying it forward as much as possible.
“Dalmar is the most supportive supervisor I have come across in my 14 years with the Army,” says Brandy Ostanik-Thornton, who worked with both Jacksons during their assignment at the U.S. Army Medical Department Activity-Alaska at Fort Wainwright – where, notably, Kyndra served as Chief of Public Health during the initial months of the novel coronavirus pandemic. “His ability to truly see employees as people and take note of their goals, objectives, and challenges provided the opportunity for growth both individually and as an organization.”
In addition – and as she is keen to note in multiple emails on the matter – the Jacksons were extremely supportive at a time when Ostanik-Thornton was forced to both mourn the death of a family member and confront substantial health issues of her own. And yet right there, through it all, were Kyndra and Dalmar.
“There is a lot to be said for leaders who ask about an employee's welfare before asking about a deadline,” says Ostanik-Thornton. “Their kindness is not something I will forget.”
To hear Kyndra tell it, those efforts are – like all things in the world of Team Jackson – by design.
“I really believe as a leader, you have to take care of your people,” she says. “We just hope we can make a small difference in that small time we’re with that individual in that particular organization.”
A GROWING FAMILY
Of course, there are times when reality – or, in this case, duty – collides with even the best-laid plans. After 17 years of marriage, the Jacksons have become accustomed to the juggling act that comes with trying to balance both family commitments and service commitments on a daily basis. Just as overseas deployments are certainly part of that equation – Dalmar himself was deployed to Iraq as a Medical Platoon Leader and Medical Planner from 2004-2005 – assignment driven separations are as well. While the Army offers a program to help dual-military couples stay together during assignments (i.e. the Married Army Couples Program), the program does not – and cannot – offer any guarantees. The Jacksons were faced with that reality in 2016, when Kyndra was assigned to a combat support hospital in Yongsan, South Korea, while Dalmar was working at Defense Health Headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia. Despite the distance – some seven thousand miles for the sake of perspective – the Jacksons took the news in stride, choosing to view the news as a way learn more about each other and, at the same time, their family as a whole.
“I think it was a growing opportunity for me to let go a little bit, and to have faith that the family is going to be okay while I’m away, and once the year is over we’ll be reunited,” says Kyndra, noting that her own assignment (in comparison to Dalmar’s deployment) came at a starkly different time in both their lives – the birth of their children changing the circumstances on a far greater scale.
As such, the challenge fell to both to keep the family humming at top speed; each team member assuming a number of key roles. For Dalmar, that meant becoming the dominant force at home, along with taking over cooking, cleaning and homework-checking responsibilities. For Kyndra, that meant becoming an expert in technology, as she quickly figured out how to attend the kids’ events, games and even parent-teacher conferences via internet video link while overseas – a capability her father, who served in Vietnam, could have only dreamed of back in the early 1970s.
In the end, a little bit of modern convenience combined with a good chunk of old-fashioned determination made the year-long assignment less of an obstacle and more of a stepping-stone; and ultimately translated into a more united family overall.
“I think it reassured me, understanding and knowing that my husband can manage all the family and Army responsibilities,” says Kyndra, noting that so many other families across the wider U.S. military deal with the same challenges as well.
Says Dalmar of his wife’s role and importance to the family, “It gave me an appreciation of all the things she does behind the scenes that maybe I don’t see often.”
Oddly enough, despite such substantial and accomplished military careers, both Jacksons reveal just the slightest bit of nervous energy when talking about the next chapters in their respective lives. It is, one imagines, the result of a myriad of emotions; chief among them the impact of leaving behind familiar faces and places for something new and completely different. For Kyndra, that means taking a position as a public health nurse at Mary’s Center in Washington, D.C., where she’ll be working with area churches on a variety of public health issues, including – notably – COVID-19 vaccine hesitancy. Such work is, in her own words, very near and dear to her heart.
“I am passionate about communities,” she says. “I love my military community – and I have a wealth of knowledge and experience in working within the communities we’ve been assigned over our twenty year career – but I also want to give back on the other side.”
The next step for Dalmar, similarly, will likely involve a heavy dose of community involvement in areas as sprawling and diverse as public health and economic sustainability – in short, any place he can put his leadership and organizational development skills to use. Overall, and perhaps more than anything else, the Jacksons are focused on the opportunity to pick a single spot to settle down for the sake of their children and their own respective futures.
To hear their friends tell it, the Jacksons are the kind of leaders any community would be lucky to have.
“Kyndra and Dalmar are two of the very best [officers] I have had the good fortune to work with,” says Deputy for Quality and Safety K. Lee Hardcastle, a 30-year Army civilian who worked with both Jacksons at Fort Wainwright. “I know they will excel where ever they go and in whatever they do.”
“Kyndra’s achievements and contributions in the realm of public health shaped policy and quality-of-life initiatives directly impacting the health and welfare of more than 30 [thousand] Soldiers and families in Alaska,” says Col. Constance Jenkins, the newly-minted Commander of USAMRIID who worked with both Jacksons at MEDDAC-AK. “[Kyndra and Dalmar] are talented professionals who have made a lasting impact on Soldiers and families – I look forward to seeing what they achieve next in leading, teaching and coaching our future generations.”
In the end, perhaps leading the family to a place where everyone – mom, dad and children alike – can live out their respective dreams and accomplish their respective goals was the plan all along. If so, then Kyndra and Dalmar have placed Team Jackson on the kind of championship path that few others can even hope to replicate. For them, it seems that bringing out the best in each other is – truly and forever – the greatest achievement.
“There [are] mixed emotions when it comes to retiring,” says Dalmar in closing. “There’s the excitement, there’s the anxiety – but I’m very confident in knowing that if we stay focused on being open to opportunities and keeping Team Jackson together like we have all these years, we’ll be just fine in wherever our path takes us.”