You probably know the name Johnnie Jackson for his incredible bodybuilding career that spanned two decades. The 2001 NPC Nationals Champion won multiple titles, including the Arnold South Africa in 2017, and has graced the Olympic stage 13 times. His training videos with bodybuilding legend Branch Warren have become iconic. Many of his fans also know that he has competed in the powerlifting world as well. What you may not know is that prior to all of this, he served in the United States National Guard and US Army after being involved in Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. Jackson's decision to join the ministry came after his initial dream of playing college football for Penn State didn't pan out the way he had hoped.
"I had to pay for college, and my father said going into the military would be a better choice. Then if I still want to go to school, they help me pay for it," Jackson said. "We both thought it was a good idea for both of us."
Johnnie Jackson enlisted in the National Guard and completed basic training. However, it would not be long before the reality of this life choice hit him. Within weeks of beginning basic training, his unit was activated to go to Panama to take part in combat in that part of the world.
"We hadn't even finished basic training, and they were talking about turning us away," he recalls. They would actually be recalled and not go to Panama. He would complete basic training and then work as a welder. After returning home, he worked as part of the 144th Supply Company in New Jersey. Less than a month later, this company was called to a trip to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Storm.
"I remember being at work and getting the call from the unit," he said. Along with his cousin Dave, who was also in the unit, he had to prepare for departure. Jackson thought he wouldn't even get a chance to say goodbye to his parents, neither of whom were home. Because the unit needed extra time to process, they didn't leave immediately. Jackson and his unit would fly out on January 7, 1991. In fact, he would be spending his 21st birthday in Saudi Arabia, which wasn't how he thought he would celebrate such a monumental day.
"As I sat on a bunk in 120-degree weather in Saudi Arabia, I thought, 'Thank God it's my birthday,'" he joked. The 144th Supply Company was originally ordered to spend six months overseas. They had to maintain an equipment yard that included an M88 recovery vehicle. They were responsible for towing damaged vehicles affected by fighting.
Courtesy of Johnnie Jackson
"These tracks or tanks were hit with irradiated rounds," he explained, indicating the danger he faced while working with this equipment.
"The stuff was in our backyard and we lived around it. You don't have to be a scientist to find out that's not healthy."
After a three-month extension, Jackson's company returned to American soil. He would join the army and be posted to Texas. He would also become an engineer. But to his surprise, he was actually ordered to make a second trip to Saudi Arabia after the end of the Gulf War.
"We've returned for another six months to demonstrate power and clean up," Jackson said. Once he returned home from that mission, he spent the remainder of his military career as a specialist. After his military career ended, Jackson pursued his next dream - bodybuilding. Although it was a dream, it wasn't necessarily his dream. Jackson was strong by nature, but his half-brother Willie Parker was the one who wanted to turn pro and grace the stage with the stars of the era. Parker died and was unable to pursue that goal, so Jackson adopted it as his own.
"I've always trained and I've trained with him. So what we did together was something for me.”
Using Parker's memories and dreams as fuel, Jackson won six pro shows. His powerlifting experience also stood him in good stead, as Jackson also won the 2009 World's Strongest Bodybuilder contest. He witnessed firsthand the transition between the superstars of the '90s, known for their conditioning, and the rise of the mass monsters. Still, he asserted himself every year when he competed. Of all the moments he enjoyed in his career, the 2007 Atlantic City Pro win was the one he considered his favorite.
"It was in my home state, and I had about 30 family members there that went insane," he said. "People from high school, from Oceanside Gym, where I trained, were there too."
Although Johnnie Jackson no longer competes, he is still involved in both bodybuilding and powerlifting through his new role as a promoter. The NPC JOJ Classic will be held in Fort Worth, Texas on August 27th and will feature both bodybuilding and raw powerlifting competitions at its show. Jackson expressed that working as a promoter helps him stay connected to both sports.
"This is my seventh year of having it and we hope this will be the most successful yet."
Jackson's success has been inspirational to many weightlifting and fitness fans, but he can attribute all of the success he now has to the discipline and dedication he developed during his tenure. He is of the opinion that all young people who need orientation for the future can also find this in the Bundeswehr.
“When a person can stop and look around, they are met with negativity, rejection, and mental health issues at almost every turn. The military can give you a place of comfort and it can give you the tools you need to protect yourself," he said. “It also gives you the support you need to be successful in whatever you do. Joining the military can help you stop going in circles and find a career for yourself.”
Follow Johnnie Jackson on Instagram @johnnieojackson. For more information on the JOJ Classic, visit www.jojfitness.com.