I had just returned to wearing a military uniform in 2002 when I chanced upon an informal interview in the hallway outside the office of U.S. Air Force Maj. Jody Ankabrandt, the high-spirited Public Affairs officer at the New York Air National Guard's 109th Airlift Wing. I was on an assignment in finance that did not excite me, but then she offered me a great opportunity in PA.
I immediately said, "yes, ma'am!" because I joined the National Guard as a U.S. Navy veteran and adult Communications graduate who failed to find civilian work. This was my open door into an exciting military specialty that turned my drill-weekend service into a photojournalism career.
Here I am, some 20 years' worth of assignments later, hoping to reach you with a few final words. As a smart Master Sergeant once told me, "everybody is replaceable," and it's my turn to transition out.
I always told myself during those years that no one would stop by to tell me a story. It required footwork in getting out, asking questions, and convincing service members that their stories were important.
In deciding what to write in my final article, I considered the lessons I learned from some people and the moments that still inspire me.
Give 'em space and trust
One of my first memorable news articles focused on a former enlisted Army medic, U.S. Air Force Lt. Jeffery Quinn. Having reenlisted after a long break in service and not a movie buff, I was unaware of the battle of Mogadishu. I bought the movie "Black Hawk Down" to understand the Bronze Star Medal with Valor award story on Lieutenant Quinn assigned to me. For some reason, his medal got delayed.
I interviewed him many years after he went into combat to care for his comrades during that 1993 peacekeeping mission. I was pretty nervous, but whether he remembers me, I don't know. A humble leader, Quinn's trust in me as a professional military journalist by default boosted my confidence as a three-striper. He was open and personal while speaking with me - and that was inspiring.
So his approach rubbed off on me. I start subordinate relationships in a position of trust and space, to treat junior enlisted as trained craftsmen by default. I've never regretted it.
Indeed, great leaders remain
I've written often about the history of the Air National Guard's enlisted professional military education center; however, before my assignment as PA manager, I interviewed TEC's first commander for an article I wrote at the National Guard Bureau in Washington. It was TEC's 40th anniversary, and retired U.S. Air Force Col. Edward Morrisey was happy to speak with me over the phone.
Colonel Morrisey ran TEC from 1968 to 1983. He is the only field officer in the National Guard to earn the Order of the Sword, the enlisted force's highest honor bestowed to officers.
His induction was undoubtedly not a default retirement takeaway, and I believe few officers advocated more for enlisted Airmen. He's attended nearly every Airman leadership school and NCO academy graduation for the last 54 years on the campus he helped establish.
There is also something genuine about Colonel Morrisey's leadership from no other I've known. It's consistent, heartfelt, and meets you at your level.
We know that it is spring here when baskets of fresh strawberries appear around campus as if from a secret admirer. In late summer, peaches show up, and on Christmas, it's boxes of chocolates. Despite being advanced in years, students and staff still run into him Wednesday mornings on his way to the base gym. He may grab your elbow to tell you how much he appreciates you.
I believe that Colonel Morrisey read every one of my 350 articles from TEC. He would stop by from time to time to let me know how much he appreciated them. And that encouragement got me through some moments when I questioned my efforts. There are thousands out there who would tell you similar experiences and sentiments.
In recalling the genuinely great leaders I've met, there's top consideration to Colonel M's example as a man who advocated, taught, and inspired authentic leadership for a lifetime. Thank you, Sir!
The temps are diamonds
While serving at my home state's Joint Forces Headquarters in New York, I discovered that the nation would be in a pickle without its temporary military staff.
Many of my stories focused on such full-time additional duty support. We call ourselves "Guard bumming." I can say that because I once survived working from temporary orders to temporary orders. (If you haven't, you can't.) Not knowing if and when your next full-time tour will come is worrying, but service members do it with whole hearts.
These Soldiers and Airmen drove my most inspiring reports. I wrote how they protected the nation's train stations and airports, worked on their flight lines, managed aerovacs, and combated disasters from the sky and the ground. They ran air shows, built shelters and community soccer fields, ensured burial honors for veterans, ran national security events, and helped troubled youth. I felt honored to give them some attention.
