Sherri Smith knew that when she joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard in 1995, she was a bit of an outlier. At the time, Smith was a young, single mother with two small children going to school full time. But, she had always wanted to join the service.
Smith, 47, was part of a work-study program helping veterans obtain home loans and their records through MATC at Truax Field, the state’s army national guard headquarters.
“My supervisor down there was military and he encouraged me. He said, ‘Sherri, you’d be a perfect fit for the military. Have you ever thought about it?’” she said. “He encouraged me to follow some dreams of my own.”
Smith- who has lived in Waterloo for 18 years — enlisted and went to basic and advanced individual training (AIT) at Fort Jackson, South Carolina.
“It meant leaving my kids, though, which was the hard part,” she said.
Following her training, Smith found a full-time active duty position with the Wisconsin Army National Guard working in the human resources department. Half of her career was with the J-1, which was responsible for the army and air force units and completed human resources-related tasks such as putting in orders for active members when they would come on- and off-duty.
“For example, when we had the flooding here in 2008, I had to put every soldier whether it was air or army, they all had to get put on some type of orders,” she said. “It was a lot of coordination ensuring we had the budgets and all these different pieces and layers to all these things.”
Smith was also responsible for processing the paperwork for all the retiring active guard members.
Military service was at the forefront of Smith’s mind when she graduated high school near the time when the United States had launched Operation Desert Storm.
“I saw not only men, but I saw women in uniforms doing their part and it was just so empowering and made me say, ‘If I can do something maybe somebody else can’t do, why shouldn’t I?’”
Smith was an active National Guard member when Sept. 11, 2001 occurred.
‘It was a total 360’
The assault by terrorists resulted in major changes for operations at the Wisconsin National Guard headquarters.
“It was a total 360,” Smith said.
The woman remembers undergoing physical fitness tests in the workout room that morning; the TVs were on during the tests. She recalls thinking how the reports of the attack were surreal.
“Then it was, OK, we’re locking down base, we’re locking down everything and all the F-16s started to scramble,” Smith said. “We knew (things) were going to change, we just had no idea of the impact. It entirely changed the whole mindset of the military and guard’s presence.”
The veteran initially did not expect to deploy when entering the armed services in 1995 because troops who had been sent overseas were coming home.
“I thought, if it happens, it happens, but if not I can do what I can do,” she said. “When 9/11 hit, it was like ‘Here we go.’”
She went deployed in 2009 with the entire 32nd IBCT (infantry brigade combat team) out of Camp Douglas, the unit Smith served with from 2008-2011. As the human resources officer, Smith assisted in manifesting the soldiers coming in to Kuwait and ensure they were all accounted for. While in Baghdad, Iraq, she was responsible for running the military ID section and processing the mail. She was stationed at Camp Prosperity, also known as Forward Operating Base Prosperity, which had been one of Sadam Hussein’s palaces before being overtaken in 2003. This was located within the Green Zone, which was known as one of the safest areas in Baghdad.
During her deployment, Smith’s children were ages 8, 10, 16 and 19. She said it was challenging to leave her family. Smith had her younger brother – who was 26 at the time — stay in Waterloo with her children. The rest of her family was also nearby, with her sister living in Marshall at the time of Smith’s deployment.
Thankfully, Smith was able to communicate with her family using Skype.
The deployment was for one year, but Smith ended up returning a bit sooner due to a massive blood clot in her leg as the result of a knee injury.
“It was a fluke thing,” she said. “I was walking along and blew out my knee.”
Finding a new path
Smith struggled after the injury, not knowing if she would be able to continue her career with the Wisconsin Army National Guard due to blood clots she developed.
“I couldn’t stay in long-term on blood thinners,” she said.
Prior to being deployed, Smith was approved to become a warrant officer. Her medical condition changed the course of her career.
Smith retired from the Army National Guard in 2016 as a Sgt. 1st Class and returned to school; she earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology while in the guard and decided to go into a field where she could continue to serve others after retirement.
The veteran enrolled in Edgewood College’s accelerated one-year bachelor of nursing program. Smith said it was intense, but felt the military helped her to “as they say, embrace the suck and don’t let those things that happen get you down or perceived failures become all encompassing. There’s always another fork to follow and do better and learn from those problems.”
Smith admits to feeling very low after retiring from the military. The veterans’ services officer at Edgewood College encouraged her to take part in a bike ride to help support wounded veterans.
Upon completing the event – which accidentally became a 20-mile ride instead of 10 – another participant asked if anyone wanted a Spotted Cow beer. Smith took the man up on the offer. She said talking to the fellow veteran changed her life; that person was Salvatore Guinta, a former Army soldier who was first living person since the Vietnam War to receive the Medal of Honor.
“He encouraged me to find a purpose, find a reason, find a new meaning in life,” the Waterloo resident said. “It just kind of clicked. It was like, I have permission to find a new purpose in life instead of feeling sorry for myself and everything that I’ve lost – to think about the opportunities I still have ahead of me.”
The bike ride was part of the Ride 2 Recovery events, now known as Project Hero. Smith and her husband continue to be part of the event as the Madison region coordinators.
Smith is now employed as a surgical services nurse at the American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, the same hospital where she completed her residency and clinicals.
And she continues to help serve her community as the commander of the Krause-Langer VFW Post, open to Marshall and Waterloo veterans. Smith joined the organization after returning from Iraq and older members encouraged her to move up through different leadership positions at the post.
“The VFW’s presence within your own communities is so important. It not only helps the camaraderie between the veterans but it’s a way for those veterans to keep giving back to those communities and the next generations,” she said. “That life of servitude and service and commitment to your fellow countrymen.”
Smith noted the VFW also does a lot of advocacy work for veterans.
A family of vets
Smith’s family understands her commitment to service – her husband, Thomas, is a veteran of the Army and Army Reserves. He was also involved with human resources for the military. The pair actually met at Fort McCoy.
The woman said having a spouse in the service has benefits, such as an understanding the commitment to being in the military.
“They are able to be supportive in a way that sometimes non-military spouses aren’t because they don’t necessarily understand why you always have to go away on this weekend or why you have to miss this birthday or anniversary or this other family event,” Smith said.
The couple encouraged one another with their military careers, even if it meant being away from the family for an extended period of time.
While Smith was preparing for deployment her daughter, Amanda, was going through her basic and AIT. Upon completion, Amanda joined as a combat medic unit out of Madison for six years.
“It’s a very male-dominated field,” Smith said. “She wanted to do something in the medical field and her scores allowed her to do something like that.”
Amanda was stationed at a combat transition unit at Rock Island, Illinois where she helped injured active duty soldiers who were too injured to stay at their home base or for reserve members, attempting to get the troops back to their homes.
This included helping her own mother.
After Smith sustained an injury in Baghdad she was sent to the Rock Island combat transition unit.
“The commander almost didn’t let me process through there because they’d never had a parent and a child in this situation,” Smith said. “They weren’t sure how to approach this.”
The veteran did get to process through Rock Island before returning home.
Smith’s oldest son, Christopher, also enlisted for three years where he was a photojournalist, also out of Madison. She had encouraged him to join the reserves, noting her daughter had a great experience.
“I feel like every child, if they are physically and mentally able to do military service should, even if it’s just an initial stint,” Smith said. “I feel like it helps their ability to grow up and accept orders – even if they don’t necessarily like them, conflict resolution, all of that. Not to mention, they get great skills taught to them while getting paid to do it. It’s a constant income and they get to see the world.”