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Breaking Barriers, Building Camaraderie in the U.S. Army

Jackson broke stereotypes as a successful Filipina in the military

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AVR Staff; (Source: Getty Images (2); Jackson)

When Cielito Jackson broke bread with her fellow Filipino-Americans in 1985 during her first assignment in Fort Drum, New York,  she felt a sense of camaraderie. This tradition would follow her as she moved from post to post, including overseas deployments to Germany, Bosnia and Iraq, she said. Despite being far from home, the tradition of enjoying Filipino cuisine and conversing in her native tongue provided a sense of comfort.

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“A Filipino trait called ‘bayanihan’ (communal unity) and hospitality are prominent in core values,” she said. “There's a joke that if you invite one, then that one invites one or two and so on.”

For Jackson, now a retired sergeant major, these gatherings were more than mere cookouts. They signified the power of community and the ability to overcome obstacles during a 32-year military career. Today, as an advocate for women in the military, Jackson, 54, stresses the significance of camaraderie, which she believes has a profound impact on soldiers on and off the battlefield.

Overcoming stereotypes to serve

Jackson moved to the U.S. from the Philippines as a teenager and joined the Army in 1985 to both repay the country that welcomed her family, and to pursue her education.

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“I'd only been in the country two years,” she said. “So, the accent was there. I just finished high school. I was very young. So, all of those things kind of converged.”

In 1990, she took a job as a career counselor for the Army.

“My responsibility was to retain our soldiers,” she said. “If they decide that they want to leave the military, then we also counsel them to continue their service by joining the Reserve component.”

Initially, Jackson encountered skepticism and disapproval, with some labeling her a "pencil pusher" who was unlikely to experience combat. To make matters worse, a male civilian employee went so far as to suggest that her role was insignificant and dispensable.

Nevertheless, she persevered.

In 1995, Jackson received an unexpected deployment to Bosnia. That meant leaving her 5-year-old daughter, who had recently undergone surgery, in the care of her ailing grandfather.

Although she faced doubts and criticism about her role as a career counselor, Jackson demonstrated her value in Bosnia, where she served as the only woman career counselor and took on unexpected responsibilities as part of the security team for her brigade commander.

“That was not really what I was supposed to be doing, but it became my responsibility,” she said. “That was my first experience of being actually outside ‘the wire.’ My idea was that I was just going to stay inside. I'm going to be talking to soldiers. Being a part of the security team, I was able to go and jump from camp to camp and use that time where my leadership was being briefed to visit with the soldiers.”

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Despite being told by cynics that she would be stuck at a desk, Jackson's experience was just the opposite. On her 28th birthday, she recalls being in the demilitarized zone in Bosnia and Herzegovina, also known as the zone of separation, visiting soldiers, with her M16 rifle prepared for any situation.

Throughout her career, Jackson became accustomed to being the only woman in the group, especially when traveling between camps.

“I have these mental gymnastics that goes on in my head and I just have to put myself into that mode and say, ‘OK, this thing needs to be done. I gotta go out there,’” she said. “I knew that there was a job that needed to be done and I had the responsibility of being the leader for my career counselors and gain their trust, support and at some point, respect.”

Achieving success  

During her tenure, Jackson received numerous awards and decorations while often being among the ‘first women minority’ to accomplish a feat. Nonetheless, naysayers would tell her that she excelled only because the promotion board “only looks at diversity.”

“I used to show them that whatever it is that you are thinking about me, your perception of me, people like me, women like me, or career counselors like me, I’m going to prove that you’re wrong,” she said.

Some of her achievements include becoming the first woman minority in her unit to achieve the rank of corporal; receiving the Honorable Order of St. Barbara from the U.S. Field Artillery Association; and being named an honorary graduate of the Taiwan Army Academy, with a Taiwan Army Achievement gold star medal for her work helping the nation's army retain its soldiers.

Still, Jackson said her proudest moment in life was becoming a mother.

Camaraderie among women and minorities

Jackson says that the bonds she created with women, Filipinos and other Asian Americans was almost automatic.

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Courtesy Cielito Jackson

“They were like, ‘Wow, there’s a female sergeant major making that rank,’” she said. “So, we talked and we exchanged ideas. It was a camaraderie.”

Among Filipinos, the conversation was different, especially if they were lower-ranking.

“Tactfully, they would come up and we would talk, engage, and then this leads to talking about where we came from,” she said. “Then we would start to see whether we were related at some point.”

Just like her first deployment to Bosnia, many conversations were held around the table during Filipino cookouts.

“I don’t know how in the world they were able to finagle some of this food that they were able to have. On my first deployment to Iraq, it was the same way,” she said. “I just find that a lot of the Filipino soldiers, different ranks, even the contracters, folks that worked at the dining facility, came together.”

Building camaraderie today  

Looking back on the challenges she faced during her 32 years of service, Jackson said that she would tell her younger self, “People are people and many things are going to come your way. There are going to be many challenges for whatever reason. But be more cognizant of that within you -- you have the fortitude, the character, the discipline, and the gut, to overcome and do what you're supposed to do. Think of the bigger picture of the people that you're going to be encouraging or inspire.”

Jackson has been a charter member of the Military Women's Memorial since 1997 and currently serves as the Texas ambassador, where she has met and honored numerous trailblazing women.

“I don’t want anybody to perceive that I think I am better than them. That is the last thing on my mind,” she said. “If they see something in me and it would inspire them to do better, that is truly all I'm after.” 

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