Please, next time you meet an augmenting Guard member, thank them twice for what they do. And thank those fantastic leaders who advocate for their gainful employment - it's a considerable uplift.
Don't accept isolation
While I am most proud of my service in the U.S. Navy through the late '80s, it challenged me in ways that affect me today. As a departing young man who walked away from the base gate, I went straight to the dumpster to throw my sea bag of uniforms into it, and that's a terrible way to feel after four years of honorable service. It took 9/11 to bring me back.
We can find ourselves in toxic environments, both mentally and physically. We might go for long periods without a decent meal or hot water or rest in places so polluted, noisy, and explosive that we are more stressed when we get up. We can suffer emotionally through sacrifices away from friends, families, and the things we love in seemingly unbearable ways.
I realize that the two things that got me through were my God and shipmates.
In our military, we have suicides and may feel powerless to end them. We have hotlines, annual training, support programs, free counseling, and open-door policies. Yet, I still hear news about individuals who felt no other escape from their situation.
I believe some critical solutions are at our lowest level, not up at the Pentagon. My wingmen give me great flexibility and space to feel empowered and innovative. Still, they also know me personally enough to support me. We can't afford isolation.
The feeling of being lost without any help is also why I FOOT STOMP the importance of sharing our stories. Not just the achievements but the personal challenges. There's more hope for others to navigate seemingly life-ending obstacles with our inspiration. No one is failure-free. We need to rewrite the "and I will never fail" part of the U.S. Air Force Creed to "and I will never quit."
I never hesitated to tell you of my screw-ups, mistakes, and tragedy, even when those written commentaries carried personal embarrassment. If I helped one person feel that they were not alone, I was successful.
BTW, the worst days were a blessing
Finally, I met and interviewed service members while covering senior leaders' visits to the nation's combat zones. Instead of reporting on memorizations, I wished to have met others, including some resting in Arlington.
I think about those brave Soldiers and Airmen of Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom or in unknown battles when I face a setback or personal discomfort. It brings me perspective, so I don't find myself spoiled, ignorant, and undeserving of my freedoms.
I interviewed U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Henry Baez Jr. for just 15 minutes in Afghanistan in 2009. Still, I remember he is one inspiring Soldier.
Before heading out on a foot patrol in downtown Kabul, senior leaders coined him in front of his peers at Camp Phoenix. I took his photo that day, and he gave me those minutes to question him about the honor. Then he credited the Soldiers near him. He quietly geared himself up with body armor, a weapon, and radio to lead his squad outside the gate. It brought home to me just how fortunate we are to have the most remarkable young men and women running our military.
Service members are in such dangerous places today, or some remain missing in action, making my worst days a blessing. They are my forever heroes.
This is it
I am honored to end 28 years of Navy and Air Force service at one of the finest learning centers in our military. Serving on such a small team for nine years taught me that our stories are endless. I've run out of steam before I ran out of exciting things to write about. My thoughts will be on these friends for some time. I disliked this part the most during my service: saying goodbye to the units that became family. It never got easier.
I loved being a military journalist. The fact is that the people I interviewed and wrote about, including those that I mentioned, likely do not remember me. But that's how it works. Most of us have limited knowledge of who we inspired, but we can certainly tell you who inspired us. It suits modesty - or whatever you want to label it.
But for the touch of those bold service members, it all would have been a pretty dull time.
(U.S. Air Force Master Sgt. Mike R. Smith enlisted in 1986 as a flight-deck aircraft handler with the U.S. Navy. He is a graduate of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute. His background includes assignments with the USS Independence CV-62, the 109th Airlift Wing, the New York National Guard Joint Forces Headquarters, the National Guard Bureau Joint Staff, the 139th Airlift Wing, and the I.G. Brown Training and Education Center. He earned the National Guard Bureau's Print Journalist/Writer of the Year award in 2003, 2005, 2009, and 2017.)