Despite being injured in a deadly explosion during her first weeks deployed in Iraq, Jessica Ball went on to overcome fear and face new challenges as one of an elite group of U.S. Army Airborne jumpmasters.
Over her 10 years served in the Army, the St. Louis native achieved the rank of staff sergeant, served three overseas deployments and jumped out of the sky as part of an Army skydiving team. As one of the few women to earn the coveted jumpmaster rating, she helped train more than 10,000 parachutists at the Army’s Airborne School.
During her four years as an Airborne instructor and with the Silver Wings parachute team, Ball jumped out of airplanes at elevations ranging from 800 feet to 18,000 feet. At 5-feet-tall, she wore thick-soled boots in order to reach the top of the plane’s doorway to complete the safety check each time she jumped. But her small stature made for comfortable landings.
“I was never injured — just bumps and bruises,” she said. “When you’re lightweight, you land like a feather.”
A bridge to a brighter future
Ball, now 37 and a resident of Maeystown, Ill., enlisted in the Army in 2005. She was a single mom hoping to build a brighter future for her young daughter.
“I knew there was a war going on but I was excited to travel the world and provide a better life for me and my daughter,” she said. “I wanted to show her what she could do and give her the tools to do whatever she put her mind to.”
The Army trained her as a bridge crew member and assigned her to an engineering company based at Fort Hood, Texas. Her unit deployed to Iraq in October 2005 and arrived at Habbaniyah, west of Baghdad, tasked primarily with keeping bridges over the Euphrates and Tigris rivers open.
Almost immediately, she said, the company came under fire. “We lost two soldiers the first day,” she said.
Days later, a roadside bomb exploded beneath Ball’s vehicle, killing the four other soldiers aboard. Ball suffered a concussion and was airlifted to a hospital where she spent weeks recuperating before returning to the field. Today she is considered 100 percent disabled due to PTSD and the traumatic brain injury that still causes memory issues today.
“It was horrifying,” she said. “I have bad dreams a lot. I deal with it still on a daily basis.”
Ball completed another year-long deployment to Iraq in 2009 and then was accepted into the Army’s Airborne School — also known as Jump School — a three-week course at Fort Benning, Ga., to train soldiers as paratroopers. She was one of only four women in her training class of 300 soldiers.
Earning her wings
Despite her initial fears, Ball said she learned to love jumping out of airplanes.
“After the first couple of jumps I started to respect that fear,” she said. “I kept telling myself that I needed to be a leader. I was a sergeant and I didn’t want to show any fear, and I really did trust in my training.”
After training, she was assigned as an Airborne instructor, the only woman in her unit for two years, she said. As one of the so-called “Black Hats,” she led recruits through the basics of safely jumping out of airplanes, starting with practicing on the ground, then jumping from a 34-foot tower and finally from an aircraft in flight. From there she advanced to jumpmaster — the paratrooper responsible for managing jump operations.
“That’s what I loved about the Army the most: Helping people learn to jump out of airplanes like I did after getting over my fear,” she said. “You pretty much have control of every person on the aircraft to make sure they get out safely.”
Ball also was a member of Fort Benning’s Silver Wings parachute team, which traveled around the country giving demonstrations at air shows and free-falling into stadiums before big events like football games.
“It’s the coolest thing,” she said. “You’re up there and there’s total silence and then you float into the stadium and hear all the people and it’s just roaring, like a train. I loved it.”
In 2015, Ball decided to leave the military to focus more on her family. By then she was raising her sister’s three children as well. “I took them on a year before I left the Army,” she said. “I don’t know what I’d do as a soldier as a single parent of four children.”
She said the Army taught her to not to back down from challenges and not to dwell on the negative.
The Army taught me to live every moment,” she said. “I’ve seen so many bad things, but it made me realize I could get through the darkest days.”