A Guard Soldier’s Journey from Truck Driver to Attorney

In his eight years of part-time service with the Illinois Army National Guard, Jacob Smith has gotten some big benefits – leadership skills, a sense of direction in life, and his undergraduate and law degrees, courtesy of the Guard’s education benefits.

And now this former 88M Truck Driver is putting his law degree to work as the newest officer in the Illinois Guard’s Judge Advocate General (JAG) Corps, the branch of the Guard that serves as a legal resource for Soldiers, Guard units, and the State Adjutant General.

“It is an interesting contrast,” says First Lieutenant (1LT) Smith of his switch in military occupational specialties (MOSs) from driving large vehicles to now advising his colleagues on legal matters.

“Being a JAG officer is more applicable to my civilian career,” he says. “It will broaden my base of legal experience and knowledge.”

Growing up, 1LT Smith had positive impressions of becoming an attorney, having worked in his family’s law firm, and of military service because his father had served in the active duty Army and later the Illinois Army National Guard.

After starting college, 1LT Smith decided to serve in the military.

“I thought the Guard would be a good way to do both at the same time.”

1LT Jacob Smith has gone from 88M Truck Driver to an officer in the Illinois Army National Guard’s Judge Advocate General Corps.

1LT Jacob Smith has gone from 88M Truck Driver to an officer in the Illinois Army National Guard’s Judge Advocate General Corps.

He chose 88M because Illinois has a lot of transportation units, and the MOS had a relatively short training schedule. His Advanced Individual Training could be squeezed into a summer between semesters, plus he could drill close to school.

And because of his State’s tuition assistance, 1LT Smith estimates he has saved somewhere in the ballpark of $100,000 in tuition for his undergrad and law degrees. On top of that, the GI Bill helped with living expenses while he was in school.

“These are huge benefits on the financial side,” says 1LT Smith, 26, who’s also hoping to take advantage of another Guard benefit in the next few years – VA home loan eligibility – which allows Soldiers to buy a home with little to no down payment.

1LT Smith, who’s been an attorney since 2017, just recently completed his JAG Corps training, a two-part process. First, he attended the 6-week Direct Commission Course at Fort Benning, and then he spent 10 ½ weeks at the Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Virginia where he received “a crash course in many areas of military law.”

As a judge advocate in his new unit, 1LT Smith expects to do a fair amount of what’s called administrative law. This includes participating in administrative separation boards used to determine whether a Soldier should be discharged from the Guard because of misconduct. In such cases, the Soldier would appear before a board instead of in a courtroom.

“It’s one tool used by commanders to more efficiently deal with certain misconduct, rather than pursuing a court-martial process.”

Judge advocates often deal with cases involving criminal offenses as well, which is a departure from 1LT Smith’s full-time civilian law career, where he focuses on business law, estate planning, and commercial real estate and banking matters.

As a JAG officer, he’ll also be handling cases related to property law. 1LT Smith explains that typically a commander would initiate an investigation if a sensitive and valuable item like a pair of night vision goggles was lost to determine if someone should be held liable. A JAG officer would review the findings to make sure they are legally sufficient.

One of 1LT Smith’s goals for the future is to deploy overseas and work in operational law: “the laws of war, advising commanders in an overseas environment on whether they can legally engage certain targets, spend money on particular projects, and what are the repercussions for taking certain actions in a combat environment,” he says. “It’s an area of law where there’s not really a civilian equivalent.”

Overall, 1LT Smith says his time in the Guard has given him direction in his life, great people to serve with, and an opportunity to give back.

“The opportunity to serve comes with sacrifices, certainly, but I get to carry on a civilian career and work with incredible leaders and friends,” he says. “It adds tremendous value to my life.”

So, if you’re looking for a way to serve your community and your country part-time while you pursue a civilian career, you should speak to an Army National Guard recruiter. Besides outstanding education benefits, the Guard also offers training in more than 130 career fields.

Search our job board for details on careers in engineering, administration, infantry, armor and field artillery, aviation, medicine, military police, intelligence, mechanic and maintenance, transportation, and logistics support.

