Jason Smith was uncertain about his goals when he graduated from high school in Pennsylvania so he joined the military and retired after serving 28 years, first in the U.S. Army and then the S.C. Army National Guard.
"I liked the challenges, the responsibility, and, after my first three-year tour, I decided to make the military my career," said Jason Smith, who joined Lander University on June 1 as the new director of Military and Veterans Services.
Recognized as one of the nation's best universities for veterans, Lander is steeped in tradition of educating men and women who have served in the military or are the dependents of veterans. Of Lander's approximate 3,500 students, 10 percent have a military connection - 281 are dependents of veterans; 15 are U.S. military veterans; 25 are serving in the National Guard, and four others are on active duty or are reservists.
"People aren't aware at first of what a gem Lander is, and the University supports its veterans," Smith said, noting that faculty and staff respond to requests from his office in a timely manner and have worked with students serving in the military to accommodate their changing schedules.
Veterans Day, observed annually Nov. 11, is a time when people recognize the nation's men and women who have served, but Smith said that Americans overwhelmingly appreciate military service. "I always have been humbled when people thank me for my service," Smith said. "They consider us to be heroes. For me, it was an honor to serve."
Smith joined the Army's elite 82nd Airborne Division as an infantryman, heavy anti-armor weapons crewman and paratrooper. He served a tour of duty in Iraq and later worked as a communications systems operator/ maintainer and supply sergeant.
In 2009, Smith became a logistics manager within the 1050th Transportation Battalion in Newberry, responsible for procuring military equipment for 10 military units within the S.C. Army National Guard. A graduate of Grantham University with a bachelor's degree in multidisciplinary studies, Smith was named the 2013 S.C. Army National Guard Warrant Officer of the Year.
Smith said it is an honor now for him to work with the veterans at Lander. "Whether it's the students or their parents who have served in the military, sacrifices have been made for their families and our nation. I am grateful to be working with them."
Among Lander's students who have served their nation:
Joseph Peter Clark
"Military service is important in my life because it was the most influencing factor of who I am as an adult, and the experiences I gained still influence my behavior and decisions to this day," said Joseph Clark, a Lander sophomore.
A former sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, Clark served with the White House Communications Agency Marine Security Force for more than three years as a Corporal of the Guard. He traveled in support of the White House, he said, and provided security telecommunications suites for the president and vice president of the United States.
Afterward, he was a Platoon Sergeant with the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit, one of seven such units in the U.S. Marine Corps. The MEU carries the strength of about 2,200 Marines and sailors and is known for its ability to perform a wide range of military operations as the premier crisis response force in the Indo-Pacific region. Clark managed the equipment and its personnel for a boat company for the 31st MEU.
Although his father and grandfather gave him a legacy of military service, the choice to serve was his own. "It is something I have always wanted to do," said Clark, 24, who hails from Fort Mill where he was a graduate of Fort Mill High School.
A computer information systems and mathematics major at Lander, Clark said a tour of the Lander campus was the deciding factor in his choice of universities. "I felt significantly more comfortable and at home while touring Lander than any other school I had toured," he said.
Clark said he always will be grateful for the friends he made during his service in the military. "The lifelong friendships have been the most rewarding part of my service and the great memories I will always have with those Marines."
Casey Nicole Hunt
"Military service is important to individuals' lives because it gives lessons that can't be learned anywhere else. I gained a huge sense of independence. I believe in myself way more now," commented Casey Hunt. "It also makes you more well-rounded and open-minded. I learned so much just by meeting people from different walks of life."
A 21-year-old nursing major from Piedmont, Hunt comes from a long line of family who have served in every branch of the armed forces. But they are not the reason she chose to serve.
"I decided in my last month of high school that I just didn't want to take the 'normal' route," the Lander freshman said. "I knew that with the military I could get cool medical training that I couldn't get in the civilian world. I mostly did it to prove to myself that I could do something no one ever thought I could."
Hunt, an Army specialist (E4), was stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga., and trained in California and North Carolina.
