RANTOUL — Thane Jackson grew up in a tropical paradise named by Christopher Columbus and now known as a tourist destination in the eastern Caribbean.
Leaving that environment at 16 for the uncertainty of life in New York and ultimately southern Illinois must not have been easy for Jackson's mother and her family. Jackson said she made the decision to move for her children's education.
Educational offerings weren't nearly as broad in Jackson's native Antigua, which means "ancient" in Spanish.
After a year in New York, Jackson moved to Belleville to live with a cousin. It was there that he graduated high school, in 1996.
He talks about his logic in deciding to join the Army shortly after graduating from high school. And then he laughs.
"You don't want anyone to tell you what to do and what classes to take, and then you join the Army, where they tell you when to sleep, when to eat," said the 34-year-old Rantoul police officer. "That was kind of a rude awakening.
"Even though you're on your own, it's more of a controlled environment."
Jackson was in active duty for three years, serving in the mechanized infantry.
He had always been interested in architecture and wanted to enroll at the University of Illinois after leaving the Army, but the university had closed its architecture program. In the Army he had been trained to shoot down missiles and aircraft.
"I'm like, 'I don't know what I'm going to do with this (military training) on the civilian side,'" he said, remembering his thoughts about what he would do for a living after leaving the military.
Wanting to stay in aviation, he enrolled at the UI, where he earned a bachelor's degree in 2005 in aviation human factors.
Jackson has put that degree to use as a pilot of a Black Hawk helicopter for the National Guard.
Also a two-year patrolman with the Rantoul Police Department, Jackson recently piloted a Black Hawk into Rantoul, where he brought a general and a retired general and staff to Lincoln's Challenge Academy.
In addition to piloting, Jackson's primary duty is company commander of an aviation maintenance company. He doesn't maintain the helicopters; he manages those who do.
Like others in the National Guard, Jackson spends one weekend a month and two weekends per summer in training. He also receives additional flight training throughout the year.
He is required to have 30 hours of flight service every six months to maintain his status as a pilot.
A longtime Guardsman, Jackson applied to flight school in 2006.
The best part about being a Black Hawk pilot?
"The different types of missions and the different types of training," he said. "When we're deployed, we're an air assault company."
Training: There's the learning aspect again.
Jackson was deployed to Iraq for six months, but because it was near the end of the war, the majority of his missions involved transporting troops.
He said the most difficult part of his service in Iraq was flying during sandstorms or at night.
The pilot "has to trust your aircraft instruments that they'll lead you in the right way," Jackson said.
When he first began training to fly a Black Hawk, his reaction was, "Wow! Look at all those buttons. How am I ever going to learn all this?" he recalls. "It's pretty sophisticated. Now it's kind of routine."
A Black Hawk carries a crew of four, including two pilots and two crew chiefs, and can hold 11 passengers.
A modified version of the Black Hawk was used in the Navy SEALs raid against Osama bin Laden last year.
As a Rantoul police officer, Jackson said, "Every day is a different day. You're involved in something different.
"Most of the time when we meet someone it's not when they're at their best. We understand that. Usually they're having an issue that they can't solve and police have to be involved to help.
"I can't say it's routine. You don't get complacent. You get to meet a lot of different people, experience different situations. You can learn from all those experiences."
Learning: It's something that took Jackson from a tropical paradise to the United States, and it's something that still seems to appeal to him.