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‘Sometimes, the things you don’t want to do are good for you’

Joining the Navy was at first an act of desperation; now, an IU Northwest nursing student can’t wait to return

Wednesday Nov 04, 2015

Indiana University Northwest student Robert Smith credits the U.S. Navy with saving his life. Now, he wants to return the favor.

Saving many lives, that is, in a new career as a naval nurse, is how the 37-year-old Gary native hopes to spend the next chapter of his life. It is only fitting to give his new skills back to the military, he says, which rescued him from homelessness.

Happy to be graduating in December with a bachelor’s degree in nursing, Smith recalled the days when he “didn’t like the person I was becoming,” squatting in an abandoned home and resorting to stealing for survival.

Desperate, he walked into a naval recruiter’s office in 1999 with the idea that the Navy would provide him with food and shelter, and one day, a college education for his service. However, getting there also meant that he’d have to endure some tough training, be called to war after 9/11, build bombs that would harm others, and many other experiences that would change him forever.

Operation Southern Watch was his first deployment in the Persian Gulf. As his squadron was beginning to head back home after this operation, the tragedy of September 11, 2001 began unfolding and Smith soon found himself involved in a war. As part of Operation Enduring Freedom, Smith helped launch a massive air strike, and described the feeling of being a kid and trying to “wrap his head around” his role as part of that operation. Smith’s third tour was near the end of his active duty career. This one turned into Operation Iraqi Freedom and lasted about six more months.

By the time his career as an aviation electronics tech (AW) second class petty officer, had ended, Smith was a changed man. The journey had succeeded in redefining the person he had become, and also forged unbreakable respect on both sides – he for the navy and the navy for him. Now it was time to fulfill the promise he’d made for himself in that navy recruiter’s office in 1999 – to seek an education.

When Smith returned to civilian life in 2004, he first enrolled in a licensed practical nurse (LPN) program in Washington. Then, his mother became ill, prompting him to return home. After she passed away, he decided to pursue nursing at IU Northwest, largely because that is how she had spent her career and he had always wanted a career in the medical field.

Smith began taking classes in 2011 and so began the challenging transition from life in the military to college student. Smith said it’s tough for veterans to find jobs because even though they’ve been trained well for a job they did in the military, the trade is not readily transferable to civilian life. In the navy, his trade had been avionics. He learned how to repair communications equipment, and the navigation and weapons systems of aircraft.

“We know how to do things, but since we didn’t go to school “out here . . .” Smith trails off.

Fortunately, Smith learned how to deal cards so he could get a job at a casino, which supplemented his income now that he was a college student back home in Gary.

Besides employment, Smith says there are other challenges for veterans. A reluctance to reveal their pasts to others is another obstacle that he says hinders many. Smith says IU Northwest is a veteran-friendly school, but veterans have to be willing to open up.

Smith has found that talking to others is therapeutic for him. In fact, he is looking forward to contributing his stories to a local project being undertaken now by IU Northwest.  The University chose “Operation Homecoming: Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Home Front, in the Words of U.S. Troops and Their Families,” as its campus read for the 2015-16 academic year. The book, edited by Andrew Carroll, is a collection of stories from U.S. troops and their families about their experiences. The campus is now soliciting stories for a similar compilation, from local folks, that it hopes to publish next spring. Smith said he has already started writing about this first tour of duty and how people felt about the 2001 terrorist attacks.

“Sometimes you have to do things that you don’t want to do in order to get where you want to be,” Smith says, “and sometimes, the things you don’t want to do are good for you and you end up liking them.”

For him, that means the U.S. Navy. He initially joined as a last resort, and now it is where he hopes to create a fulfilling second career, as a naval expeditionary combat command force nurse. This is a relatively new position in the Navy. Once he retires from the Navy, he’d like to seek more education to become either a nurse practitioner or nurse anesthetist.

He is well on his way. With his physical and officer’s interview out of the way, he must simply graduate and pass his state exams.

“It is up to Congress now,” Smith explains, “If they say we need nurses in the armed forces, they will grant me a commission.”

Since he’d be a new nurse with the rank of “ensign,” Smith would be assigned to one of three naval bases -- Great Lakes, Ill, Norfolk, Va., or San Diego, Calf.

If he doesn’t get a commission, however, he says it is still a “win-win” scenario, as he has already been accepted to a graduate-level nurse practitioner program at Grand Canyon University.

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