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Visiting the world's most turbulent places, Jon Wilson found his life forever altered. But now he's come back home to fulfill his dream—and is still able to be amazed.

Five years ago, in the unsettling days following 9/11, Jon Wilson stood on the grounds of the Pentagon, staring at the charred rubble. The young Army man had driven two high-ranking officers there who would plan the security matrix around America’s military headquarters. Officially their chauffeur, Wilson, a black belt in the martial arts, was also their bodyguard. In short, he was security for the securers.

“I was there while the building was still smoldering,” he reflects softly. Yet it was not the first life-altering experience, not the first time seeing a mass grave up close, for someone then only in his early 20s.

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  • After six years in the Army, Jon Wilson entered his local community college less than a month after coming home. Veterans find that technical training helps them transition from military life to "the real world," as Wilson calls it. Click here or scroll down to read about a veteran who started at a technical center far from home, only three days out of the Air Force.

How could someone so young have seen so much? It all started with that icon of small-town life, a lemonade stand.

“I was born and raised in a small little town, Somerset, Ky.,” he says. “Somerset’s a really small town. It’s equivalent to Mayberry.” Growing up, he spent a lot of time with his friends and younger brother. “We used to come up with all these different schemes — it sounds kind of shallow now — but to make money. We’d use this money to buy baseball, basketball and football cards. These schemes entailed setting up little lemonade stands which grew into hotdog stands right there on the side of Main Street.

“Everybody had their role of selling, and I never was, at least at that time, a very good speaker or interpersonal speaker. So, I would be ‘security.’ I was the security for the money, for the investment, everything. I’m not sure how that started. It was just a natural, protective thing. But that seemed to be my role, and it just grew from there.”

At age 15, Wilson (pictured left) started taking classes in tae kwon do, the Korean art of self-defense. His high school didn’t have any formal law enforcement program — “too small,” he points out — but “there were some criminal justice related classes that I took, anything I could find, anything I could suck up. But I knew from what little I did have in high school, that’s the direction that I did want to go.” He kept up the martial arts training, too, and became a first-degree black belt about the time he graduated in 1997.

“After that, I joined the United States Army under the military police corps,” Wilson says. “I talked to the recruiter. I had my mind made up that it was what I wanted to do [and said] ‘you’re the only branch that can really guarantee me being in a law enforcement position.’ I would be a 19-year-old by the end of summer. And of course, no other law enforcement agency does that — everyone else goes by a 21 [minimum age] standard.”

The recruiter had to agree to two conditions before Wilson signed up: first, that he would enter the service as a military police officer, and second, that he got to spend one last small-town summer with his friends. That second condition was a wise move. As summer set on Somerset, those memories would provide a much-needed escape from what he’d see during six years in the service.

A witness to history

“While I was in, I became a paratrooper, and we do that out of Fort Bragg, N.C.,” Wilson says. “I was deployed to Kosovo, one of the smaller countries in the former Yugoslavia, in ’99.” There had been conflict in that region since 1995, “but it erupted in Kosovo in ’99, and I was one of the last units to come on the first wave.”

When asked what that was like, Wilson responds quickly and firmly. “Life altering. Honestly, it really was. After I came back from that experience specifically, it was incredibly life altering. I looked at things a lot differently and realized that I, and a lot of the people that surrounded me, took life for granted.”

All that changed from being so close to the conflict. “There were people that we worked around, and would try to keep each other from, that literally wanted to eliminate each other just for who they were,” Wilson says. “And to us, there wasn’t much of a physical difference [among them]. These people looked, to me at least, a lot alike. And they lived maybe five miles away from each other, sometimes closer, and they brutally hated each other, and if given the chance, would kill their neighbor.” Standing at one of the mass graves, Wilson decided he would never look at life the same away again.

Most Americans had the same realization about two years later, on 9/11. By then, Wilson was back at Fort Bragg.

“From our point of view, it was just confusion at first, and for the rest of the nation, too, because we didn’t know what was going on,” he remembers the news unfolding. “At first it was ‘an accident,’ and then we were being attacked. And if we were being attacked, then by whom? And to be honest, I wasn’t a very high rank, so they didn’t tell me very much anyway.

