As Veterans Day approaches, a College of Communication and Information staff member who has spent 16 years in the military is headed overseas to active duty.
Jesse Cragwall, a major in the US Army Reserves, will take a leave from his job as assistant director of the Center for Information and Communication Studies, the research arm of the college. He’ll deploy for nine months and be stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany.
“I will be supporting a NATO mission, strengthening NATO allies against Russian aggression,” he said.
Coincidentally, his upcoming assignment in Germany runs parallel to a project he’s helped facilitate at UT. He’s been a behind-the-scenes part of a Minerva Research Initiative project, an interdisciplinary research effort funded by the US Department of Defense, to study Russian disinformation campaigns in three former Soviet republics.
While his military assignment isn’t directly related to the research project, the end goal is similar—helping counter Russian disinformation.
Over the years, Cragwall has seen the military constantly having to adapt to a changing threat. Today the battleground is often cyberspace, and the tactics involve psychological warfare.
“We’re fighting an enemy we can’t see and fighting in a way that our trainers hadn’t been trained to fight. At times, we have to follow instincts more than Army doctrine. We have to employ unconventional tactics,” he said.
Cragwall’s interest in serving in the military began when he was a kid. He was fascinated with military movies.
During high school, he was chosen to attend American Legion Boys State, a program that teaches youth about the operation of local, county, and state government. There he got a taste of military life—from marching to participating in drills to being required to make his bed each morning. He didn’t like it one bit, and he began to think the military wasn’t for him after all.
After high school, he majored in political science at Maryville College. As a junior, in the summer of 2001, he interned on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. He’d been back on campus for only a few weeks when the world was shaken by the terrorist attacks of September 11.
“I knew, after seeing all of that, that things were never going to be the same,” he said. “I knew this was my generation’s call to serve, and I thought, ‘Am I going to be able to live with myself if I don’t respond to that call?’”
He enlisted in the Navy Reserves after graduating from Maryville.
After finishing a master’s degree in political science and government at UT in 2006, Cragwall transferred to the Army and was commissioned as a logistics officer in the 1st Squadron 75th Cavalry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division. He spent three years on active duty, including a six-month tour in Iraq.
“As it turned out, the Army wanted more of my brain than my body,” he said.
Cragwall’s job was replenishing supplies for American troops in the region. Although he wasn’t involved in direct combat, everyone with boots on the ground lived in constant wariness. IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) were part of the daily glossary of danger.
“You never know if or when something is going to happen,” he said.
After completing active duty, Cragwall transitioned to the US Army Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command. He spent a year in Afghanistan as a civil affairs officer, serving as a liaison between a commander and the local population. His mission was “nonlethal targeting”—working with local influencers to gather information.
“If you think of carrots and sticks, we are the people who have the carrots,” he said.
Since then, Cragwall has had a series of short deployments; he’s been sent abroad several times.
Cragwall said the most difficult part of any deployment is living apart from his wife, Leslie, who works at Pellissippi State Community College, and his daughters, Ellie, nine, and Jillian, six. He hopes they can email, call, and FaceTime regularly.
While staying active in Army Reserves, Cragwall has earned a master’s degree in public administration from UT in 2012 and a master’s degree in Biblical studies from Dallas Theological Seminary in 2017. He’s now pursuing his PhD in political science at UT.
Between deployments, Cragwall worked for One Vision International, a Knoxville-based religious mission organization, and founded Global Planting Initiative, an organization that starts churches internationally. He also spent three years serving as the interim executive pastor of Providence Church in Knoxville.
He’s been in his current job at UT since 2017.
Whether he’s been working for the Army, in his church, or at UT, there is a similar mission to all he’s done.
“Service,” he said. “That’s what they all have in common.”