Jerry Wilson’s office is immaculate. The only clutter is the empty coffee mugs on the desk, revealing long and sleepless nights of work. Jerry Wilson, retired U.S. Air Force chief master sergeant, appears stern yet friendly.
“Don’t come here with no pity, because Jerry don’t play that pity game,” he said.
Wilson is the director of Veterans’ Services for Yamhill County Health and Human Services in McMinnville, Ore. He works with fellow veterans to ensure that they live comfortably in the country they once served. The military taught Wilson the value of hard work and being dependable. These qualities catapulted him to success as the most sought-after jet engine mechanic in the Air Force. Although he is now retired, he still thinks it’s important for veterans to live their lives according to those self-sufficient values.
Wilson was born in 1951 and raised in Fayetteville, N.C., near the second-largest military facilities in the U.S. It was not uncommon to see many GIs walking around town. People would gather to see soldiers jump out of planes during practice runs. Many of the men from Fayetteville were being drafted to Vietnam.
Wilson quickly realized he didn’t want to go to Vietnam. He had witnessed too many of his friends come back with deteriorating emotional and physical health.
"Some time down the line, you’re asking, ‘Hey, whatever happened to John?’ ‘Oh, John got killed in Vietnam, man,’” said Wilson.
At that time, Wilson was a recent college dropout. In high school, he had been offered a college football scholarship, but they told him he needed to get his grades up first. He was enrolled at a nearby community college when he abruptly quit to pursue a girl he thought he loved.
However, the relationship quickly fizzled, and Wilson began to grow anxious. Attending college had made him exempt from the draft. Soldiers were having a difficult time surviving in Vietnam. He knew it was only a matter of time before he was called to serve and, more than likely, would be sent to Vietnam. On the advice of a close friend who was getting ready to retire from the U.S. Air Force, Wilson took the initiative to enlist on Feb. 22, 1972.
“One week into base, I got my notice from the draft,” said Wilson. He had merely escaped combat.
For the next 31 years, Wilson would live in a world of travel, discipline, hard work and self-sufficiency. Initially, he had filed papers to become an air cargo specialist, but the Air Force needed jet engine mechanics. During the six-week basic training, new enlistees go through tests and training to demonstrate their talents and qualities.
After he was selected for a jet engine mechanic position, Wilson was assigned to go to Illinois for a 13-week course. When he finished the course, it was time for him to decide where he wanted to go.
“I wanted to go to England. Most of the guys who were in my program wanted to go stateside. I was like, I don't want to go home! I just got out of that place. I want to go somewhere exciting,” said Wilson. Out of 60 in his graduating class, only five went overseas.
Since his career began during Vietnam, Wilson worked on planes that were coming back from combat.
“The F-4 Phantom was one of the planes. It was kind of scary to see bullet holes in the tails. Very, very rugged airplane, but we had a job to do,” said Wilson.
After Vietnam, he began to work his way up the ranks as a jet engine mechanic. He did his best to emulate people who were good at their jobs.
“I saw a lot of people in my 31 years – supervisors whose decisions and actions I liked. So I’d think, OK, I like a little bit of that. Then, I’d see supervisors who were a pain, who were hated, who yelled and cursed at you. That’s when I’d think, Wow, OK, this right here is not good, so I don’t want to be like that,” said Wilson.
He eventually became a production supervisor, which he said is the best job in the Air Force. As a supervisor, the person is in control of the flight line: when the planes are taking off, when they are coming back, how they are being fixed. Everything comes through the production supervisor. The stressful job had Wilson trying to figure out ways to positively encourage his team.
“You are producing planes to fly, and by all means, not every situation requires you to be an asshole. I learned that you can ask someone why something is not done, and if they say, ‘Well, because of this and that,’ well, OK, thank you,” said Wilson. “But if they’re just like, ‘I don't know,’ then you have to put a bit of fire under them.”
This fire would eventually get him to the highest position in his field: chief master sergeant, otherwise known as level E9. However, his happiness was briefly overshadowed by the few who didn't appreciate his success. Wilson is of African-American descent, and during that time, blacks were not seen in level E9 positions. Some people protested his achievement, but fortunately, there were more people who supported him, and it didn’t harm his promotion.
“I definitely felt it. I felt it and I saw it. There comes a point when you begin to question things, especially when you see that you’re better than a guy, and yet they’re getting the position over you,” said Wilson. “You don't like who I am? Well, deal with it. There is still racism in the Air Force, and it will never go away. But it’s not as common as it once used to be.”
Not allowing the encounters to bring him down, Wilson began to develop a course on jet engine techniques to teach to the men under his supervision. The course proved to be a great success. Under Wilson, the squad was quick and efficient, and they won awards for their hard work. The Air Force quickly began to see Wilson as the recovery guy. Whenever he was given a plane to fix, it was fixed, no questions asked. He and his teams played key roles in the 1986 bombing of Libya and the 1999 bombing of Kosovo.
Wilson was preparing to file for retirement when Sept. 11 occurred. He was put on stop-loss, meaning that his service was involuntarily extended. However, a friend offered him a job with Evergreen International Airlines in McMinnville. Because of his already lengthy career, Wilson requested to be released from his military service. His request was granted. After 31 years in the U.S. Air Force, Wilson retired on June 30, 2002.
While in the Air Force, Wilson kept a side job because he didn’t want to lose his sense of civilian life. He knew he’d get out one day and didn’t want to be a stranger to society.
His transition into small-town life was easy. After a few years at Evergreen, Wilson got another offer to work as the director of Veterans’ Services in McMinnville. He enjoys a quiet life with his girlfriend while aiding fellow veterans.
He’s been retired for almost 11 years, but he hasn’t forgotten his duties. He tries to show the veterans he works with the value of the knowledge and mindset they gained from their service.“I will help you, but you have to want to help yourself as well. This is what the military taught you, and you know this,” said Wilson. “I don’t think I’m better than anyone. I simply know I’m smarter than I was before.”
Writing: Blanca Esquivel
Photograph: Alex Ogle