Adjusting to life as a trainee at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., can be tough. The long ruck marches alone are enough to test the physical limits of some.
For Pfc. Jackson Emory, graduated from One Station Unit Training Dec. 18 with Company B, 31st Engineer Battalion, long walks and sleeping in the woods are nothing new — he spent six months of this year homeless.
Emory, originally from Greenville, S.C., built amusement park rides in Orlando, Fla., before the Army ever crossed his mind as a career. He said he worked that job for about a year and a half, but his bills each month ended up being more than the $14 an hour he was earning.
“Eventually, I couldn’t afford to keep paying bills and paying to drive out there and they had to let me go,” he said. “My roommate, who worked the same job as me, said that if I couldn’t afford to pay bills then I would have to find another place to live, which I understood.”
With no friends able to spare room for him and no new jobs available right away due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, 21-year-old Emory packed his few belongings and began his new life on the streets of Clermont, Fla.
“It was just a bad time,” he said. “I would walk around the town, walk through the woods. On some Sundays, I would go to a church service where they offered meals. Once it started getting dark, I’d try to find a place to settle down for the night.”
With a tarp and some bungee cords, Emory said he was able to build a makeshift hammock.
“I had a lot of time to make things out of my garbage or other garbage,” he said. “I made my own little design for a smoke release that would keep mosquitos away at night.”
Emory said he would wash himself and brush his teeth from water spigots.
“I lived in the south all my life on a farm so I wasn’t afraid of being dirty,” he said.
One modern convenience Emory still had while homeless was his phone, and he documented his experiences with videos he posted to TikTok.
“I got a lot of support on there,” he said. “People started recommending that I join the military. ‘It’s three hot meals and a bed’ they said.”
Emory first talked to an Air Force recruiter — he had been involved in Air Force Junior ROTC in high school — but he ended up going with the Army “because they were a lot nicer about my situation.”
“I felt like they had a lot more to offer, so I said ‘sign me up,’” he said.
Emory said he picked his military occupational specialty — combat engineer — because “it sounded cool.” He added everyone at the recruitment office was really helpful in preparing him for the training experience — they bought him meals and even brought him along to their gym.
“It was really hard at first,” he said. “I couldn’t deadlift anything; I couldn’t do pull ups; I couldn’t lift weights. My muscles were so tired from doing nothing but walking. But my recruiter told me, ‘We’re not going to judge you; we just want you to get ready.’ He just kept pushing me every day. He said ‘You can shower there; you can work out with us.’”
Eventually, Emory’s story reached a local veteran, who wasted no time offering help.
“I received a call that one of our young future Soldiers was homeless and living under a bridge,” said Allie Braswell, who volunteers time to the Civilian Aides to the Secretary of the Army program. “The recruiter was leveraging every resource to help this young man, but each evening he had nowhere to go.”
Braswell called on the veteran community in central Florida to raise funds for a motel room and food money for Emory while he waited a month for his training date.
“If he were to have an encounter with law enforcement during this time period, it may jeopardize his opportunity to change his life,” Braswell said.
“They got me a motel room five minutes away from the recruiting office,” Emory said. “I loved every second of it. I was able to sleep in a bed; shower; charge my phone; I had Wi-Fi; I could watch TV, which was a weird thing to see after so long.”
Emory said he’s proud to be part of the Army family and plans on serving 20-plus years.
“I love everybody here,” he said. “They’ve all been really supportive; they’ve really motivated me. I want to be in the Army for as long as I can — until they tell me I have to get out.”
A lesson Emory said he learned during his months on the streets that has carried over to his Army training is “you have to have a ‘why.’”
“You have to keep pushing to make things better,” he said. “There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel. I have a half-sister I’ve never met. I want to be somebody she can look up to. So, if I have a hard day, I just think about that.”