Richard Allen Smith says he joined the military in 2002 for lack of any other obvious course at that point in his life.
A recruiter called his house in the Florida panhandle at 10:30 a.m. on a weekday in the midst of a senior year in high school in which he would fail a class and realise he didn’t have the transcript needed to get into a four-year college. He was home when the call came in, instead of at school, where he should have been — a common occurrence for him, he adds. He picked up the phone. “It sort of went from there” he says, “I couldn’t really think of a reason why not.”
Although, he later adds: “I got much more profound reasons for being in the Army once I was there.”
The military put Smith, who eventually became a sergeant, on a service-oriented path that’s continued well after his time in uniform. He’s worked in the communications office of the Department of Veterans Affairs, helping to formulate the public messaging of a sometimes troubled and often misunderstood wing of the federal government.
He wants to forge a career in the nonprofit sector after wrapping up a Masters Degree in nonfiction writing at Johns Hopkins University. He currently a communications consultant in the nonprofit, and is now with In The Public Interest, a group dedicated to highlighting the hazards of the privatization of public services. He also contributes to publications like Time, Talking Points Memo, and the Huffington Post, and blogged for the Daily Kos when he was on deployment in Afghanistan in 2007.
Smith got a lot out of his experience in the Army, serving at a time when some of the military’s missions clashed with his own personal beliefs and politics. He said he was “driving around with a big ‘Stop the Iraq War’ sign on my car window” in the months before basic training began in 2003. And while never let his views get in the way of his military duties, a combat deployment to Afghanistan in 2007 crystallized his idea of what his service really meant and demanded of him.
“Regardless of how stupid the wars were, there were guys on my left and on right who depended on me and I depended on them to keep one another alive,” he explains. “Deployments are terrible but you build the most amazing sense of camaraderie. You’re there for 14 months with a bunch of guys who are willing to die for you at any moment and vice versa.”
“It’s a duty thing,” he explained. “I volunteered for this organisation saying that I would go wherever they sent me regardless of my personal feeling.”
Smith developed an awareness of the other half of that equation: the fact that the volunteer military rests upon bonds of civic trust between the military and the civilians who oversee it in an arrangement that’s perhaps aimed more at balancing civil-military relations than at establishing good policy. “You put your trust in elected leaders that the places they send you are worth sending you to,” Smith explains.
The experience of being in the military at a time in which it was engaged in operations that Smith didn’t always agree with wasn’t embittering. After he left the Army in 2008 and later finished his undergraduate studies at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, he worked as a web communications specialist at the VA, helping to formulate the department’s messaging at a time when the medical backlog issue was first becoming widely known.
He says he’s now two months away from finishing his second degree on the GI bill and that the VA is hamstrung by a “communication’s traditionalism” that prevents it from being able to fully convey its many successes.
And he rejects the idea that the military is a bastion of conservatism or that its politics are all that especially right-leaning.
“The military as a whole reflects a cross-section of society,” he says. “There are lots of people who were as liberal as I was in the military, and like in the rest of America most folks in the military are probably less ideological than talking heads would ike to think they are.” He notes that Cumberland Country, home to the sprawling Fort Bragg Army base, consistently votes Democratic.
Today, Smith hopes to continue writing. “My philosophy is that … you write because you have to write it’s what you do,” says Smith. “It’s who you are.” But he plans to one day teach college-level as well, and continue his work as a communications consultant for nonprofit organisations once he earns his degree.
Smith has build a successful career as a professional communicator — and realises that some of the current gaps between American civilian and military life owe to how veterans discuss their experiences, and who they discuss them with.
“We do speak a different language in uniform and it’s not always the quickest thing to transition back into the civilian world,” he says.
He recommends that young veterans “find a group of peers you can communication with, because it’s a challenge to get back no matter what your experience was oversees.”
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