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EKU’s Jackie Alexander: A unique journey from Army officer in Iraq to college basketball coach

Jackie Alexander was raised 30 miles south of Eastern Kentucky University’s campus, along the Dix River in a small, close-knit community called Brodhead. Population at the last census: 1,211.

“There’s something special about growing up where everyone knows everyone,” she said.

Alexander became a basketball star at nearby Rockcastle County High School. As a senior in 2010, she led the Lady Rockets to their first-ever win at the KHSAA state tournament.

Alexander poured in a game-high 20 points and grabbed eight rebounds to lead Rockcastle County past Murray in the first round. The very next day, she scored 23 points and pulled down eight boards in a quarterfinals victory over George Rogers Clark High School.

The Lady Rockets fell to Scott County High School by three points in the semifinals … but it was a memorable run. “The entire community rallied around us,” Alexander said. “It was something really special.”

Rockcastle County graduate Jackie Alexander has taken a unique journey, from being an Army officer in Iraq to a college basketball coach at EKU. (EKU photo)

Alexander became only the third player in Rockcastle County history to sign a Division I basketball scholarship. Her destination: Army West Point.

In June of 2010, Alexander left Brodhead for the banks of the Hudson River in Upstate New York. First up: West Point’s seven-week cadet basic training, a period so intense it’s commonly called ‘Beast Barracks’ or simply ‘Beast.’ Early wake-up calls, ruck marches, the dreaded tear gas chamber.

Alexander survived it all. However, once school started in August, the transition became more difficult.

“The culture shock of military life got to me, and I made an immediate and rushed decision to transfer,” she said.

It was a decision she later regretted, but, as Alexander put it, “Everyone’s journey is different.”

Alexander’s journey – at that time – led her home.

She enrolled at the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, about an hour south of Brodhead. On her visit to the school, the Vice President of Student Life – an Army veteran – asked Alexander if she had interest in joining the school’s ROTC.

Her answer was a resounding no. “I didn’t foresee the Army in my future.”

Alexander put together a highly successful basketball career at the Cumberlands. She was a two-time All-Mid-South Conference selection and nearly scored 1,000 career points in only three seasons with the Patriots.

But something was always missing.

“By the end of my sophomore year, I felt a huge pang of regret,” Alexander said. “I realized what a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity I had left behind at West Point.”

She reapplied to the U.S. Military Academy.

“I knew it meant starting my freshman year over there, but I was willing to do it.”

Jackie Alexander was active duty from 2014 to 2017, reaching the rank of captain. She deployed to Iraq in 2016.

Unfortunately, she never got the chance. West Point denied her admission. Alexander was devastated, but unwilling to give up.

“I wasn’t going to let the hiccup of not getting back into West Point deter me from figuring out a way to make it right.”

She still wanted to serve her country — no matter the route. “That’s when I finally realized what an opportunity ROTC presented.”

It was not the glamorous, lauded, tradition-rich West Point way, but ROTC filled a void for Alexander. And in May of 2014, she commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant at her Cumberlands graduation.

Seven days later, Alexander shipped off to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for Basic Officer Leader Course. Her military service was underway.

Alexander was active duty from 2014 to 2017, reaching the rank of captain. She deployed to Iraq in 2016 in support of Operation Inherent Resolve with the 101st Airborne Division. She served as the executive officer for Zulu Company, coordinating training and movement of personnel and supplies throughout the area of operation in order to ensure mission accomplishments.

It was an eye-opening and gratifying experience for the young officer. “I loved my time in the Army,” Alexander said. “The military gave me the opportunity to travel to places I never would have gone otherwise. I became friends with so many people who were unlike myself. My world views broadened. I was forced to lead soldiers twice my age when I was 22 years old. The military changed my life, and I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything.”

But basketball remained Alexander’s true passion.

In 2017, she made the tough decision to leave the Army and pursue her dream of becoming a coach.

Alexander had stayed involved with the game throughout her military career. While stationed at Fort Campbell, she coached AAU with NBA veteran Trenton Hassell and was an assistant girls basketball coach at Northwest High School in Clarksville, Tenn.

She also stayed in contact with coaches who influenced her during time at West Point, specifically Jada Pierce and Erin Mills. Pierce was now the head coach at Niagara University and Mills was an assistant coach at the Air Force Academy.

Jackie Alexander receives a warm greeting upon returning home from active duty in the Army.

Mills helped Alexander get a job on the Air Force staff. “Working at such a prestigious institution was something that I could not pass up,” she said. “It was not only an incredible experience to work in basketball again, but around young cadets who were in the same position that I once was many years ago.”

Two years later, Alexander’s journey came full circle.

After years of bouncing around – Kentucky, New York, Missouri, Tennessee, Iraq, Colorado, and back to New York (as director of operations at the University of Albany) – she returned home in April of 2019 when first-year head coach Samantha Williams hired her as an assistant coach at EKU.

“It’s been great being back in Kentucky,” she said. “The coolest thing is recruiting in and around the state and knowing people at pretty much every gym I visit. Seeing coaches that coached when I played, etc. There is a lot of talent in our region so it’s exciting to recruit it and hopefully keep local talent here at home.

On top of her coaching duties, Alexander remains a captain in the Army Reserve. She is the commander of a drill sergeant company that supports ROTC cadet summer training.

Fortunately, Alexander finds several similarities in the military and basketball.

“The foundation of both is culture and working as a team to accomplish a mission,” she said. “I think the biggest thing I brought with me from the military is the drive to accomplish the mission no matter what adversity comes our way. I think that really correlates with where we are in rebuilding the program at EKU.”

“I also feel like my time in the military, leading soldiers from all over the world, enabled me to connect with just about anyone,” Alexander added. “That is something I am really proud of because relationships are the most meaningful things in my life. At the end of the day, relationships and memories are the only things we can take with us.”

From Eastern Kentucky University

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