Sgt. Juan Jackson sat on the bus full of Soldiers, waiting for their next event during their Best Warrior competition.
He stared out the window quietly, head resting on his hand, arm propped up at the elbow against the window glass. The rest of the competitors joked and frolicked with a buzz of energy and good spirits. Jackson’s face, however, matched the mood of Wisconsin’s 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 candid waiting that unfolds between events at these types of competitions. It doesn’t paint sadness or boredom, this photo, 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.”
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, 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 10:00 p.m. that night and didn’t go to sleep until almost midnight, before waking up again at 3:00 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: proclaimed as the Best Warrior winner for the 416th Theater Engineer Command (TEC) in the noncommissioned officer category. Now he’s in the midst of rigorous studying and training for the next level: the Army Reserve Best Warrior Competition, held at Fort Dix, New Jersey, this June.
“I have no idea (what to expect), 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. That moment on the bus was a rare one; Jackson’s personality is energetic. Confident. Infectious.
He talks about leadership, caring for his fellow Soldiers, maintaining discipline like he means every word.
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 took his stamina and strength from Muay Thai to the combatives mat and defeated every one of his opponents. He earned extra points through submissions. This allowed him to edge for the lead, and then secured it later during the appearance board.
“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 in around him. For Jackson, these competitions are about perseverance and resiliency, words he correlated to his character. His fighting character, 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, ‘Okay, 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’ll bring to the Reserve level competition. He knows he’ll face some of 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 next tier will be more intense than each competition he’s won so far.
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.”