Veterans Day for retired Sgt. Jennifer Smith is not just any day, but one where she can look back on the 13.5 years she spent serving as a medic in the Army and also remember her time spent on the frontlines in Iraq.
“I think that what defines me as a veteran is the fact that I stood up and said, ‘I’m gonna serve my country,'” Smith said.
Serving her country
Smith knew she could not afford college on her own, so she joined the National Guard in 1999 when she was 17.
Several years after joining the National Guard, she decided to go active duty. During her six years of active duty, Smith was deployed three times to Iraq and then finished her time in the Army Reserves.
Smith said her first deployment was in April 2003, shortly after her 21st birthday. She was deployed from her station in Germany to Northern Iraq for about six months. She returned to her station in February 2004, to find out that four and a half months later, she would be deployed again to Central Iraq for 12 months.
“I think the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do was call my mom a week after I came back from war to tell her I was going back again in four months,” Smith said. “That was a conversation I wasn’t looking forward to.”
She got back from her second deployment in February 2005 and finished out her time in Germany. In the summer of 2005, she came back to the U.S.
Her final, and longest deployment, lasting 14.5 months, was again to Central Iraq from spring of 2007 until June 2008.
Smith said she met her husband overseas while he was also a medic, and together they worked with retired Staff Sgt. David Bellavia of Company A, Task Force 2-2, 1st Infantry Division, who received the Silver Star for his actions during the Battle of Fallujah. The Battle of Fallujah took place around this time in November 2004, making this week its 12-year anniversary.
“My memory of Jen was being beat up, tired and hungry and having no sleep, almost 12 years to the exact date today,” Bellavia said.
Bellavia described what it was like that day.
“We lost a guy, our commander,” Bellavia said. “It was tough. We exchanged fire and lit up a neighborhood, where many enemies were dead and many injured. When we came back to refuel and rearm ourselves, we saw our medics giving aid to the enemy.”
That moment shows you the type of person, medic, soldier and warrior Smith was and is, Bellavia said.
“She did her job, even though the guy she was treating may have killed someone she cared for,” Bellavia said.
Smith said what she enjoyed about being a medic was the satisfaction of knowing she was doing good and helping someone.
“The number of people I helped depended,” Smith said. “Not deployed it’s usually a lot of physical injuries like strains, sprains, occasional twisted ankles, cough and cold, that kind of thing and deployed it was completely separate types of injuries.”
Smith said she didn’t retire from the Army, but rather got out with an honorable discharge, called an Expiration Term of Service.
“I fulfilled my obligation, my contractual obligations, so I just got out,” Smith said.
Now, Smith is a senior studying microbiology at Kansas State.
“I’ve always loved science and been in the health and medical field so it was kind of a natural transition from military medicine into civilian medicine and science,” Smith said. “I would really like to become a pathology assistant. I’m hoping my experience in the Army gives me a really good advantage.”
Smith said she is very proud to be a veteran.
“I’m very thankful that I was able to deploy three times and experience the best and the worst of humanity,” Smith said. “I grew up faster than I wanted to, but you look at life in a different way. You’re definitely more appreciative of just the ability to wake up and have a cup of coffee in peace and be able to talk to whoever you want, do what you want and know that somebody out there is literally dying for your freedom to do that.”
Smith said there’s an excellent community of veterans at K-State. She is the treasurer of the Veterans Student Organization and will be running for vice president next year.
Justin Manford, senior in economics, started the organization and served five years in the Marine Corps. He said Smith was one of the first people he met on campus whom he didn’t know personally before he arrived at K-State.
“Jen’s kind of our residence bad ass,” Manford said. “When I got here, I met her and a few other people who are gone now and they helped me through a lot of personal tough times. If it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t still be here.”
Bellavia said Smith is the type of legacy we want to have.
“Those acts of humility, grace on the battlefield, that is what our generation represents,” Bellavia said. “That is the type of legacy we want to have. She represents the good in us, even though she had the same emotion that we did, she was professional enough to do her duty.”
Smith said she is very fortunate to have this kind of support network.
“I know when I first came to K-State, there wasn’t a real connection with a lot of veterans and I think our voice is being heard more and more,” Smith said. “People are seeing us as a force to be reckoned with, that we’re here to stay and we have a lot to contribute to K-State and the general population in general.”
Smith said that a lot of times, Veterans Day gets a negative connotation.
“People just aren’t exposed to it so they’re not sure of all what a veteran is, so it’s nice to see the diversity, especially being a female that was in the military and coming back as a student,” she said.
Smith said each time she came home from deployment, it was like Veterans Day because everyone was thankful and appreciative that they made it home safely.
“I think now, more than ever, it’s more important to me,” Smith said. “Growing up I didn’t really understand Veterans Day. Mostly because, you know, unless you grew up in a heavy military family, you appreciate veterans but you don’t understand the complexity and everything they’ve gone through to make your world what it is today.”
Smith said she thinks people are starting to appreciate that sacrifice more, especially since they have been in Iraq and Afghanistan for a very long time.
“Being close to Fort Riley and military bases in general, I feel people are more accepting and appreciative of veterans because they see it more frequently,” Smith said.
Manford said Veterans Day is meant to celebrate the lives of veterans and their accomplishments.
“Everyone on Veterans Day is always like, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,'” Manford said. “No, that’s Memorial Day. For veterans, every day is Memorial Day. But this is the one day of the year you should celebrate their life. You should celebrate the veterans who came home and celebrate their accomplishments.”