When were you drafted or when did you enlist?
I enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in April 2011, the year after my graduation from high school.
Why did you choose your branch of service?
Growing up, I lived near Joint Base Andrews, MD, and from my home I could see and hear some of the coolest aircrafts that ever flew. The annual air show at JB Andrews was one of my favorite experiences as a child, and from then on I knew I would join the military; I didn’t know at what capacity, but I knew I wanted to be around fighter jets.
What do you remember about that day?
The day I arrived at Air Force Basic Military Training (AFBMT), I was shocked, shook-up, and shouted at. We arrived late at night, so, on the ride to arrive at our living quarters I could not get my bearing on where I was or where I was going. When we pulled up to the living quarters I had a slight smirk on my face, because in my mind I thought “here we are, the start of your future.” Unbeknownst to me, a drill instructor had boarded the bus and caught me “smiling,” she then proceeded to tear me up with a few jokes about my civilian haircut (a 90s styled high-top fade) and yell about getting out of her face and off her bus. At that moment, I was flooded with emotions; I wanted to laugh and I was a little afraid, but I knew I couldn’t show fear and to never, ever laugh at a drill instructor. That’s when I knew everything from that moment on was deadly serious.
Can you describe a happy moment from your time in the service?
I had many happy moments while in the Air Force, but the moment I graduated Airman Leadership School (ALS) and won a Distinguished Graduate award. This is one of my favorite moments because I knew from then on, I would become an NCO that could affect change. As a Senior Airman, I was privileged to have great leaders and mentors to guide me; and the one piece of advice that I took to heart was, “Be the change that you want to see.” I knew deep inside that I could be a great leader but graduating from ALS with an award reaffirmed me and inspired me to be the best NCO I could.
Did your military experience inform the way you think about war or the military in general?
Yes, my time in the Air Force has changed how I view the military. Before I joined the military, I never knew the vast array of jobs/careers the military encompassed. There are so many careers that do not involve weaponry, but are pivotal to mission success. For example, I had friends whose careers would not take them into combat, and some friends whose career would take them directly into combat. I quickly learned that all military experiences, whether combat related or not, are equally important because each individual makes up one large military family.
What were the first few months out of the service like?
The first few months out of the service were exciting to me. I knew that I had a goal to achieve and a new life to start – a life in the civilian world that I imagined for a couple years. I knew I wanted to become a photojournalist, so, I applied to the journalism program at American University in Washington D.C. During those first few months I had to find myself outside of the Air Force, and the person I discovered, I had quickly fell in love with.
Do you have advice for those transitioning out of the military?
My advice to any service member transition out of the military is to have a plan and be optimistic. It’s going to take a lot of optimism to readjust to civilian life, and a strong plan to be successful in your transition. Whether you are an E-3 with no family or an O-5 with a family, transitioning out of the military without a plan is not only unwise, but dangerous to your success. As well, you must stay optimistic about your goals, because life won’t always go as planned, so, you need to resilient and be adaptable to life as it happens.
If you hadn’t gone into the service, what do you imagine your career life would have been? Did you explore a different career after service?
If, I hadn’t enlisted in the U.S. Air Force, I believe I would have eventually crossed paths with the military. I had two dream jobs growing up; one was to be a fighter pilot, or a documentary filmmaker/photographer. I would have gone to college and tried my best to become a pilot, which inevitably would have pointed me to the military, if even it was only to pique my interest for a while. Or, I would have become a documentary filmmaker and tried to embed with a military unit to make films. Either way, I think my life would have taken my adjacent to the military, even if I did not join the military.
Please add any additional stories or meaningful memories that you’d like to share.
I would like to talk about a very influential and important person in my life, my grandfather, Tommy Smith. He was a major influence on my upbringing, and on my family’s ties to the military. My grandfather is an Army Vietnam War veteran, and he would always talk about his time in service and his love for country. Moments with my grandfather were my introduction to military service and what it meant for my family. He would tell me stories of the many places he’d gone and about some of the people he’d meet along the way. One thing that stuck with me was his saying (he’d say it jokingly), “Don’t buy any new sports cars until you make sergeant, because you ain’t earned anything until you’ve earned sergeant.” So, I took him up on that and made it my goal to become an NCO before I completed my time in service. I was so excited when I received the news that I was going to be promoted the first person that popped into my mind was my grandfather. When he addressed me as SSgt. Smith, it must have been one of the best moments ever.