"As a medic, I was a part of the training until someone got hurt or needed some type of medical attention," Hunt said. "I took care of injuries and got soldiers ready to go back to training. You always learned their roles and mission while carrying out your own."
Her job took on expanded roles, too. "In the military, you learn to do everything. I learned how to work on our vehicles and set up field hospitals, and when not training I took care of my entire company's personal administration needs."
Hunt said she knew that she would pursue her goal of becoming a nurse as soon as she left the military. "I toured Lander while in high school, and I remembered how amazing our nursing program is," she said. "The thing I love most about Lander is how small the class sizes are. I have only been here a few months, and my professors know my name and my needs."
"I feel like military service is important because it gives you a different outlook on some things, and it is just something great to be a part of," said Destiny Inmon.
A freshman nursing major from St. George, Inmon joined the U.S. Army Reserve because she wanted a challenge "to push me to be a better person and to see what my limits were."
She also knew that being a reservist would provide her with financial assistance for her college education. But there also was another important reason to join, one that was much closer to home. Her older brother, Rakeis Tucker, had served with the National Guard, and she decided "if he can do it, I know I can do it."
Inmon is a Specialist (E4) and is stationed with the 1/321st at Fort Jackson in Columbia where she is a Human Resource Specialist. Although she is active duty, Inmon, 19, said it isn't difficult to juggle the demands of military and college. "I only have to report to the military once a month -- one weekend -- and that gives me time to focus on my schoolwork," she said, noting that no matter the circumstances she always finds the time to devote to her military service.
The most rewarding part of her service is the opportunity to meet different people and "to go through the process and come out as a soldier," she said. She is looking ahead to a future as a psychiatric nurse and wants to serve at least 10 years in the military.
Inmon chose Lander for her college education because the University offered small classes. "When I first visited, it just felt like the school where I wanted to be," she said.
Benjamin Neil Wise
"Military service makes you relentless. One thing that helps me every single day is knowing that, no matter how bad I think the day might be, it could always be worse," reflected Benjamin Wise. "I learned this in the Marines because there would be times when we'd been going really hard in training … and, when you get done with the event that you're doing, you find out that you weren't able to get transportation back like everyone originally thought. So, the options were to wait for it to come or walk back. This gave me the determination to be able to laugh in the face of a hard time."
Wise, 23, a freshman mathematics major, came to Lander from Elkhart, Ind., and hopes to work with a government agency after completing his degree. Military service runs deep in his family. His father was a member of the U.S. Marine Corps, his grandfather was in the Navy, and his uncle was in the Air Force.
Yet, Wise said he always had the desire to serve and served five years as a Marine, earning the rank of sergeant. "The most rewarding part of my service was being attached to the White House Communications Agency and being able to support the President on his trip to Singapore to meet with the North Korean leader during the North Korean Summit," Wise said.
He served with Marine Barracks Washington in Washington, D.C., the oldest active post in the Marine Corps, for the first three years of his enlistment, where he was a sentry for the base. The last two years of his service, Wise was with 1st battalion 4th Marines Charlie Company at Camp Pendleton, Calif., and also served with the 1st Marine Regiment for which he was the Grounds and Maintenance Platoon Sergeant.
It was while he was in his barracks after a deployment that one of Wise's friends asked where he wanted to attend college. "At the time, I had no idea. He told me about Lander and how there is a dual math/engineering program with Clemson University, and I was sold," he said.
That friend, Joey Clark, and Wise have become roommates in an off-campus apartment in Greenwood.
Whatever his future holds, Wise said he always will value his life as a Marine Corps member. "No matter how hard things are, you are there with the Marines to your left and right … they're suffering right along with you so you might as well enjoy the times where everyone can work together and suffer and make fun of each other because there won't always be times like this," he said.
"This is one of the hardest parts of getting out. You've become so accustomed to having that support group with you, even though you don't realize it at the time, that when it's not there anymore it's like a hole in your life. Sure, you can call and talk to them … but it'll never be the same as having your boys with you to embrace the good times and charge headfirst into the bad times."