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Gathering memorabilia documenting legendary Medal of Honor recipient

From left, Staff Sgt. Arlena Mapu, Staff Sgt. Brandon Rose, and Staff Sgt. Rebekaira Dickerson, helped gather a dozen artifacts to document the life and service of late Medal of Honor recipient Col. Joe Jackson. Photo Credit: Pamela Sleezer, JBLM Public A

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JOINT BASE LEWIS-McCHORD - A dozen historical items documenting the extraordinary legacy of a Medal of Honor recipient who lived out his retirement in a community just outside of Joint Base Lewis-McChord fill an office room at the JBLM Headquarters building. Staff Sgt. Rebekaira Dickerson, with the 627th Air Base Group at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, looks over the collection carefully to be sure each piece is properly documented and has made the trip from Kent safely without a mark.

"It's all really impressive to look over," Dickerson said. "There's a lot of amazing history right here."

Dickerson, along with Staff Sgt. Arlena Mapu and Staff Sgt. Brandon Rose, both also with the 627th Air Base Group, was specifically requested by retired Maj. Gen. Thomas Kane, chairman of the board of advisors for the Airlift/Tanker Association, to collect and safeguard items detailing the life and service of the late retired Air Force Col. Joe M. Jackson.

The trio traveled to Kent to meet with Jackson's widow and children and collect memorabilia that will be shipped to the Air Mobility Command headquarters at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. The items will be unveiled by Gen. Mike Minihan, AMC commander, in a conference room to be dedicated to Jackson's memory on May 24.

Kane had served as a mentor to Dickerson and Rose, and so when the task came up he knew of their assignment to JBLM and called them immediately.

"When I received the call from Major General Kane, I knew immediately that this was not a job they would ask of just anyone," Rose said. "We all felt incredibly honored, getting to do this."

Stories of Jackson's heroism have become the stuff of Air Force legends and are backed by historical documentation. A native of Newnan, Ga., Jackson enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1941 during World War II. Originally intending to be an aircraft mechanic, Jackson soon realized his skills in the cockpit and enrolled in Aviation Cadet Training where he became a pilot and commissioned officer.

His name became known across military branches in 1968 during the Vietnam War. On May 12, 1968, during an attack on a special forces camp called Kham Duc, Jackson voluntarily risked his own life to save three remaining airmen who became trapped as enemy forces closed in.

As Vietnamese forces lined the runway on both sides with .50 caliber machine guns, the camp's runway had been declared impossible for landing. Jackson, in his C-123 Provider cargo aircraft, chose to dive in at maximum airspeed to rescue the men. His efforts were successful.

Dodging bullets and a rocket that landed in front of his plane that miraculously did not explode; Jackson was able to get all three men out of harm's way to safety.

It was the event for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Lyndon B. Johnson on Jan. 16, 1969.

Today, holding that exact medal in her hands, Mapu said she can't help but feel honored.

"This has been incredible," Mapu said. "Getting to meet Colonel Jackson's family members personally and safeguarding these historical items that have so much meaning is something that I can't believe we get to do."

Upon his retirement from the military, Jackson took a job with Boeing and ultimately made his way to Kent, where he settled down with his wife and two children. Jackson would see the main street through McChord Field be renamed Col. Joe Jackson Boulevard and one of the Air Force C-17s being named, "The Spirit of Joe Jackson" in 2006.

He passed away in 2019 at the age of 95.

Jackson's son, David Jackson, said it is an honor to see his father's memory continued to be honored.

"You know, as a kid I always thought what my dad did was normal," Jackson said. "As I grew up, I realized that wasn't the case and I continue to be amazed at my dad's accomplishments. I realize now the exciting times that my parents lived in and the incredible advancements in aviation my dad was a part of."

The items selected for public display include the original Medal of Honor citation letter signed by President Johnson that was presented to Jackson, as well as photos from the award ceremony and of Jackson and his C-123. There are also drawings that depict the embattled Kham Duc runway, as well as the only known photograph taken during the heroic rescue.

Dickerson said it has been a once in a lifetime opportunity to be able to collect and care for the items before they are packaged by the 627th Logistics Readiness Squadron.

"One of the great things about being in the military is that we take pride in our military heritage," she said. "It was such an honor for us all to be a part of this tasking to retrieve these memorabilia and speak to Col. Jackson's family and learn first-hand about him. This is an experience we will never forget and a moment that makes us proud to be a part of the greatest military in the world."

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