Cmdr Janice Smith – First Jamaican-born woman to command US Navy Destroyer
Published: Monday May 30, 2016- Jamaica Gleaner
Commander Janice Smith remembers, like it was yesterday, helping her grandmother harvesting produce on their farm in Bog Walk, St. Catherine and loading them on donkeys. From living in a sheltered rural environment, to charting the course of her career, exploring newer horizons, she has come a long way.
As commanding officer of USS Oscar Austin, Smith says she has had ‘a number of firsts’ attached to her; the first Jamaica-born to command a US Navy destroyer, first woman commander of USS Oscar Austin, and the second woman of African descent to be a commanding officer in the United States Navy.
She attributes this to her upbringing.
“My grandmother, Iris Plummer, taught me that no job was menial and imbibed the values of integrity and honesty in me,” Smith said.
Though Smith helped her grandmother at the farm, she was encouraged to go to school, earn a degree and carve a life for herself.
“She wanted me to shield me from that kind of life (that of being restricted to farming and living in a small space), and help me focus on bigger dreams.”
Commander Smith says she is living her dream.
She says she travels to Jamaica once or two times a year to make a spiritual connection with the land of her birth.
“There is something about Jamaica, something quite unexplainable out there, it kind of makes me calm, and keeps me in perspective.”
And, she says, whatever she does comes with strong support from her family.
Married to Julius Lyles, they have two sons Alexander 13, and Xavier 7, and other family members especially her mother, aunt and brothers. “I am grateful to my mom Gloria, who created these opportunities, and my Aunty B, who continue to guide me,” she said.
“I have four brothers, and they support me whole heartedly, they would drop everything that they are doing and be by my side when I need them.”
Smith was enlisted in the Navy in 1988. She served aboard the USS Yosemite from 1989-1993 and at NAS Key West from 1993-1997. She graduated from Troy State University with a Masters in Business Management and was commissioned through the Officer Candidate School (OCS) Program in 1997.
Travelling across the globe, she said, has also given her a fresh perspective of life.
“Travel made me patient and tolerant, it has allowed me to put myself in someone else’s shoes,” Smith said.
In her travels, Smith says, she misses the Jamaican sunshine and the taste and aroma of the country cooked food.
“I haven’t got used to the cold, and I miss ackee and saltfish, yam and boiled bananas…I do get an opportunity to cook, but it’s the canned variety, that’s how close I can get to the original.”
Books, she says, are her companion, adding that she continues to learn from them.
Smith says she reads across the spectrum as she leads ‘a bunch of Generation X personnel’, and ‘needs to think like them and get to know what motivates them’.
Currently, she is reading Navigating the Seven Seas: Leadership Lessons of the First African American Father and Son to Serve at the Top in the U.S.
Smith says she idolises Colin Powell, a four star general, US Secretary of State, author, diplomat, and who like Smith shares Jamaican heritage.
“I have read his biography, which is very inspiring, and would like to meet him one day,” she said.
Rising through the ranks, Smith has a few pointers;
“No task is menial. Whatever you do, give it the best, and seize every opportunity. Getting an education, she said, is critical to open the doors and all of this comes with hard work.
Believe in prayer. You can’t dwell on where you came from but dwell on where you’re going.”
Commanding a vessel, which is named after Oscar P. Austin, a US Marine who sacrificed his life saving his colleagues in Vietnam is special to Smith.
“He was only 20 years and gave his life. We honour that sort of sacrifice, and my crew is trained and ready.”
She says her mission is clear.
“(There is) … No more important task than the well being and safety of the sailors, the real challenges lie ahead, the responsibility of the lives of over 300 sailors,” she said.
“I have a responsibility. I have to bring everyone home safely.”