Back in his days at Illinois State University, Jackie Thompson Jr. ’93 was an active member of the Omega Psi Phi fraternity and even played football his freshman year, earning a letter as a fullback and member of the special teams. Everyone called him J.J., as his friends still do. But these days, when he’s at work, he’s formally known as Brig. Gen. Jackie Thompson.

In December, it was announced—after a presidential nomination and confirmation by the United States Senate—that Thompson had been confirmed for the rank of brigadier general and assigned as chief defense counsel for the Office of Military Commissions. All pretty heady stuff, but Thompson has a low-key take on his rise through the ranks after three decades of service.

“God blesses us,” he said. “The plans we may have, well, he takes us in his own direction.”

Thompson’s military awards include the Bronze Star Medal, the Meritorious Service Medal, and the Joint Service Commendation Medal. In his career as an officer in the Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps of the U.S. Army, he’s had numerous posts at home and abroad, including Europe and Iraq. He holds an LL.M. in military law from The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School, is a 2010 graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and has a master’s degree in security studies from the U.S. Army War College. Thompson is a member of the bars in Illinois, Wisconsin, and Texas and is admitted to practice before the Army Court of Criminal Appeals, the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces, the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, and the United States Supreme Court.

On active duty since January of 1998, Thompson, 50, has logged, including his time in the National Guard and the Army, 32 years of dedicated service. He was inspired by the service of his own family members. His father was a Vietnam veteran, his sister a Navy veteran, and his grandfather, who participated in the invasion of Saipan, was one of the first Black Marines. Thompson’s has been a life in service to others.

It began at Illinois State when this native of North Chicago decided to major in criminal justice sciences (CJS) because of the impression made in a class taught by Dr. David Falcone.

“I had a criminal justice class, and the professor was Dr. Falcone during my freshman year,” Thompson said. “His impact and how he taught had an influence on me.”

It went beyond the classroom since Falcone had a military background that he would often discuss in class. It all caught Thompson’s attention, and soon he was following in his professor’s footsteps. Thompson’s Redbird football career only lasted one semester for financial reasons. He was not a scholarship player, so when his father lost his job of over 20 years it was time to go to work.

“I had to find a way to pay for school so I quit football and became a resident assistant (RA),” Thompson said. “I also joined the Illinois National Guard, which paid tuition. It was grit and determination that got me through.”

For proof, consider that Thompson attended basic and advanced military police training in the spring of 1990.  Afterwards, he returned to school but was called to active duty in January of 1991 for Desert Storm, missing an entire academic school year but still managing to graduate early.

“From January 1991 to August 1991 I was sent to Germany in support of Desert Storm, then back to ISU,” he said. “I still graduated a semester early.”

After hearing another RA talk about applying to a law school preparation program, Thompson also applied and was accepted. Eventually he chose Northern Illinois University Law School for its affordability and its proximity to home.

“Memorial Day is a day we can remember those folks who gave their lives—the full measure—in protection of our country and in protection of the people they served with.”

Brig. Gen. J.J. Thompson ’93

As a law student he remained in the National Guard and decided to attend Officer Candidate School to advance his military career. The resulting hard work involved 16 months of weekends and summer camps. Thompson’s early legal ambition was to work in the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, with the JAG Corps as his backup plan.

“You’ve got to have ‘plan A’ and have a backup,” he said. “Cook County didn’t work out, so I chose my backup plan. It turned out to be the best career decision I’ve made.”

At Illinois State, his favorite hangout for socializing was the lobby at Watterson, and he loved the char-broiled burgers at a place called Subconscious in then-Downtown Normal. The best memories though are of the people he met along the way.

He remembers the kindness of Rick Lewis, now retired from the Dean of Student’s Office, who helped make him a better RA. Another favorite criminal justice professor who made a lasting impact on him was Dr. Lois Guyon. And he made lifelong friends at Illinois State, including Judge Carla Barnes, the first Black woman named to the bench in the 11th Judicial Circuit and Dana Walker, his children’s godfather and an educational administrator in the Fairfax, Virginia, school system. 

Most importantly, Thompson’s life has not been all work. He’s been married to his wife, Kenya, since 2010. They are the parents of two young children, Addisyn and Micaiah, who are 9 and 8. 

On the topic of advice for young people, Thompson cited a favorite quote by Calvin Coolidge about the power of persistence: “Nothing in the world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.”

Adding his own philosophy to Coolidge’s, Thompson said that faith and God are important. But for all people, he recommends that they persevere.

“Perseverance will help you get over, under, or through anything that gets in your way,” he said. “Never quit. Never give up.”

And as the Memorial Day weekend begins, Thompson shared his feelings about the importance of the holiday and what it means to him personally.

“There’s a difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day,” Thompson said. “On Veterans Day we honor those who serve, but Memorial Day is a day we can remember those folks who gave their lives—the full measure—in protection of our country and in protection of the people they served with.”