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Guard Drill Sergeant Hands out Hard Truths, but also Motivates Recruits to Prepare them for Basic Training

SFC Shereka Danzy conducts drill exercises at the Recruit Sustainment Program in the New Jersey Army National Guard.

SFC Shereka Danzy conducts drill exercises at the Recruit Sustainment Program in the New Jersey Army National Guard.

If you’re thinking about joining the Army National Guard, there’s something you should know. Your recruiter, that person who kindly answers all your questions and guides you through the enlistment process, might just also turn out to be … your drill sergeant.

As Sergeant First Class (SFC) Shereka Danzy likes to say of her recruits, “I put them in boots, and then I yell at them.”

The New Jersey Army National Guard recruiter also happens to be a drill sergeant for the State’s Recruit Sustainment Program (RSP), a mandatory program designed for Soldiers who’ve enlisted and have not yet gone to Basic Training, or Soldiers who’ve gone to Basic and have yet to go to Advanced Individual Training (AIT) for their military occupational specialty (MOS).

“We’re teaching them how to march, customs and courtesies, military knowledge, acronyms, and getting them ready for Basic Training,” says SFC Danzy. “It’s to make sure they’re Army or Soldier ready. A lot of times the Soldiers from the Guard are better equipped for Basic Training than the Soldiers that come right off the couch.”

SFC Danzy was one of those “off-the-couch” Soldiers, having enlisted in the active duty Army in April of her senior year in high school, and shipping off to Basic in August without any kind of training beforehand.

SFC Danzy joined the Guard in 2002 after her contract with the Army ended, eager to start her college education.

“The decision to leave active duty was based upon the fact that I was given all this money for school, but I had no time for it.”

Because Guard service is part-time, she was able to get a degree in law enforcement and become a parole officer for the State of New Jersey while serving as a traditional Guard Soldier, drilling once a month and attending annual training in the summer.

After becoming a cadre member in Sea Girt, she was asked to become a drill sergeant.

When she realized there was not another female drill sergeant in the ranks, SFC Danzy decided, “Ok, absolutely I must go.”

As the first woman to become a drill sergeant in the New Jersey Army National Guard, “you’re representing women, one, and that’s a big deal, then I’m representing myself and my support team – everyone that was behind me. “

Plus, she was honored that she had been asked by her command.

“They could have chosen anybody, but they saw something in me.”

That something, she believes, is her “passion for soldiering. Grabbing Soldiers under your wing. Teaching them right from wrong, not only teaching them, but showing them what right looks like.”

So here are SFC Danzy’s tips for RSP or Basic.

 1. Have a positive mindset. 

“Positive thoughts yield positive results. Negative thoughts yield negative results, so if you already feel defeated on something then you’re probably not going to be able to do it.”

2. Pay attention to detail.

“When you’re not paying attention to detail, somebody can get hurt. That’s just the business that we’re in.”

3. Stay motivated.

“Your drill sergeants will motivate you. You just have to keep up the momentum.”

And another thing SFC Danzy wants you to know: even if it feels like it sometimes, drill sergeants are not the enemy.

“We’re supposed to train you, and we’re not trying to be likable. We give you the hard truth of what things are.”

 For an example of what that’s like, here’s a video of SFC Danzy in action:

At 37, as SFC Danzy closes in on retiring from the military when she reaches 20 years of service, and turns her focus more toward her civilian career, she plans to get a master’s degree in police graduate studies.

Likewise, she encourages her recruits to make the most of the Guard’s education benefits, which are “hands down our best selling point because education is expensive.”

“We don’t cap them on education, so if [Soldiers] want to get two bachelor’s degrees, two master’s degrees, as long as they’re actively drilling, and they’re in good standing, we’ll pay for it.” Benefits vary by State, but under the New Jersey ARNG Tuition Waiver Program, the New Jersey National Guard offers 100 percent free tuition for State schools.

So, if you’re interested in what the Guard has to offer, a great way to get started is to look into the Guard’s job board, which outlines all the careers you can train in, from armor and field artillery to aviation or logistics support, just to name a few. And for personalized advice, contact your local recruiter.

