Petty Officer First Class Timothy Smith was born and raised in Menominee – a small town on the fringes of the Upper Peninsula. His dreams were always bigger than his hometown; he wanted to serve in the Navy and see the world. He enlisted before graduating from high school. In 1993, having never seen a bigger city than Green Bay, Tim began a 20-year journey to rival the Odyssey. He would spend 12 years at war, deploy 10 times, travel to five continents and visit 27 countries.
Explaining his decision to enlist, Smith said, “It runs in my family. If you look at my family lineage, my father served in the Navy during Vietnam. His dad – my grandfather – served in the Army during WWII and was part of D-Day. And I have a great-grandfather that served in the Navy during WWI.”
Smith stepped into Recruit Training Command on July 27 1993, exactly one week after his 18th birthday. By March of 1994, Smith had completed training as an Aviation Structural Mechanic. With expertise to maintain and repair the S-3 “Viking,” a carrier-based tanker and submarine hunter, he was assigned to squadron VS-21, the “Fighting Redtails.” The Fighting Redtails were deployed on the USS Independence (CV 62), homeported in Japan.
His first four years at sea were spent on the Independence. Smith explains life aboard an aircraft carrier:
“There’s no personal space. You have what’s called a ‘coffin locker;’ that’s where you sleep. Your bed is 6’ long by 4’ wide by 4’ tall. I’m 6’2’’. So some part of me was hanging out. The only thing that separates you from the world is a curtain. The food is kind of miserable, but they’re mass-producing food for 5,000 people.”
However, there were upsides.
“Because I worked on a flight deck, life was a lot different; I got to see sunlight and experience weather everyday. And I had a pretty kick-ass job. So there was the adrenaline that came with it… It was fun. It was intense,” he said.
The Independence conducted demanding patrols of the Pacific, taking Smith to many countries, including South Korea, Australia, Singapore and as far west as the United Arab Emirates. The Independence participated in Operation Southern Watch, an enforcement of a no-fly zone over southern Iraq. In 1996, the ship also intervened in the Strait of Taiwan when China showed military aggression towards Taiwan, a nation Beijing does not recognize. But Smith’s most grueling deployment would come five years later, in 2001.
In late 2001, Smith was attached to another squadron of S-3’s, the VS-32 “Maulers.” In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Maulers were deployed on the USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) and sent to Afghanistan as part of the Operation Enduring Freedom vanguard.
“We were the first aircraft carrier to pull out and bomb Afghanistan,” Smith recalled. “The Theodore Roosevelt set the modern day record for continuous days at sea…We did 159 days straight before a port visit and our first day off. In a seven month deployment, we had eight days off. And I worked three of them.”
Smith had no connections to New York before the 9/11 attacks, but the issue was personal. His squadron received care packages from New York firefighters and policemen, along with the names of those they had lost. The Maulers would write the names of the victims on ordinance before dropping it on the Taliban. Photos of the bombs would be sent back to New York, along with the satisfaction of knowing that some sort of justice had been done.
Smith was deployed several more times, aboard the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) as well as to bases in Djibouti and Afghanistan. However, his time in the Navy drew to an end in 2013 after missing a needed promotion to continue his career.
Barbara Smith, his mother, reflects on Tim’s service:
“I was always concerned, but I know that was his dream…I’m very proud of (my son). He is way awesome.”
In 2005, the sacrifice that veterans make became very personal to Tim. He lost two pilots over Florida. In the immediate aftermath, it was unclear if the accident had been caused by a mechanical failure and therefore something Tim could have prevented. The cause was later ruled to be a microburst-severe turbulence. But as Tim stood in formation at the memorial service, he caught sight of a young widow, seven months pregnant, trying to hold her five-year old son. It was this image that convinced him to not work on airplanes again after he retired.
Tim is now a student at Washtenaw Community College, where he is studying business. His decision to attend WCC was due in large part to the Veteran Center. Most colleges have them, but WCC’s makes it easier for veterans to focus on school by taking care of their paperwork. The people at the VC also don’t limit themselves to helping only WCC veterans. In one particular case, the staff helped a widow in Oklahoma claim her rights and those of her recently deceased husband.
Tim is an active member of the Student Veterans Club, where he served as president for three semesters.
Alberto Alacosta, Tim’s successor, had admiring words about him. “He was (the equivalent of a) noncommissioned officer and he exudes that very much so…He has strong leadership (skills). He’s what I would call a good NCO – he actually tries to work with you, tries to teach you stuff and he’s a very patient dude,” Alacosta said.
While Tim led a very eventful life, there’s a major part of his time in the Navy missing from this story – the parties. But, that he can’t share too much about.
“They’re not PG. The other half I can’t remember,” Tim said with a laugh.