Rostraver Township soldier is immortalized at Afghan base he never saw
Casey Jackson never got to serve alongside his U.S. Army brethren in Afghanistan.
Last September, as his company prepared to deploy for an Operation Enduring Freedom mission, a rare cancer robbed the 21-year-old Belle Vernon area native of his brief military career – and his life.
However, the soldier's memory and service to his country will live on nearly 7,000 miles away in the form of Combat Outpost Casey Jackson in Kunduz Province, Afghanistan.
With the blessing of Afghan police who man the station and Jackson's Army platoon that constructed it, the outpost was recently named in his memory.
Army Capt. Chris Loschiavo, commander of 307th Engineer Battalion, 919th Engineer Support Company (Airborne), was instrumental in the dedication.
Loschiavo said the outpost – “COP Jackson” – was built to provide a base for Afghan local police and national security forces, bringing security to civilians who had constantly lived in fear of insurgents. Loschiavo said the location is poignant, because the site historically served as a makeshift “bed-down” site for insurgents.
Loschiavo said the outpost represents a better life for Afghans in the area and will help protect those who can't defend themselves – something Jackson believed in to his core.
“Every other base or facility the U.S. builds is for U.S. forces,” said Loschiavo, who has served three tours in Afghanistan. “So it's the first and only one of its kind, at least in that region. Its function and location is significant. ... All in all, it's a pretty unique place.”
Because the outpost is for Afghan usage, Loschiavo found naming it for Jackson to be more difficult than expected, and not just because of seemingly endless stacks of paperwork.
“From the U.S. and NATO side of it, they weren't going to name it after Casey – or any American – for purposes of cultural sensitivity,” Loschiavo said.
“We went to the Afghan police commander, and through the Special Forces team explained that Casey died of cancer and what he meant to us, and the Afghans were more than willing.
“It surprised me how immediately receptive they were to the idea.”
In a letter to Casey's mother, Kristen Jackson of North Belle Vernon, Capt. Kyle Metzger wrote: “Casey left behind a lasting legacy with Chris Loschiavo and the men and women of 919th Engineer Support Company.
“The men of ODA 5334 and Afghan Security Forces are honored to have the opportunity to dedicate a combat outpost in Casey's name. In a time where patriotism is not as valued as it once was, Casey stands as a shining example of that virtue.”
Jackson joined the Army in July 2010 after topsy-turvy teenage years in which he struggled to find direction in life. His father, Belle Vernon Mayor Gerald Jackson, said that through the Army, his son found his destiny.
“The Army converted him from a boy to a man, it really did,” Gerald Jackson said. “He was all the Army you could possibly be and made Kristen and I very proud. ... He really believed in the Army and the Army showed it believed in him.”
Kristen Jackson recalled the day Casey came home after meeting with a recruiter. Her son's mind was set.
“I came home from work and he flat out told me, ‘I'm going to the Army,'” she said. “He told me, ‘I just feel like I need to get out of here, and this is the only way I can think to do this.'
“When we went down to his graduation after boot camp, I looked at him and thought, ‘This is my son?!?' The transformation was amazing.”
But in a twist of cruel fate, Jackson was diagnosed in May 2011 with Ewing's Sarcoma – a rare form of soft tissue or bone cancer. After receiving a definitive diagnosis, Jackson underwent surgery to remove a soft tissue tumor from his pelvis, followed by radiation and chemotherapy.
Eleven months later, the Jackson family thought Casey was home free. Doctors declared Jackson fit for light duty in April 2012, and he reported back to Fort Bragg, N.C.
However, during a checkup in June, doctors discovered the cancer had returned.
“There was no stopping it by then; it consumed his body,” Kristen Jackson said.
One day, as Casey lay in an intensive care unit at the University of North Carolina Hospital-Chapel Hill, several of his Army officers came to visit.
Jackson refused to see them until he could clean up and shave. When they entered, he stood and saluted – despite his weakened condition.
“Once he got sick again, we were doing a lot of training before we deployed, and we tried to keep him in our thoughts the entire time,” Loschiavo said. “If we were out in the field for a long time, we could call (the location) Fire Base Jackson just to keep him in everyone's mind.”
In August 2012, just weeks before his death, Jackson addressed his fellow soldiers at Fort Bragg during a promotion ceremony. It was the last time he stepped foot on base.
“I think Casey knew in his heart he would not be back. His unit was being deployed, and he wanted more than anything in this world to go with them,” Kristen Jackson said.
“So it was very emotional for everyone there. He told them to keep their heads up and work hard, because they had a job and a mission to do.”
Gerald Jackson said there was not a dry eye during the ceremony.
“He was getting to the point where he could hardly stand,” he said. “He sucked it up and went before them like there was nothing wrong, like he was not sick at all.”
Spc. Casey Jackson died Sept. 4, 2012, in the hospital at Chapel Hill.
His unit left for Afghanistan approximately six weeks later. Most of his comrades returned home in July.
“In my previous company, I had lost a solider due to a motorcycle accident, but Casey's the only one who died from an illness or disease,” said Loschiavo, 31, his voice starting to break.
“It's one thing to lose somebody in combat – that's a risk we obviously acknowledge and freely accept when we sign up.
“But to lose someone as young as Casey to a disease like that and to pass away a month and a half before we were deploying ... it was really tough.
“His last words to me were, ‘Take care of the unit, sir, and bring them home safe.'”
While stationed in Kunduz Province, Loschiavo watched his 20-man platoon construct the outpost. Fittingly, it was the same engineering platoon that Jackson called his own. Throughout the passing months, Loschiavo maintained contact with the Jackson family and updated them on developments at the facility.
“I thought it was fitting it was Casey's platoon, a 20-man element within the company, that built the outpost,” Loschavio said. “The last thing I heard before we came home, they were going to put a sign up on the outpost itself.”
Casey's parents received a certificate of appreciation signed by Afghan chiefs of police in Kunduz Province and the Chardara District. The English translation on the certificate hauntingly refers to “Kisi Jackson” as a “soft ghost,” calling him a “server.”
Kristen Jackson said she was “totally amazed” by the document.
“I really didn't know (the outpost) had been approved until we went to the welcome home ceremony in Fort Bragg in July,” she said. “It was not an easy thing going down there.
“But I am just so proud of (Casey) and the incredible impact he had on so many people in the short amount of time he was in the Army. It's mind-boggling.”
Gerald Jackson said naming the foreign outpost after Casey was a poetic honor.
“Casey didn't have a chance to go to Afghanistan,” he said. “But his name and his spirit live on.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.