Marine Corps Great Leaders: Colonel Gilda A. Jackson (USMC Retired)

by Chaplain, Major Meoshia A. Wilson

Maj Wilson is a chaplain in the United States Air Force who has deployed to an undisclosed location. She is a student at the United States Marine Corps Command and Staff College. She was previously assigned to the Office of the Chief of Chaplains at Headquarters Air Force.


A great leader is one who blazes a trail with integrity, despite adversity, and influences and empowers others to do the same. Col Gilda A. Jackson is a great leader who directly served in the Marine Corps for nearly thirty years and indirectly served the Marine Corps as the president and general manager of Lockheed Martin Aero Parts for fourteen years. She joined the Marine Corps as an active-duty enlisted supply clerk in 1968 during the Vietnam War. After her initial enlistment, she transitioned to the reserves while completing her bachelor’s degree in economics. In 1975, she commissioned as a logistics officer, and her military career soared from there. Two of her historic accomplishments include being the first black woman selected to the rank of colonel and becoming the first woman to command the Naval Aviation Depot in Cherry Point, NC. In her own words, Col Jackson believes that one success leads to other successes.1 Col Jackson was successful because she exercised her faith in God, incorporated her mentors’ advice, seized the opportunities presented to her, and applied leadership lessons along the way.

Faith in God

            Faith in God was, and still is, a lifeline for Col Jackson. She was raised in Columbus, OH, in a Catholic home and continued to attend Mass throughout her time in the Marine Corps. She usually worshiped off base and would also participate in Mass on base whenever she served as a commander. During an interview, Col Jackson expressed how important it was for her subordinates to see her worship at the base chapel. She wanted personnel to know that she lived out her faith convictions.2 When in command, leaders’ speech and actions communicate their values and beliefs. Thus, those who saw Col Jackson in Mass saw that she valued assembling with parishioners, praying, receiving holy communion, and being encouraged through the homily. Her faith was the foundation of her resilience. Black officers were few in the 1970s, so their ability to gain renewed strength for challenging times was critical. Col Jackson was repeatedly the only, or one of the few, black officers in her units. Dating back to the entrance of black Marines at Montford Point in 1942, black enlisted men had to prove themselves worthy of being called a Marine. It was not until the end of World War II that black service members proved themselves to be Marines.3 Women would travel a similar journey in striving to be called a Marine rather than a female Marine. Fast-forward to 1975, then Lt Jackson testified that she still felt the pressure to perform and even prove herself. She was a double minority, a black woman, who navigated leading the majority amid Marine culture. To persevere while leading through difficult times, her faith in God kept her prayerful and grounded.

Advice from Mentors

            Seeking and heeding the advice of mentors was another component of Col Jackson’s success. Some of her mentors include retired LtGen Willie Williams, retired MajGen Joe Anderson, and Harry Black. Mr. Black’s rank upon retirement is unknown to the interviewer; however, he was consistent in telling Col Jackson what to do and avoid. She trusted each of her mentors to steer her in the right direction and expected them to be brutally honest with her. She was open to correction because she knew her mentors would speak the truth. It is priceless to have truthtellers in one’s life, especially as a commander, because people who say what they think the commander wants to hear outweigh those who will say what needs to be said. Therefore, Col Jackson kept her mentors close. The guidance she received from mentors contributed to her performance, which positioned her for selection to in-residence professional military education (PME) at every level. She completed Amphibious Warfare School, Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and Air War College (AWC), all by correspondence before attending in-residence. It is no small feat to be selected for school and even more of a privilege to attend PME at a sister Service school. Col Jackson’s experience in AWC gave her more in-depth aviation knowledge, which bolstered her expertise in preparation for commanding at the Naval Aviation Depot.

