RICHMOND, Va. –
Master Sgt. Jessica Dickenson started her first job when she was 11. Her parents were lucky to finish high school, she said, and money was tight. Everyone worked.
“I was not one of those people that anybody had thought about college for,” Dickenson said. “I knew that if I was going to ever do anything or be anything, I needed something more than high school.”
She didn’t know much about the military, didn’t have any sort of family connection to it, but she was still fascinated with the idea of military service. A friend from high school had recently joined the Connecticut National Guard as a musician in the 102nd Army Band.
“When I found out that I could be a musician in the military, I was like, ‘somebody would pay me to do this thing that I love?! That’s pretty great,’” Dickenson said. She accompanied her friend to drill one weekend, auditioned as a trombone player, and, she says, “that was that.”
She enlisted, went away to training and came back motivated to do the military thing full-time. She talked to her recruiter about opportunities for full-time employment and he suggested she help the Connecticut National Guard’s Recruiting and Retention Battalion with recruiting operations.
A few years later, Dickenson found herself in Virginia visiting her mom. While there, she popped into the closest National Guard armory in Christiansburg, Virginia, to sign a few documents. She talked to the recruiters there and learned a little bit about the differences in benefits between Virginia and Connecticut. She liked her job up north, but was thinking she might be ready for a change.
“We get to talking and they’re like, ‘you know, we could really use a recruiter in Radford,’” Dickenson said. “I was like, ‘that’s great, but I’m not actually moving to Virginia.’”
There was a lot in the Connecticut National Guard Dickenson didn’t want to walk away from, including a seat for Airborne School. By then she had a full-time position as a technician and she liked where her career was. But Virginia’s recruiting team kept pushing, kept telling her how much they’d love to have her take on a recruiting role. Dickenson kept saying no, she wasn’t moving to Virginia.
As she drove back home, back to Connecticut, emails kept pinging on her phone. By the time she got there, she had guarantees from Virginia that the benefits she’d been promised in Connecticut would transfer with her, if only she’d move to Virginia.
“I was living with my cousin, and at the time I was sleeping in his laundry room,” Dickenson said. It was cold. She was sleeping on a makeshift bed and had to run the dryer at night to stay warm. She realized she had nothing to lose. “I went inside and packed my crap and I moved to Virginia.”
Dickenson started working for the Virginia National Guard’s Recruiting and Retention Battalion in 2008. She was a temporary hire at first, transitioned that into full-time employment as an Active Guard/Reserve, or AGR, Soldier, and now serves as a section chief overseeing recruiting in the western part of the state. She spent several months in the acting first sergeant role for three areas and is also working her way through the Sergeants Major Course.
Dickenson said, as a woman in the military, she’s never really felt out of place.
“It’s always been the same,” she said. “Show up for work, do a great job, get recognized based on your merit.”
After 22 years of service, Dickenson counts the peoples she’s met and the opportunities she’s had among her career highlights.
“I ended up being the first person [from my family] to go to college and graduate with a degree,” Dickenson said. “I’ve gotten to jump out of airplanes, conduct sling load operations, learn about computers and logistics and recruiting and human resources and all of these things I never would have gotten to do somewhere else.”
When she first enlisted, she never would have guessed where her National Guard career would take her.
“It just snowballed and it got better and better and better and better,” Dickenson said of her career. “That’s why, 22 years later, I’m still here.”
March is Women’s History Month and this month the Virginia National Guard is taking time to tell the stories of the women who serve as Soldiers, Airmen, VDF members and civilians in our organization.