FORT RUCKER, Ala. — One of Fort Benning's first female drill sergeants continues to show how a highly trained, disciplined, and fit Soldier can ascend to new heights — this time, by trading in her campaign hat for a flight helmet.
U.S. Army Warrant Officer Jessica L. Burns earned her aviator wings in a ceremony at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum Oct. 7, 2021, and is ready to take her place above the best Soldiers in the world as a Black Hawk pilot.
With 14 years in the Army, Burns measures success in terms of family life.
“I think that is probably my biggest accomplishment — doing all of this as a single mom, having my children full time,” Burns said.
“I’ve managed to get them off to school, and do homework, and make dinner — do everything a mother needs to do and be on top of my game for flight school,” she said. “Everyone on post, my community, my parents, everyone came together to help support me.”
When she joined the Army in 2007, Burns enlisted as a medic, and served in multiple “Charlie Med” companies focused on medical readiness, including at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, where she worked in the camps and at a troop clinic, and served as a medical evacuation liaison. She described her time there as a good learning experience where she was able to work with other branches of service.
She served in Cuba during Operation Vigilant Shield, when they moved the prison from communal cell to single cell operation.
Afterward, Burns concentrated on logistics for a while, then went to school to learn to speak French to prepare her to support U.S. Africa Command missions so she could serve as a translator. She eventually added Raven Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems battalion subject matter expert to her repertoire.
Burns’ deployments include to Iraq and Kuwait. While serving in Kuwait, she was told she needed a broadening assignment and soon found herself at drill sergeant school at Fort Jackson, S.C.
“It was something I always wanted to do as a young Soldier but I was nervous. I didn’t think I was capable of doing that, and I already had my daughters,” she said.
She graduated among the top of her class, and received the Iron Drill Sergeant Award for having the highest physical fitness score.
Burns served as one of the first female drill sergeants at Sand Hill at Fort Benning.
“I remember going to Starbucks and wearing my campaign hat and the lady was like, ‘What are you? What is that hat?’” she said.
Burns said the challenges she faced as a female in those first few months made her want to work harder. In moments of doubt, she would see her young daughters walk around in her campaign hat, and that was enough to restore her focus.
“I ended up doing the best that I could and worked through it all,” she said.
She recalled some good leaders at the brigade and first sergeant level that brought the females in to talk to them, treated her as a professional, and judged her based off the work she was doing and the feedback from the trainees.
Her company was chosen for the pilot program when the Infantry school extended its timeline from 14 to 22 weeks for its one-station unit training cycle to develop a more lethal and ready force.
“There was a lot of dedication that went into that program. It was a lot longer hours, and it was draining for sure … but it came out with great results though. Those trainees got to their duty stations as top (Army Combat Fitness Test), top shooters,” she said.
Burns feels thankful for the experience as a drill sergeant.
“It definitely built confidence in myself, and resiliency for sure. I feel like it made me an overall better NCO, better Soldier because now I understand a different piece of the puzzle-going to an infantry unit and understanding tactics, getting in that 10-level understanding, whereas a medic we don’t do battle drills. Even in flight school, knowing some of the stuff that I learned as a drill sergeant has helped me in this environment,” she said.
Burns received the Order of Saint Maurice — Legionnaire award that recognizes outstanding contributions to the Infantry.
When she put in her packet and was selected for flight school, she finally realized a dream she had for years.
“I was so excited, I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “The Black Hawk portion of flight school has been better than I could ever expect. The (instructor pilots) out at Lowe (Army Heliport) were inspirational, very professional, absolutely amazing. I actually went to school every day learning, having fun. It was a healthy environment,” she said.
Sergeant Maj. Shavonda L. McLean, Lyster Army Health Clinic sergeant major, who has served as a mentor for Burns over the years, said Burns has a history of determination and resilience.
"I'm proud of her. As I watched her mature from a private to a pilot, she transformed from a Soldier to an NCO. She was a great leader, as I watched her grow up kind of following in my footsteps becoming an NCO then a drill sergeant, and then taking it above and beyond to become a pilot," McLean said. "I really appreciate the growth that I've seen from her, and I am just honored to be part of her journey."
Burns holds to a mantra that “everything happens for a reason,” and her journey inspires those she leads.
“To this day, all these trainees are messaging me, ‘How do I become a pilot like you?’ That’s something I want to teach other people — I want to provide for other people,” she said.
Though flight school was more demanding than she anticipated, and she endured some setbacks due to the coronavirus pandemic, she was proud to see it through while raising her daughters.
“Everything I do is for my girls,” she said. “As long as I can set that good example for them, I’m just over the moon happy.”