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Command chief reflects on Red Tails connection

Chief Master Sgt. Jackson poses for photo

U.S. Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Charles Jackson Jr. poses for a photo outside the 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group building at an undisclosed location somewhere in Southwest Asia Aug. 16, 2021. Jackson’s uncle was a Tuskegee Airman, retiring as a colonel in 1973. (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Traci Keller)

World War II pilot poses for photo

U.S. Army Air Corps Capt. Ernest Craigwell Jr. poses for an undated photo. Craigwell served in the U.S. Armed Forces from 1945 until his retirement in 1973. When Craigwell first enlisted, he was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group. (Photo courtesy of Commemorative Air Force RISE ABOVE)

Pilot poses for portrait

U.S. Air Force Capt. Ernest Craigwell Jr. poses for a photo in 1955. Craigwell served in the U.S. Armed Forces from 1945 until his retirement in 1973. When Craigwell first enlisted, he was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group. (Photo courtesy of Commemorative Air Force RISE ABOVE)

Pilot poses for photo

U.S. Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. Ernest Craigwell Jr. poses for an undated photo. Craigwell served in the U.S. Armed Forces from 1945 until his retirement in 1973. When Craigwell first enlisted, he was assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group. (Photo courtesy of Commemorative Air Force RISE ABOVE)

When Chief Master Sgt. Charles Jackson Jr., 332nd Expeditionary Operations Group superintendent, in-processed with the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing on August 6, 2021, he officially became a part of the Red Tails family. However, his ties to the legendary 332nd preceded his arrival by decades with the connection to his uncle.

“He married into our family, but you know, family's family,” said Jackson. “One of the things that connected us was my military service. I had not known much about him. And then over the years, he started sharing his story.”

Jackson’s uncle, retired Col. Ernest Craigwell Jr., originally enlisted as a crew chief in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1945 and became a Red Tail, assigned to the 332nd Fighter Group. He eventually earned his pilot wings, logging more than 6,000 hours, between the end of WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.

“For Tuskegee Airmen, it was an extremely tough time,” said Jackson, speaking of their service during a notoriously turbulent time in U.S. history. “Not only did they fight the wars abroad, now you had to come home and fight that second--the social.

“He talked a bit about that, but he persevered,” continued Jackson. “From him, I learned persistence. Have a belief in yourself and know that if you’re committed to a particular goal, it's gonna happen, but you have to stay committed, because the obstacles are going to come.”

According to Commemorative Air Force RISE ABOVE, a Tuskegee Airmen and Women Airforce Service Pilots educational outreach program, Craigwell logged more than 400 combat missions while in the military, earning 26 medals of valor. He retired from service in 1973 and passed away in 2011.

“We would sit down for hours and just talk,” said Jackson. “And, you know, when you're listening to history like that, and you just become a sponge, because after he initially told me about his experiences…those conversations really got real.”

While serving as the superintendent of the 147th Force Support Squadron, 147th Attack Wing, Ellington Field Joint Reserve Base, Texas, and preparing for his deployment, Jackson was at first unaware of the reconnection that was soon to happen.

“It's really surreal to come here and actually be in the 332nd,” said Jackson. “It wasn't until probably about three weeks or so before I arrived. Then when I got here, and just to see the pride that they have, with the ‘Spit fire’ and all that. This could not have happened any better.”

Jackson says being with the Red Tails is almost “coming full circle.” After 39 years of service, he plans to eventually retire and spend more time with family in Alabama and Georgia.

In the meantime, he is eager to serve the men and women of the 332nd EOG.

“I'm totally blessed and lucky to have fallen into this particular role with these guys, because it's been amazing so far.”

Jackson credits his uncle for instilling in him passion, pride and purpose—three words he aims to impart on the Airmen he leads. 

“All the times that we've talked, he was a humble man, but he could still say how proud he was,” said Jackson. “By me being Air Force as well, he took that time to really sort of mentor me. He was just like, ‘If this is what you really love to do, then this is something that no one can ever take from you,’ and really, that kind of really re-blued me a little bit, and it stuck with me all this time.”