For Ashlee Smith, daughter of John and Robyne Smith of Manawa, joining the military was something she dreamed about since she was 16 years old.
At that time, there was a lot going on in the world that kept her from enlisting.
“This was at a time when things were blowing up in other countries,” said Smith. “My dad said to me, go to college. Please, just go to college.”
And that was what Smith did.
She began attending the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, following her graduation from Little Wolf High School in 2008.
It wasn’t until her father suffered an injury that she rethought her decision.
“My dad had an accident, where he had fallen from his tree stand,” she said. “I looked at him laying there in that hospital bed and thought to myself, ‘Life is too short. I have to do what I want to do.'”
Smith, who was now in her sophomore year of college, decided to look into the military and what it had to offer.
“I was working three jobs and going to school full time,” she said. “I knew that was not what I wanted to do.”
On Feb. 19, 2014, she enlisted in the United States Army.
Smith completed her bachelor’s degree in human development at UWGB, before heading to Basic Combat Training (BCT) on May 27 at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
“I had made the joke before I left that I lived with John Smith for 24 years, I think I am going to be the most prepared for basic,” she laughed.
Smith recalled her first day of basic training, known as day zero.
“We were on a bus when a sergeant came on and said, ‘Soldiers take a deep breath. That is your last breath of fresh air, your last breath of freedom,'” she said.
Lying in bed that first night, she thought to herself, what did I get myself into?
“I found out rather quickly that if you listen, basic is not that bad,” she said. “There is a reason God gives you two ears and only one month.”
During her training she quickly adapted to her surroundings, even earning herself leadership positions.
“I was in a leadership position throughout basic,” she said. “I was bay leader, squad leader and platoon guide I was also team leader in my squad, bravo team leader for the field training exercise and assistant platoon guide.”
Throughout all of this, Smith faced some challenges as well.
“We were going to Victory Tower,” she said. “Victory Tower is a huge obstacle course where you repel down a 250-foot wall, walk a tight rope and you don’t have anything holding you up there. For the first time, I thought I would not be able to do this. I was afraid of heights, but not anymore.”
With the encouragement of one of her training instructors, Smith was able to complete this course and even found it to be fun.
She graduated from BCT on Aug. 7.
“It was a very proud moment,” she said. “But I would have to say hearing my drill sergeant tell my dad he should be very proud of me and that I should be an officer was amazing.”
Currently stationed at Fort Rucker, Alabama, Smith is now studying to be an air traffic controller through Advanced Individual Training (AIT).
“At first, I thought I would do my six years and be done,” said Smith. “But I have always liked structure and I have realized that I love my job. I think this is where I belong and I will succeed the most. I plan on making this my life.”
Officers Training School is something that she has considered as well.
“Becoming a young officer for the United States Army provides the humbling experience,” she said. “My goal as an officer is to be able to touch the hearts of the soldiers who look to me as an example of the highest standard and the seven army values: leadership, duty, respect, selfless service, honesty, integrity and personal courage.”
Smith quickly realized she would be happier as a Non-Commissioned Officer (NCO).
“I would much rather lead soldiers and be with them, than lead from afar,” she said. “An NCO gets the opportunity to get to know the soldiers. I want to lead them to their success and watch them succeed.”
The opportunities are endless.
“The military has definitely changed me,” she said. “Basic training was the biggest influence in my life. It was an opportunity to better myself as a person and it has made me stronger physical, mentally and socially.”
But this change has not come without some sacrifices as well.
“The hardest part of being in the military is being away,” she said. “Sometimes you are so busy you don’t even think about it, but others are very hard.”
Smith reflected for a moment on her 12-year-old cousin, Reighlee Stevenson, who was killed in a car accident while she was at AIT.
“It was hard to know my family was mourning and I could not comfort them,” she said. “I had to watch over Facebook. The last time I saw Reighlee she told me that she was proud of me. I held on to that.”
For Smith, the Army is a lifetime commitment.
“It isn’t something that it is a last resort, it’s not a 9-5 job. You train long hours, you miss out on holidays with your family, but it is something you love to do,” she said. “It is so much more than a job, it is a life choice. Ultimately you join for the people of the United States.”
Smith will definitely make her mark.
“I have always said, ‘be the change you want to see in the world,'” she said. “I want to make a difference.”
Smith will graduate from AIT on Jan. 23.