“What an honor it is,” says National Guardsman
Dustin Smith enlisted in the Wisconsin National Guard in 1997 when he was 17 years old and there were few conflicts in the world.
But in 2001, the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists, America went to war and everything began to change for him.
He looks at his time in the military as “an adventure” and says he never feared for his life.
“Veterans are an elite group … less than 1 percent of our citizens have served in the military,” says Smith, who today holds the rank of Sergeant 1st Class in the National Guard. “What an honor it is to serve.”
He was stationed with peacekeeping forces in Kuwait in 2005-2006 and then Baghdad, the capital of Iraq, in 2009-2010.
He said his most difficult experience was working in a prison where Iraqi soldiers were detained.
“Knowing what some of them had done to Americans, we still had to treat them with dignity and respect,” he said. “But as I got to know them, I was surprised at how well versed and intelligent they were … many were college graduates … and their way of thinking was that they had been invaded and they were going to protect their homeland at all costs.
“It was enlightening because as Americans we were doing the same thing … protecting our homeland,” he said. “I saw that there was common ground between people.”
He also found out that some sports teams are well-known – even in the Middle East. When they found out Smith was from Wisconsin, “they wanted to know if I was a Packers fan,” he said.
He went on to have a third deployment traveling all over the Middle East, including Oman and Jordan in 2014-2015 on a strategic mission.
“For a kid from a small town in Wisconsin, the National Guard allowed me to travel and broaden my horizons and learn how people all over the world think and feel,” he said. “I learned that most people are generally good … no matter where I went, I found decent human beings.”
Smith grew up in the small community of Adams-Friendship near the Wisconsin Dells. Both his father and grandfather had served in the military.
While in the reserves, he went to live with his brother in Green Bay and found a job working at the Land of Lakes cheese factory in Denmark, where he met his wife, Tracy Smidle, who was also employed at the plant.
They married in 2005, found a house in Kewaunee and had a daughter, Cadence, in 2008. After that, when he was called to Baghdad it became much harder for him to leave.
“When I went overseas, there was a lot that I missed out on with her,” said Smith. “It was particularly hard when I went to Baghdad when she was 2; she was so attached to Tracy when I came back and she hardly knew me.”
Tracy is a 1978 graduate of Kewaunee High School and comes from a large family in the town of Carlton. She said that she and Cadence would Skype her husband when he was overseas and that it helped to keep them close.
“By my third deployment, Cadence was in school,” he said. “The other kids would talk about what they did with their father that weekend, and she could only say that she talked to her dad on the computer.”
Smith acknowledges it is the families of the military men and women who experience the most hardship.
“I am so proud and grateful for the way my family, my wife and my friends kept everything together while I was gone,” he said.
Technology has really improved communications between servicemen and women and their families back at home, he said.
While he was in the Middle East, Tracy’s mother died, and the military, working with the Red Cross, was able to fly him home so that he could be with Tracy and her family for the funeral, he said.
Today, Smith works as a security guard at the Dominion Kewaunee power plant and says that he is grateful for all the flexibility Dominion has provided him.
“They are one of the best companies in terms of taking care of their employees,” he said. “They welcomed me back with open arms.”
Smith also said the Kewaunee community has been wonderful to him.
“When I first came here after marrying Tracy, people would just call me on the phone to thank me for my service,” he said.
Smith will be able to retire from the National Guard in two years and still attends training once a month in Berlin, Wis. He says that he really appreciates his interactions with veterans there, as they serve meals for the active serviceman in the VFW hall across the street from the armory where he trains.
Smith said he has made his best friends in the National Guard and recently stood up at two friends’ weddings.
“I would do my years in the military all over again,” he said.
This article originally appeared on Green Bay Press Gazette: "What an honor it is," says National Guardsman