Career & Education

Bog Walk High School grad commands US warship

Aye, aye Captain!

BY PENDA HONEYGHAN Career & Education writer honeyghanp@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, April 09, 2017    

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WHEN Janice Smith lay on her makeshift bed at night in the unlit room she shared with four siblings in Morris Hall, St Catherine, she often envisioned herself as a successful attorney-at-law.

She never did achieve it, but Smith has no regrets, for what she achieved instead cemented her name in the annals of history. Last year, at age 45, she became the first Jamaican and the second black woman to be named commander of a US warship, the guided-missile destroyer

USS Oscar Austin.

“In 1988 I migrated to the States to be with my mother, Gloria Oikelome. I was clear on what I wanted to do. I had learnt from very early that education is what opens doors for opportunities. So the Navy was very appealing because of the educational benefits it offered, as well as the opportunity to travel the world. But very soon after enlisting I fell in love with it because I recognised that I was doing something much bigger, and I had a feeling I could offer more,” Commander Smith told the Jamaica Observer Tuesday.


She was on a four-day trip to the land of her birth to visit her alma mater, Bog Walk High School, at which she was the guest of honour at a special welcome home ceremony, and where she awarded 12 current students with scholarships of $50,000 each.

Reflecting on her Navy journey, which began with her serving as a mess management specialist (cook), Smith noted that much of her success should be attributed to lessons taught by her grandmother, Iris Plummer, and the general belief of her extended family members that she could impact the world.

“I didn’t think that there was anything particularly special about me, but my family always did. I served on my first ship for four years as a cook. I took some online classes while on board and then I went to a land-based job in the same capacity. Soon after I got my bachelor’s degree in business administration. Following this, I applied for the officers’ programme, but I didn’t get picked at that time so I went back to school, completed my master’s in business management, built my portfolio and applied again. This time I was accepted,” she shared.

While at Bog Walk, Smith developed her track and fields skills, participating in 1500- and 800-metre races, high and long jump, as well as various relays. The experience taught her many lessons which were fundamental to her perseverance. Among them were that endurance, work, and patience are crucial, and that the swift doesn’t always win the race. It also taught her that should she never put a cap on her abilities, never give up when faced with rejection, and that most things are attainable once quality time was invested and adequate preparations made.

Those investments in her professional development were major factors in her promotion, Smith told Career & Education.

She acknowledged, however, that the job is not as immaculate as her starched white uniform which gleamed in the sunlight, but graduate study in national strategic studies completed at the Naval War College have prepared her for the associated challenges.

“My biggest challenge now is being a leader in my current position. Captaining in a ship is like managing a small city, so getting people on the same page and to believe in your vision takes some work, because everyone has a preconceived notion of what things should be.

Also, when leading 350 people who you have to keep safe and see that your vision will get us where we need to be, while making sure that their legal and basic needs are met, when I thought of it first [it] was intimidating. Now, knowing that these men and women have wives, husbands, children, parents is all the motivation I need,” the Navy woman reasoned.

Smith, whose service awards include a Defense Meritorious Service medal, a Meritorious Service medal, five Navy Commendation medals, two Navy Achievement medals, and various campaign, service and unit awards, concedes that her service to her adopted country comes with a huge price. She said that each time she is deployed – sometimes for as much as 10 months at a time – she feels guilty and heartbroken for leaving her family.

“Honestly, my husband [Julius Lyle] is my rock, so my two boys, Xavier and Alexander, understand what I do and accept what I do; they support me. Sure, I miss graduations and birthdays as well as PTA [parent-teacher meetings] and, honestly, my current job gets the most of me and my attention. It is not as balanced as I would like, but I realise that I have to do my best and succeed because people’s lives are at stake, and I have been blessed with a family that understands that. They know the importance of my service to country and so, whenever I am around, I make sure that I impact their lives in the best way,” Smith said.

Commander Smith also used the opportunity on Tuesday to pay homage to the women who paved the way for her ascension in an organisation which, up until 1978, banned women from being assigned sea duty.

“What I have dealt with are people who saw my hard work and evaluated me as such. The women before me may have very well experienced this, but I am now reaping the labour of women who went before me. I am sure the problem still exists in many organisations and in parts of our society, but I am happy we are at a point where we are trying to overcome it all. I try to go into a situation and not think of the fact that I am the only woman in the room and see myself as a sailor, a US Naval officer, because you can become a victim of what society thinks if you allow yourself to,” Smith said.

She returned to the US on Thursday and is expected to be deployed overseas for six to eight months, but she declined giving the location.

As for her future in the Navy, Smith said the possibilities are limitless.

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