As a military kid, Miss District of Columbia Cierra Jackson saw the harsh impact of war on her family.
Jackson’s father, uncle and cousin all served overseas, and each came back with severe post-traumatic stress disorder. Her father also has a brain injury from an explosion that occurred while he was abroad, while her cousin has attempted suicide multiple times.
“My uncle, he can’t focus on his own PTSD because he’s worried about his son,” Jackson, 24, tells PEOPLE. “It’s hard on my family – we’re all connected by this responsibility and this duty that we have as military families.”
Jackson works with military children and family advocacy groups, including the Congressional Military Family Caucus, to raise awareness of the stress – not just on veterans, but on their families.
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“People think that it’s just the veteran that’s serving, but the children serve, the families serve. Seeing my cousin go through this and knowing that he’s a military kid too, it speaks to why Americans need to give more attention to military families and the kids,” Jackson says. “The children are the future of our defense, and if we fail to get the families what they need then we are failing our future. It’s really important that we give back to these families.”
Growing up, Jackson and the rest of her family had to learn to be flexible while her dad was deployed.
“We had to stand together and stay strong together,” she says. “There were moments growing up when my mother [a dentist] had two practices, one in Kentucky and one in Georgia, and she had to go back and forth while my dad was deployed. So my grandmother had to take care of me, and then my other grandma the next week. So that was difficult, but we balanced a lot.”
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And now that her dad and relatives are home, she’s learned to to avoid potential PTSD triggers.
“PTSD is just a continuous thing – we just have to be conscious of not setting off their triggers like dropping something in the kitchen,” Jackson says. “It’s about making sure that they have the care that we need to be successful.”
The 2017 Miss America competition airs Sunday, September 11 at 9/8c on ABC.