From Wellsboro to West PointNov 01, 2021 08:00AM ● By Lilace Mellin Guignard
Captain Jacqueline Thompson grew up in Tioga County but has traveled all over, including Afghanistan and Korea. She has served her country, earning many awards and decorations including the Bronze Star Medal and Combat Action Badge for honorable service in a combat zone.
This fall she began teaching as an instructor in the Department of Behavioral Sciences and Leadership at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, putting her only four hours away from Wellsboro, the place she calls home. “Soldiers from Pennsylvania have been some of the toughest I’ve worked with, both physically and mentally,” she says. “We take care of each other and do our part—and that’s what community is. Wherever I serve, I represent our community. I’m proud of our resilience, grit, and work ethic.”
After graduating from Elkland Area High School in 2007, Jacqueline attended Mansfield University where she studied Business Management, working full-time while taking honors classes. In her junior year, she met students attending on the GI bill and heard their stories of service in Iraq. She was inspired to use her leadership skills in the Army. Eight days after graduating, she left for basic combat training, and then Officer Candidate School. “I chose the transportation branch so I could use my business degree in supply chain management,” she explains.
As a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps, she was stationed at Fort Drum, and assigned as a distribution platoon leader in the First Brigade Combat Team, Tenth Mountain Division (Light Infantry). Within six months, she was deployed to Afghanistan. “Things were suddenly real,” she says.
In 2013, she led more than sixty logistical patrols across eastern Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Most of the soldiers stayed on base training Afghan soldiers, while Jacqueline drove equipment and supplies across eastern Afghanistan almost daily. “I planned our missions and executed them alongside my soldiers, sharing the risk.”
In 2015, during her second deployment to Afghanistan, she heard the Secretary of Defense announce that all combat jobs in all military branches would be open to women. “Like many women, I had already served in combat zones, even though our positions were classified as support. Whether you are trained in infantry or something else, it’s a 360-degree combat zone. It’s not a linear fight, and it hasn’t been for some time.”
Jacqueline completed the Combined Logistics Captains’ Career Course (CLC3) and was assigned to the Eighty-Second Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, where she jumped out of airplanes for a while. She assumed command of Headquarters Support Company, Eighty-Second Combat Aviation Brigade in January 2017. Her responsibility included the readiness of 180 soldiers assigned as the Global Response Force, capable of deploying worldwide in seventy-two hours or less. For two years she was always on call. In July 2018, Jacqueline served as an Exercise Planning Officer in the Eighth Army in Korea, during the time President Trump was attempting peace talks. There she met Major Kyle Burns, from Kentucky, whom she married two years ago.
She believes the military is heading in the right direction regarding equal rights and equal opportunity. “When I joined in 2011, they removed Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell and there was more acceptance. It doesn’t make sense to have barriers that keep a good soldier from serving.” She had the privilege of working with Deputy Commanding General Diana Holland, the first woman in many of her positions, who became Jacqueline’s mentor. “She was always authentic and very intelligent,” Jacqueline recalls. “It matters that young women see women in leadership positions so they don’t limit the goals they set for their future.” She does not feel she had to work harder than men or meet different standards, though she knows women are often told this when thinking of joining the military. “I was at the top of my class. Even when deployed in combat I was evaluated as the top lieutenant out of twenty. I was outperforming the men and we were measured by actual performance—physical and mental. Gender had nothing to do with it.”
Her high level of performance is why the Army paid for her to get her master’s degree in social organizational psychology at Columbia University. She then applied to become a West Point instructor, and she’s enjoying being in the classroom.
“The students are so smart! Many were valedictorians, speak several languages, and are great athletes.” At thirty-two, she’s younger than many of the professors but explains mid-level officers are valued for their recent combat experience. In three years, she’ll rejoin the deployable ranks, leading the cadets she’s teaching today. “The military is not a last option,” Jacqueline emphasizes. “It’s top-notch education and training in very technical areas. The Army is not looking for numbers, we are looking to create experts.”
This Veterans Day, Jacqueline will visit her mother and sister in Wellsboro, stroll down Main Street, shop at small businesses, and eat at the Penn Wells Hotel. “Veterans struggle when their community doesn’t understand and embrace their sacrifices,” she says, referring to the high suicide rate among veterans. “We’re lucky ours does more than most.”
Dawn Pletcher, who runs Goodies for Our Troops in Wellsboro, sent boxes of donations for hundreds of soldiers in Afghanistan during her deployments, which meant a lot. Jacqueline encourages us to not just thank a veteran for their service, but to also ask questions, ask for stories. Connect.
For Jacqueline, life in the military has been about building relationships, with other American soldiers and with people in Afghanistan and Korea. “I left pieces of my heart with all of them,” she admits. She’s passionate about inspiring and empowering young women and hopes more will think about a career in the military. They can email her at [email protected] with questions.