(Video by SFC Wayne Woolley)

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Soldier/Pageant Winner Says You Don’t Have to Give up Being ‘Girly’ to Serve in the Guard

AUSTIN, Texas — The southernmost tip of Texas falls into what is colloquially known as “The Valley.” No one really knows why it’s called this; the actual Rio Grande Valley and the nearest mountains are hundreds of miles away.

The land is flat, tropical, and the home of a predominantly Hispanic population.

It was there, in what she calls the “blink-and-you’ll-miss-it” town of Premont, that Army Staff Sergeant (SSG) San Juanita Escobar, of the Texas Army National Guard, took the first steps that would both change her life and the lives of hundreds of young women in Texas and around the world.

These first steps consisted of beauty pageants in the nearby and even smaller town of Concepcion, where pageant competitions are often the source of longstanding family rivalries, and defending a title is a matter of honor. Back then, few anticipated that this south Texas girl from the Valley would rise to the title of Mrs. Texas Galaxy.

A Family Tradition

“Pageants were always something that my family did,” SSG Escobar says. “We had the crown for years, so it was something you just did when you reached a certain age. After that, I competed in several smaller, regional pageants and county fairs.”

Those pageants led to small, local modeling jobs and eventually to auditions in California. But as much as SSG Escobar dreamed of getting out of the small town she lived in, she decided this was not the path she wanted to follow. Commitments at home made her decline the audition callbacks.

“At the time, I wasn’t going to pick up and move to California,” she says. “I had sports, school, and my friends that were more important to me. I also didn’t want to do that to the rest of my siblings, so I put all that on the back burner.”

SSG San Juanita Escobar, a recruiter with the Texas Army National Guard.

SSG San Juanita Escobar, a Soldier with the Texas Army National Guard. (Photo by SGT Steve Johnson).

Joining the Guard

SSG Escobar stayed in Premont, filling every spare moment of time with studies, volleyball, basketball, cross-country, tennis, and band, until one day during her senior year, a recruiter from the Texas Army Guard approached her.

And in a matter of days, everything changed.

“When the Army National Guard recruiter came and talked to me, and explained the education benefits, I was sold, and it became a matter of, ‘How fast can we do this?’” SSG Escobar recalls. “So, I met my recruiter on Tuesday, and I was enlisted by Friday.”

The abruptness of her decision came as a shock to family and friends. But while joining the military was a leap into unknown territory for SSG Escobar and her family, the lure of education and travel while serving close to home was irresistible to the 17-year-old.

“I never really knew much about the military,” she says. “When they told me I could serve part-time, serve my country, still make a change in the world, better my community, and still get my education, that’s really what made the Army National Guard stand out from the other services.”

Basic Training

In July 2008, SSG Escobar finally left the small town of her childhood for basic training at Fort Jackson, S.C. It was her first time really being away from home and family. Without them, she said, she had to discover and nurture new internal strengths to help her get through some of the tougher moments on her path to becoming a Soldier.

“My strength to continue was knowing that this was something that I truly wanted,” she says. “I knew it was going to change my life for the better, and I knew it would make my family proud.”

Her competitive nature also helped get her through.

“I’m very competitive,” she says. “I always want to win and be the best, so I used that as my driving force.”

After completing basic and then Advanced Individual Training, SSG Escobar returned to Texas, and was assigned to the 368th Engineer Battalion in Corpus Christi. There, she worked in personnel administration, processing paperwork of Soldiers who were deploying. It was also while there that she quickly began to feel like it wasn’t enough.

“I was there for maybe two drills before I started seeing that all my friends were deploying. I really loved the Army National Guard active life, so I volunteered to deploy,” she says.

Soon enough, SSG Escobar headed to the African nation of Djibouti with the Texas Army Guard’s 3rd Squadron, 124th Cavalry Regiment as a member of the security forces element for a civil affairs team.

Helping Other Women

While in Africa, the future Mrs. Texas Galaxy saw a problem, and in a move that would come to be a hallmark of her military career, she decided to help solve it.