           Before AWC, while commanding the Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13 in Yuma, Arizona, a mentor taught her a professional tactic that would become a personal hobby—golf. Each month, the wing commander held a wing review of aircraft, unit manning, and staff personnel. After the review, some of the squadron commanders played golf with the wing commander. Col Jackson was not interested in golf and did not know how to play, so she did not attend. She noticed that the squadron commanders who did attend received whatever they asked for in meetings. The squadron commander’s trend was to make a request during the meeting, and if the wing commander looked puzzled, the squadron commander would reference what she/he had discussed with the wing commander on the golf course. After discussing this observation with her mentor, Col Jackson took five golf lessons, and to this day, she spends at least three days each week on the golf course. Her mentor told her that golfing with the wing commander would allow her to discuss some of her squadron’s priorities, explain what was needed (e.g., money or manpower), and establish a bond with all of the commanders in attendance because it may come in handy later. From that point forward, Col Jackson followed her mentor’s advice and reaped the benefits when she too would remind the wing commander of what they discussed on the golf course. Mentors can help open doors, and what they suggest can be favorable in public and private life; it certainly was for Col Jackson.

Seize Opportunities

            Seizing opportunities was a habit before Col Jackson ever entered the Marine Corps, which worked to her advantage. She graduated from high school at age seventeen, a year after her father passed away, and looked for direction. The first opportunity she seized was joining the military. She intended to join the Air Force, but the recruiter was out of the office when she arrived at the recruiting station. The Marine recruiter was there and offered to assist her. He answered her questions and asked her to fill out a form with her contact information. He promised to leave it with the Air Force recruiter. Soon after that, the Marine recruiter called and asked if she wanted to come in and take the entrance exam, to which she agreed. As she was preparing to depart for basic training, the Air Force recruiter called to see if she was still interested. The Air Force’s loss was the Marine Corps’ gain. Then Sgt Jackson seized the opportunity to close the gap between her and the white women officers. She asked someone this question as she pointed to a woman officer, “What’s the difference between her and me?”3 The response she was received was “a college degree,” and she said, “I can do that.”4 Col Jackson completed her bachelor’s in 1975, and she commissioned the same year and completed her master’s degree in Human Resources Management in 1977.

            Beyond completing civilian education and PME, mentioned above, Col Jackson began her officer career serving Marines, yet she spent a significant part of her career with the Navy. Lisa Tendrich Frank summarizes Col Jackson’s officer career below:

She began a career in marine aviation that included stints as supply officer for the Stations Operation and Engineering Squadron in El Toro, California, as a Group Aviation Supply Support Center officer for the Marine Aircraft 12 in Iwakuni, Japan, and as a fiscal officer for the Marine Aircraft Group 16 for the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing in Tustin, California … she served in the Headquarters and Maintenance Squadron of the Marine Aircraft Group 13 … once again, in the Marine Helicopter Training Squadron 301…she was stationed at the Navy Aviation Supply Office in Philadelphia, where she served as weapons system manager…she became commander of the Marine Aviation Logistics Squadron 13 in Yuma, Arizona, and then the Marine support requirements officer at the Joint Advanced Strike Technology Program Office … she reported to the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing and shortly after earned a promotion to colonel and received the command of the Naval Aviation Depot … in her final assignment in the military, Jackson commanded the largest industrial employer east of I-95 and one with a billion-dollar annual budget.5

            Col Jackson’s assignments were challenging, but she loved serving others and accomplishing the mission. When she was selected to command the Naval Aviation Depot, she was honored and nervous simultaneously. The concerns she shared with her mentor revolved around what she thought maybe limitations. She told him, “but I’m a woman and they are men, I’m not an aviator and they are, I haven’t pinned on colonel yet.”6 Her mentor calmed her down by telling her not to worry about any of that. He assured her that she had been preparing for years to excel in the depot. Her mentor’s encouragement fueled her work ethic, which was to dazzle people by doing her homework and showing them that she knows what she is doing.7 Thus, commanding at the depot was another opportunity for Col Jackson to shine.

            Col Jackson did so well at the depot that Lockheed Martin asked her to consider working for it upon retiring from the Marine Corps. She initially dismissed the offer; however, they insisted she propose a salary range that would make her reconsider. After giving the Lockheed Martin representative a ridiculous dollar figure, the representative agreed and sealed the deal. Col Jackson’s expertise, experience, and leadership ability were priceless, and Lockheed Martin was relentless in adding her to its team. Although money attracted Col Jackson to the company, what made the job special was the opportunity it would give her to continue contributing to the Marine Corps C-130 mission. Upon retiring from the Marine Corps in 2001, she became the president and general manager of Lockheed Martin AeroParts. She was responsible for developing “training systems and curriculum for future pilots and aviation mechanics.”8 After fourteen years with Lockheed Martin, Col Jackson retired again in 2018. She undoubtedly experienced one success after another in the Marine Corps and at Lockheed Martin, all of which began with her willingness to seize the opportunities presented.

