VALDOSTA, Ga. -- It's not even 11 a.m. yet, but in south Georgia's brutal summer heat, sweat is already trickling down his face, and aside from the annoying gnats and dragonflies that dart around his personal space, he's alone.
After taking one last deep breath, he raises his arm and aims downrange. Wearing safety glasses with masking tape covering the right lens, he locks his left eye on target like a one-eyed hawk zeroed in on its prey. After a brief moment of complete silence, "bang!" Finally, after more than a month of no shooting, Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Jackson is back in his element.
"When I shoot, I don't care what happened last time," he said. "I don't care what's going on next. I'm in the moment. This is where I'm at ... this shot. This is it. And I'll bring it up, and I'll pull that trigger. And after I pull the trigger, I don't even care where it went. It's down there. It's gone."
When at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, Jackson is an aircraft metals technology craftsman with the 23d Equipment Maintenance Squadron, but during his off time, he's an avid pistol shooter and member of the Air Force National Pistol Team. However, he hasn’t handled a pistol since the National Rifle Association National Pistol Championships at Camp Perry, Ohio, which took place July 8-12.
In what was his third time competing in the annual event, Jackson placed first out of all Air Force shooters, sixth out of the all service members in his category and 40th overall out of 656 total participants in the championships.
"When I saw my name on there saying I was the top Air Force shooter, I was like, 'I did it,' " he recalled. "I was excited, but when he announced my name, I was just like ... I don't even know. Words couldn't describe it. This is what I said I was going to do, and I did it."
Jackson's rise to the top didn't happen as fast as a speeding bullet, though. Gun shooting wasn't a staple when growing up for the Austin, Minnesota native, shooting his first pistol at age 14. It was his grandfather's, and he said he did “horribly with it," when explaining how well he shot it.
Jackson didn't take pistol shooting seriously until his days stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, nearly six years after he joined the Air Force. He worked at the gunsmith shop there and two of his co-workers were on the Air Force National Pistol Team at the time. They had just returned from team camp and started discussing their experiences there. The conversation piqued his interest, so Jackson asked to join them the next time they practiced.
"I went out there," he recalled. "They gave me a gun and some (ammunition) and basically showed me how to do it and then said, 'We'll see what happens.' So I shot some rounds downrange, and they said, 'Here's some more (ammunition). Keep going.' And that was four years ago."
Since then, Jackson has been hooked and continues to hone his skills while balancing his Air Force duties. Rather than paying membership fees at a shooting range, however, he practices at a friend's mother-in-law's property and shoots outside.
"When I get out there, it's usually Monday through Friday," he said. "I'll try to get out at least three days a week where I'm going at 9 o'clock (in the morning), and I'll sit out there for about two, two and a half hours ... I'll shoot like 300 rounds in a day."
He said shooting there versus at an indoor range is more true to the competitions he participates in, since they usually take place outdoors. Practicing in the heat, wind, rain and other elements trains him better for what he could encounter at an event. But finding the energy to shoot on top of professional and other personal obligations is something he openly said he struggles with.
"It's the same when you're working out, and you're like, 'man, I'm tired. I don't want to do it,'" he said. "I work swings, so getting up in the morning at 8 o'clock, 9 o'clock to go shoot, and I'm in my bed so I'm like, 'I can talk myself out of doing it really easily,' because I don't want to get up. But, it's just like anything else. You got to put your mind to it. If you want to be the best, you got to train like the best."
Striving to be the best goes far beyond just his individual goals though. During competitions, Jackson participates in team matches as well, and doing what he can to help out his teammates is something he said he takes to heart.
"The camaraderie--it's there," he said. "We enjoy hanging out with each other. We enjoy shooting with each other ... it's like a brotherhood. We're just all there trying to help each other out, because back in the 60s, (the Air Force was) the team to beat. So, we all have the mindset that we want to be that team again."
According to Staff Sgt. Terrence Sears, his team captain and based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, Jackson's positive involvement with the team isn't limited to just competition.
"Jackson adds a lot to the team," Sears said. "He's one of the top shooters, so he brings a lot to the team matches. He also adds a lot to the team off the range. He helps me a lot with the NCO in charge stuff, handling enlisted issues and being a role model for the younger enlisted guys on the team."
With his roles on the team and recent success in competition, Jackson said he's come a long way since taking up pistol shooting but stressed he still has milestones to accomplish. Of the five shooting classifications, he's currently in the master classification, which is only one below the highest attainable classification.
"My next goal is to be high master," he said. "I'm not too far away from that. That's my individual goal. But ultimately, it's to help the team get back to being that team like, 'Oh crap, the Air Force is here.' When we show up, we're like, 'Oh, the Army is here ... great. This is awesome, they're going to win again, or the Marines are going to win again.' If they do beat us, I want it to be on our best day."
So as he loads his next magazine and places his finger on the trigger, Jackson's true target is to reach his full potential as a shooter and help reestablish Air Force dominance in pistol competition, and he plans to get there one round at a time.