“I looked at things a lot differently and realized that I, and a lot of people that surrounded me, took life for granted.” — Jon Wilson

“For the first couple of days, we just went into lockdown. So we got put on the outer perimeter of the fort, got very little sleep and were told very little.” His unit wasn’t assigned to go to the Pentagon, but with his background and experience, he was approached personally about going as a driver. Wilson stayed for seven months.

As chauffeur to the officers charged with securing the site, “whenever they worked, I worked, so there were long hours at the Pentagon and at different meeting sites around Washington, D.C.” Looking at Wilson, who’s now a third-degree black belt and a certified instructor, it’s hard to imagine anyone getting past him.

A new life back home

Wilson’s last tour, also for seven months, was in Afghanistan. In July 2003, the Army specialist left the service and went home. Less than a month later, he started classes at Somerset Community College.

“I didn’t want to go to a larger university at first. I just wanted to get acclimated back into the real world slowly,” Wilson says. He took some classes in allied health with an eye on nursing but switched to criminal justice, “that being my background.” He also began working in a staff position relating to safety and security.

Then came SkillsUSA. “My criminal justice instructor [Brandi Coomer] dragged me, not exactly kicking and screaming, but suggested it,” he laughs. “At first I was a little hesitant to get involved, because I didn’t know what it entailed and what it was. With all my other schoolwork and work work involved, I didn’t know if I’d have time for it.”

But after investigating SkillsUSA on his own, it sounded interesting. Wilson started competing in his regional championships, both in Job Skill Demonstration and in Criminal Justice. In only his first year as a member, he qualified for the SkillsUSA Championships in 2006. He placed fourth in the national Criminal Justice contest.

“When we first got to nationals, my state director told us it would be beyond imagination, and he totally didn’t disappoint. It’s amazing,” says Wilson, now 28. Particularly memorable was the service event that capped the week. “I worked on a community cleanup project with people from all over the nation — people under normal circumstances I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to meet.”

So, what’s next? More classes at the community college — “I haven’t forgotten where I came from,” he says — and continuing his education at Eastern Kentucky University. “It’s really one of the leading law enforcement schools in the nation. I aspire to become a federal law enforcement agent.”

He smiles. “I’m just naturally protective.” And as these unsettling times roll on, we all could use someone like Jon Wilson on our side.

Tech centers a great choice, another veteran says

When Andrew Barber (pictured left) of Lawton, Mich., left the U.S. Air Force in 2005, he wanted to become a technician in HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning). Ironically, it was a huge blast of air that brought him to his goal.

“Before I went into the service, I worked as diesel mechanic. Then I worked on transport refrigeration. I didn’t know much about it then, but I knew I wanted to get into it,” Barber says. In June 2005, Hurricane Arlene forced him to evacuate from Patrick Air Force Base in Cocoa Beach, Fla., to the Arnold Engineering and Development Center campground in Tullahoma, Tenn. “From there, I could see the mountains of East Tennessee. As I was preparing to get out of the Air Force, I looked for schools in Tennessee. I did a search on the Internet and found the Tennessee Technology Center at Elizabethton. Its HVAC/refrigeration program was just what I was looking for.”

Barber got out of the Air Force on July 2, 2005. Three days later, he began at the center. The G.I. Bill paid all registration fees and book costs. “I couldn’t have done it without the veteran’s benefits. Everything worked like clockwork. One month after enrolling in school, I received my first check,” Barber says.

A year after entering, Barber completed the program. He was a student role model, according to instructor Scott Simerly, and took first place in Tennessee and 11th place nationally in SkillsUSA’s HVACR competitions.

If veterans are seeking employment in the technology field, Barber suggests they consider attending a technology center, where “self-motivation is key to success. Students can progress as fast or as slow as they desire, depending upon their self-motivation.” He’s now employed in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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SkillsUSA Champions | Fall 2006 | Volume 41, No. 1
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