Six Leadership Lessons

            Leadership lessons are plenteous and can only make a difference when applied. Col Jackson learned countless lessons over her fifty-year career between the two organizations. What follows are six lessons extracted from stories Col Jackson shared while being interviewed. Lesson one: one can garner respect if people see the ribbons one has earned. She was prior enlisted but neglected to wear her ribbons on her uniform. She noticed that the senior enlisted personnel did not show her respect as a second lieutenant. A mentor told her to start wearing her ribbons and see if anything changed. Perhaps the ribbons communicated experience, knowledge, and wisdom to the enlisted personnel because they showed Col Jackson respect from that point forward. Lesson two: junior officers focus on leadership, and senior officers focus on managing while still leading. Senior officers can no longer be in the weeds; instead, they should have a big picture view of the organization’s direction while empowering lower echelon leaders to handle the details. Col Jackson’s distinction is a great way to establish boundaries, avoid micromanaging, and give junior officers an opportunity to lead with minimal interference.

            Lesson three: failure can teach one to pay closer attention to the details and know where the mission’s breaking point is. As a logistician, running out of supplies such as an aircraft tailhook was forbidden. After committing what was forbidden, Col Jackson learned to create a never out list and ensure those supplies were always in stock. Lesson four: leaders should read books and articles on how other people commanded and apply what is most pertinent to their situation. Reading other people’s experiences can be helpful because it reminds the reader that they are not alone, poses different scenarios to consider, provides varied perspectives, and sparks new ideas to implement. Lesson five: commanders should solicit their sergeant major’s advice and know when they are just sharing information versus wanting the commander to take action. The sergeant major needs to know that he/she is a valued member of the command team and will be taken seriously as an advisor to the commander.

            Lesson six: the decision-making process should be taken seriously since it is complex. For Col Jackson, her process included prayer and assessing whether her decision would facilitate a discharge action for someone and how it could affect their pay and livelihood. She would then gather all possible options and enlist a mentor’s help to identify the most likely and executable course of action. She would attempt to predict the outcome of that course of action and stand by her decision. There is wisdom in Col Jackson’s approach to making decisions because it demonstrates her compassion for people while maintaining good order and discipline and shows that she did not make significant decisions in a vacuum. The leader who makes intentional decisions and applies the lessons that she/he has learned is one who spends time reflecting.

Conclusion

            In reflection of the interview with Col Jackson, she is an inspiration. To have been a minority throughout her career yet break barriers despite having to prove herself is a testament to her character. She was a woman of faith who carried God with her while leading and managing people. The mentorship she received was an extension of God’s guidance, so Col Jackson relied on mentors to keep her out of trouble and propel her past her peers. Once pushed, she seized the opportunity to lead and be challenged because she knew it would facilitate learning and growth. As a lifetime learner, she gleaned leadership lessons that she applied throughout her career. One win led to many victories. Although she is retired two times over, she continues to mentor youth and young adults because she wants to contribute to their one success, leading to other wins. Her legacy is that she made it easier for her successors, and she showed people what was possible. The interviewer is a first-hand witness of what is possible for her and considers Col Jackson to be one who has provided shoulders upon which the interviewer can stand.


Notes

1. Staff, “Once a Marine, Always a Marine: The Story of Gilda A. Jackson,” Marines TV Video, (September 2017, available at https://www.marines.mil.

2. Zoom interview between Gilda A. Jackson and Meoshia Wilson on 22 January 2021.

3. Ronald Culp, The First Black United States Marines: The Men of Montford Point, 1942-1946 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2007).

4. Zoom interview between Gilda A. Jackson and Meoshia Wilson on 22 January 2021.

5. Ibid.

6. Lisa Tendrich Frank, An Encyclopedia of American Women at War: From the Home Front to the Battlefields, (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2013).

7. Zoom interview between Gilda A. Jackson and Meoshia Wilson on 22 January 2021.

8. Ibid.

9. An Encyclopedia of American Women at War.

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