“While I was assigned to the civil affairs team, I helped create the Women’s Initiative Program in Ethiopia,” SSG Escobar says. “Because of how high the school dropout rate is for young women, we developed special groups to go to different villages and orphanages to educate and empower them to speak to their political figures, and to also inform other women about different political and medical issues.”

In many parts of Africa, women are routinely subjected to discrimination and violence by virtue of tradition or customs, SSG Escobar says. Her team addressed these issues head-on through a combination of education and strength.

“The women always felt alone, like it was them against everyone,” says SSG Escobar. “So, we brought groups together for school, and we would teach them that if males don’t want to help them, they can help each other.”

That effort fostered an environment of empowerment, she says, adding that it “let them know that their internal strength could be used to benefit each other.”

At first, the groups were made up of young women between the ages of 18 to 23, but eventually would reach out to thousands of girls and women of all ages.

The Women’s Initiative Program also worked closely with other programs designed to improve education and raise awareness of HIV and AIDS to expand its reach even further. With a push from then-Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, it led to an outreach in 13 different countries that focused on teaching women to advocate for themselves.

When that mission was over, SSG Escobar returned home and became a recruiter for the Texas Army National Guard so she could continue to change young people’s lives the way her own life was changed.

“My motivation was that I knew where I started, and I know where I’m at now,” she says. “I just want to tell people that there’s going to be light if that’s what they choose, if they choose to turn their challenges into a positive.”

Serving as a recruiter, in some ways, also brought her right back to old family traditions.

“When I would talk to students, the females would always say, ‘Oh, I’m too girly to serve in the military,’ or they would worry they weren’t going to be able to ‘be girly.’”

Those comments, in part, led her to return to pageants like the ones of her youth.

Texas Army National Guard Soldier and Mrs. Texas Galaxy, SSG San Juanita Escobar, poses for photos with her husband, Luis Escobar, after winning the Mrs. Texas Galaxy Pageant, in March 2018.

Texas Army National Guard Soldier and Mrs. Texas Galaxy, SSG San Juanita Escobar, poses for photos with her husband, Luis Escobar, after winning the Mrs. Texas Galaxy Pageant, in March 2018. (Photo courtesy of Mrs. Texas Galaxy Pageant).

Return to Beauty Pageants

“I started doing beauty pageants again,” SSG Escobar says. “I would go into schools and show them a pageant picture, but I would be there in uniform, and I would say, ‘You can’t tell me you can’t do this.’ It was after that I started seeing more of an ‘I can do this’ attitude.”

Going back to the pageant world after serving as a Soldier gave SSG Escobar a unique perspective. She says she drew on those experiences and prepared as rigorously as she would for a military mission, using the training and confidence she gained while serving to make her an even tougher and more determined competitor.

After three years, SSG Escobar left the recruiting world to dedicate more time to school but she was still competing in pageants.

In March, she was crowned Mrs. Texas Galaxy, and is moving on to an international competition this month, where she represents Texas against dozens of competitors from all over the world. Despite this potential for international celebrity, her primary focus remains serving those in need.

As Mrs. Texas Galaxy, SSG Escobar focuses on highlighting suicide prevention for veterans and spreading suicide awareness. And, as a member of the Texas Army National Guard, she focuses on helping others, both around the world and at home in Texas.

“As a member of the National Guard I have been able to go to multiple countries, but I have also been able to serve stateside,” SSG Escobar says. “I saw the impact of what it meant when our Soldiers went in to help during Hurricane Harvey, and how much our citizens appreciated that. To me that’s important because these are our friends and family. Who is going to take care of them better than us, ourselves?”

If you have an interest in joining the Army National Guard to serve your country and community, there are plenty of options available, all while serving part-time. The Guard offers more than 150 careers, including infantry and engineering. You can check out the full roster of possibilities on our job board. Be sure to take a look at the Guard’s outstanding benefits, including money for college.

From an original story by Army SGT Steve Johnson, 100th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, which originally appeared in the news section of NationalGuard.mil in June 2018.

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