The United States Marine Corps is an organization where strangers come together and build bonds as strong as family. But what happens when those bonds are already set in place? What happens when there is a lineage to strengthen these bonds even further? What happens when two brothers join the world's greatest fighting force?
Lt. Col. Jonathan R. Smith, the ground combat element commander with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and Michael F. Smith, the air combat element operations officer with the 13th MEU, are currently deployed together during Western Pacific Deployment 16-1.
The brothers Smith grew up with a long lineage of military service dating back to the Revolutionary War. Even though the brothers aren't able to recall 200 years of family history, their memories are full of the tales of their grandparents, who all served in the armed services.
May 13, 2016 - U.S. Marines Lt. Col. Jonathan R. Smith (left), the ground combat element commander with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and Maj. Michael F. Smith, air combat element operations officer with the 13th MEU, stand side-by-side next to the CH-53E detachment flagship, 'Gunsmoke' helicopter, fuel probe aboard the USS Boxer (LHD 4). The flagship is named after the 13th MEU's Battalion Landing Team, which is commanded by Jonathan, and piloted by Michael. (Image created by USA Patriotism! from U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Alvin Pujols)
“It starts with my grandmother being in the Army Nurse Corps and my grandfather being in the Army Air Corps during the World War II era,” said Jonathan. “We have service on both sides of the family, my mother's father was a doctor in the Army and my grandmother was a nurse.”
It was this lineage that led their father, William Franklin Smith III, to join the United States Marine Corps. Being a Marine meant the world to their father. He would talk highly about the Marines he served with and his time in service.
“Our father was a Marine, that was a very important part of his life,” said Jonathan. “He would say how every Marine was six feet tall and bulletproof.”
He would speak about how Marines are cut from a different cloth. This was a driving factor to his sons drive to serve their county. All of his boys would ultimately become career Marines.
The Smith family has a deep devotion to service, patriotism, and love for country, said Michael.
The oldest brother, William Franklin Smith IV or “Bill”, joined the Marine Corps as an enlisted reconnaissance man and, after 24 years of service, retired in December of 2015 as a Master Gunnery Sergeant.
Meanwhile, Jonathan and Michael went to the University of Maine together, and upon graduation, were commissioned as United States Marine Corps officers.
Jonathan, the second oldest and commander of Battalion Landing Team 2/1, ultimately became an infantry officer. He wanted to take on the challenge Marines faced in so many of his father's stories.
“When I heard my father talk about the important aspects of service, the highlights of his career, I heard about Marines being on the ground and struggling through personal and unit sacrifice,” said Jonathan. “I knew it was going to be a physical and mental challenge and that's what I wanted.”
As Jonathan began his career as an infantry officer, Michael, the third brother, went down a different career path.
“I've always been fascinated by my grandfather's life, his record as an aviator is unbelievable,” said Michael about his father's father, still unable to believe all that his grandfather accomplished. “He had in the realm of 60-80 air medals, two distinguished flying crosses, was the commanding officer of a squadron at a very young age and loved by all those he served with. This was always in the in the back of my mind.”
His grandfather's legacy and a few gentle nudges by previous aviators led Michael to take on the challenges of a Marine Corps aviation career. But this career path sent him across the country from his brothers on the East Coast.
“Getting stationed in Hawaii was absolutely the best thing that ever happened to me,” said Michael who was skeptical at first. “It allowed me to figure out who I was as a Marine, independent of my brothers, learn my craft, become a subject matter expert on the employment of a CH-53 helicopter.”
This separation from his brothers gave Michael the opportunity to grow as a leader and reinforce the bonds with his wife and young children. As Michael and Jonathan progressed through their careers, they eventually had some chance encounters.
“We missed each other by minutes, in Iraq in 2006,” said Michael as he adjusted, now sitting at the edge of his seat. “I think I was actually going out of the country as [Jonathan] was getting established.”
It wasn't until 2008, when Michael was a part of the Unit Deployment Program (UDP) and Jonathan was a company commander with the 31st MEU where they deployed together to Okinawa, Japan.
The brothers shared some special memories enabled by their tight relationship and and service in the Corps. One special moment occurred during their time in Okinawa.
"One day, while I was playing video games or something ACE-like and Jon was doing [professional military education] assignments, Jon received a message about the recipient of the Leftwich Award for that year. Jon said, 'It's some crazy guy named Smith.' I stopped playing and looked at him and said ‘No way you're that guy!'”
At the time, Captain J.R. Smith won the Lt. Col. William G. Leftwich Award for outstanding leadership in 2009.
After Okinawa, the Smith brothers wouldn't meet up again professionally until the pre-deployment training for Western Pacific Deployment 16-1. Michael was stationed aboard Marine Corps Air Station Miramar as the officer in charge of the CH-53 detachment with the 13th MEU, while Jonathan assumed command of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, which would later become the 13th MEU's ground combat element.
“It wasn't until Jon's change of command ceremony, while I was sitting in the audience and thinking to myself ‘This is going to happen' that it sunk in,” said Michael.
As pre-deployment training began, the Smith brothers started working in professional environment during training and would later discuss their experiences as colleagues.
With both brothers being subject matter experts in their fields, they had rich conversations about the capabilities and limitations of the ground combat element and air combat element.
“Those kinds of frank discussions probably wouldn't occur if it wasn't with Mike, my brother, the ACE operations officer, talking about how we could make things better after completing operations,'” said Jonathan. “We do this while still being completely professional and not severing or circumventing the chains of command in any way because we're brothers. He has his boss and I would never step in the way of that. But those rich discussions allow me to understand the MAGTF as a whole. I think it will help me design operations and training a lot more effectively, when I can understand the air combat element and how its capabilities and limitations can be maximized and minimized.”
The way they do business trickled out to the entire Marine Air-Ground Task Force and soon the 13th MEU seemed like one big happy family.
“Our relationship and family-oriented style, in my opinion, really spilled over to the initial gathering of the MAGTF, specifically, the ACE and GCE relationships,” said Michael. “We were really close because we treat each other like family and that has filtered out to where the battalion landing team operations officer and I have grown very tight. The camaraderie felt from all those things has been positive. We're able to work through problems and gain deep integration because there's an openness and teamwork to all that we do. That's what gets things done.”
The 13th MEU family wasn't the only family growing closer during the trials and tribulations of deployment. The brothers' families are also able to conquer the struggles of deployment together.
“Because we are stationed in California together, our kids are able to spend time together and have sleep overs,” said Jonathan. “They're able to talk about what it's like to move from different areas in the country. They're able to talk about the separations that they've gone through as a result of the deployment. All those things really build a foundation of a family and really bring it closer together.”
The Smith family name drives the brothers to push each other and want to seek excellence, along with their families and healthy sibling rivalry. Throughout their lives the brothers have used various phrases to remind them what it means to be a Smith.
“A little witty banter like ‘Don't disappoint us, uphold the legacy with the name, don't let the Smith name fail,' has pushed us to achieve excellence,” said Michael. “The shear terror of letting your family down is enough to keep you pushing regardless of the task!”
With their legacy, families and sibling rivalry fueling them, the Smith brothers will continue to push each other. Once the deployment is over and everyone is safe back in the states, they'll have the opportunity to ‘look at the forest for the trees' and understand how special this experience has been.
By U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Alvin Pujols
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