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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How I Got My College Degree for Free

The Army National Guard Paid for It

Between the Army National Guard’s Federal tuition assistance, State tuition assistance, and GI Bill, Sergeant First Class (SFC) Ryan West earned his bachelor’s degree for free.

He estimates that between the special military rates offered by the schools he attended and the Guard’s education benefits, he has saved $30,000 to $40,000 in tuition and fees.

Without the Guard picking up the tab, SFC West’s other options to pay for school were using his GI Bill from his previous active duty service in the Army or student loans.

SFC Ryan West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

SFC Ryan West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard.

“I was raised in a single-parent home, there just wasn’t money for college,” he explains.

SFC West, a Medical Readiness Non-Commissioned Officer with the South Carolina Army National Guard, has had a few stops and starts on his way to earning that degree. He had started college before joining the Army in 1998, but, “It didn’t work out for me. The money wasn’t there, plus I wasn’t that disciplined.”

So, he joined the military, something he had wanted to do since he was a child.

“I’m from a small town, Hopkins, South Carolina, so I wanted to get out and see the world, see new places, and meet new people,” says SFC West. “And, of course, defend my country. There’s nothing like it. You get a great reward from serving.”

After leaving active duty in 2002, SFC West wanted to continue his service, so he joined the Guard because he liked the idea of serving part-time, especially so he could go back to school.

But then he deployed to Iraq, which marked a complete turnaround in how he looked at his career.

“Prior to that, I was just a traditional Guardsman, just going through the motions, coming to drill. I didn’t really have aspirations of going higher in the ranks or being better than what I was.”

Experiencing what he did while deployed in Iraq as a 68W Healthcare Specialist (combat medic) – the inhumanity of war and even meeting new people from different places, made him realize he could reach higher.

It was after coming home that SFC West realized all of the Guard benefits he could use to complete his degree.

“You get funds from three different sources, which is great,” SFC West says. “You don’t get that in the Reserves, and you don’t get that in the regular Army.”

The Guard offers Federal tuition assistance. Plus, each State or Territory offers State tuition assistance, but note that each State or Territory has its own rules and policies. Finally, the GI Bill can pick up the tab for books, fees, or really anything. This money is a monthly expense allowance paid directly to the student, not the school.

 

SFC West and his family at his college graduation.

Armed with all of these financial resources and a renewed sense of purpose, SFC West re-started his studies at Limestone College in South Carolina, but then decided to take a full-time job with the Guard. As 2014 came into view, he decided to go back to school “to finish this thing before I retire,” finally earning his bachelor’s in organizational leadership from the University of South Carolina.

And, he might not be done using up all those education benefits. He still has some of his post-9/11 GI Bill benefits to transfer to his children, and he can still use the Guard’s tuition assistance to earn a master’s degree he’s thinking about getting.

His advice for anyone joining the Guard is: “Let the Guard get the most out of you, and you get the most out of the Guard.”

And that means taking advantage of all the opportunities it offers, including making the most of the education benefits.

“That paycheck means nothing if you stay five or six years and you don’t have a degree – a free degree,” he says.

So if you’re looking for a way to pay for college, or even vocational school, the Guard offers those benefits and more, like training in careers ranging from medicine and engineering to field artillery and logistics. You can explore all of the Guard’s career fields on our job board.

And, for personalized advice, including specifics on your State’s education benefits because the information varies from State to State, contact your local recruiter.

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