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  • Vive Griffith

Meet Clarence Jackson: A Veteran Serving Veterans

Since the Vietnam War, Clarence Jackson has made it his mission to help fellow veterans find the resources and support they need in their civilian lives. After participating in the Newark Clemente Veterans’ Initiative (CVI) in 2020, he says he can be an even better advocate for those who have served.

Clarence was taken by so much of the material he studied in class, from Greek mythology to the Gettysburg Address. But just as important, he found the open conversation about the course texts transformative. “One thing I really took from the experience was how to respect everyone’s views and perspectives when they approach a text or piece of art. We each bring our own history and see things in different ways,” he says. “It has changed how I interact with people going forward.”

Clarence spent six years in the Air Force during the Vietnam War. As a Personnel Specialist, he was responsible for making sure that soldiers had the training they needed for their assignments, that their goods and families were moved appropriately, and that their career changes were documented. His job was to support the troops in the field, and even though he left active service, he didn’t let go of this mission.

In 1975 he joined the American Legion and began helping veterans get the information they needed to file claims for benefits. He continued that work as commander of the Disabled American Veterans chapter in Newark and now serves as Chairman of the Essex County Veterans Advisory Board.

When he received an email about the CVI course in Newark, Clarence thought it looked interesting. His expectations weren’t high, but he was immediately struck by the range of texts he encountered and how they seemed as relevant today as when they were written.

"One thing I really took from the experience was how to respect everyone’s views and perspectives when they approach a text or piece of art. We each bring our own history and see things in different ways."

Reading Sophocles’ play Ajax, where the great warrior of the title feels shame and remorse over the acts he committed, was powerful for Clarence. And when he was asked to make a presentation to his community afterwards, he integrated some of the story into his remarks. Clarence says when we talk about PTSD for veterans, we should be thinking about its long history: “2500 years ago they wrote in the story of Ajax of the consequences of continuing to be in battle. And 2500 years later we haven’t done anything to protect our guys from experiencing the horrors of war long after they have left the battlefield.”

Other class assignments opened his eyes in different ways. When writing about an anthem or song that had meaning for him, Clarence did a deep dive into Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” He discovered that the song spoke of a kind of turmoil in the country 50 years ago that is mirrored in our culture today, right down to protests against police brutality. A 16th century Dutch painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder made him think about how different stories, like the myth of Icarus, can carry on over time. And Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” gave him a real glimpse into the lives of combat soldiers in Vietnam.

“It causes you to say that everybody who was over there was a hero,” Clarence says. “It was awe inspiring reading.”

Clarence says he’s “on pins and needles” waiting for the next round of CVI in Newark. He can’t wait to jump into new readings and to discover the perspectives other veterans bring to the work. He also appreciates how the course offers its participants the skills and confidence to take their next steps, whether in college or pursuing other goals like starting a business.

As an advocate for veterans, he’d like to see CVI be included in the packages of resources offered to everyone who has served, especially for those who might be interested in returning to school. “CVI is sort of the second chance of second chances,” he says.

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