FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas -- Admittedly, growing up on the streets of Atlanta in the late 1970s searching for trouble was producing a harsh reality for a teenager whose alternative of leading a straight path in uniform was furthermost from his thoughts. Like many teens whose angst after graduating high school is often typified by a contemptuous demeanor, 18-year-old Clinton Jackson didn't want anybody, let alone his parents, telling him what to do.It was a little more than a year after high school and his own experiences with parenthood that he believes provided the direction lacking in his life. As an initial step of getting his "act together," Jackson enlisted in the Army in September 1980, a few weeks after his celebrating his 19th birthday."I already had my path figured out, but saw it was heading down a dead-end road," said Jackson, the command sergeant major for the Mission and Installation Contracting Command here. "I look back on myself in high school and what I used to do, and the Army put me on the right path. It turned me into a success story."Having found his new path, the next step involved another life-changing event only a few months later when on holiday break from basic training Jackson married Sonya Bray, with whom he now shares three children.As Jackson prepares to retire following a change-of-responsibility ceremony Jan. 9, he points to that youthful characteristic of instigator as a key trait in his success of reaching the highest enlisted rank."I've always been one of those people who ended up being a leader, even if it was mischief with my buddies," the 31-year veteran said.Jackson enlisted in the Army initially in the supply military occupation specialty and began his basic training at Fort Dix, N.J. But a bout of pneumonia hospitalized him for six weeks, forcing him to reclassify into a new MOS."I asked for food service since it was the quickest way to make rank," said Jackson, who made staff sergeant in his first three years. "Over those three years, I fell in love with it. So, I stayed in food service for 22 years."Along the way he's completed culinary training, has been a team captain for four culinary art teams and is a certified chef."Food service was very good to me; however, my whole goal and motivation throughout my career has been to lead Soldiers," Jackson said.It was through food service that he honed his leadership skills. As a dining facility manager, he had opportunities to lead groups of food service Soldiers numbering more than 120 and 150. Yet, he acknowledges that beyond platoon sergeant and first sergeant, opportunities to lead a greater number of people were limited in the food service MOS and that he "wanted to lead more people."After serving eight months as a staff sergeant major, he was selected to be a command sergeant major -- only the fifth food service Soldier at the time -- for the 561st Corps Support Battalion at Fort Campbell, Ky. It was with the 561st CSB that he cut his teeth as a command sergeant major, having 2,200 Soldiers under his command and taking the unit to Iraq for a year."That deployment was the highlight of my career. After all, I joined the Army because it was the only legal way to fight," Jackson admitted with a vigorous laugh.It was during his yearlong deployment that Jackson's profound respect for those filling the Army's junior NCO ranks grew immeasurably as he watched young Soldiers mature overnight."The biggest ballplayers in Iraq were the young sergeants and staff sergeants. They're out there stepping up to the plate running and leading convoys," the command sergeant major said. "Everybody's lives in those convoys depended on those young sergeants and staff sergeants."Jackson's battalion didn't lose a single Soldier during that deployment."That's when you feel proud of what you've done. I still receive letters today from Soldiers thanking me for their experience. That's when you know you've made a difference in somebody's life," he said.Upon return from his deployment, Jackson set his sights on his next leadership opportunity, becoming the command sergeant major for the U.S. Army Garrison Japan at Camp Zama, a small, close-knit community rich in culture that stands out as his most memorable assignment."We used to always say you're in a fish bowl because everyone sees everything that goes on -- you get to know every little rock, every little cranny," he said.As garrison command sergeant major, his wife and family also joined Jackson in the opportunity to become intimately involved in their local community that has been recognized for outstanding services and facilities."Everybody was embedded in my mission and had their own part," Jackson said. "Whether it was working with orphans or abused kids, we made a difference in their lives and had the satisfaction of seeing the outcome."Following his brigade leadership position, he applied for his first dominative position and was selected as the command sergeant major for the MICC, led by Brig. Gen. Stephen Leisenring."I've been in this organization since it was first established. I've seen the good, the bad and the ugly," he said. "I've seen civilian employees go from working as an agency, with each separate section doing their own thing, to becoming a command and becoming one team, one fight, working together."My goal from day one was to make it to the top, and the top is becoming a command sergeant major. Once you've done that, to make it to the general officer level is top," Jackson said. "I couldn't have picked a better battle buddy to work for and time to retire. When you finish a military career, you want to finish knowing that you have accomplished what you set out to do and on a good note. Everything about the MICC has been positive. I've met a lot of dedicated and professional civilians."Jackson plans to stay in the local area following his retirement next month, but is confident that he'll remain involved with helping Soldiers and families."Being a command sergeant major has always been my goal since I was a private. The only problem is, the higher you get up on the food chain as a command sergeant major, the further away from the Soldiers you become," he said. "I'll miss the Soldiers most."