One man’s journey to the Air National Guard

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Karl Schwach
  • National Guard Bureau

ARLINGTON, Va. – Tech. Sgt. Clayton Smith’s accent has a lilting island inflection indicating he’s probably from a certain area of the Caribbean.

“I was born in Trinidad and Tobago,” he said, adding that the country is off the coast of Venezuela.

Smith, a medical resources noncommissioned officer assigned to the National Guard Bureau, lived there until he was 26 before moving to the U.S. and enlisting in the Air National Guard.

At the age of 12 he was living with his grandmother when his parents and brother moved to the states for job opportunities. After graduating from trade school as an electrician, Smith began to grow frustrated with his island home.

It provided few attractive jobs, he said, adding that many people leave the area for work or other opportunities. Many from Trinidad and Tobago have a special name for it.

“Brain drain,” he said.

He wanted a better life for himself and was attracted to joining the U.S. military.

“I was wanting to look at the military as an option because I always liked serving and helping others as well,” he said.

That led him to move to the U.S. in 2002. His parents sponsored him and assisted with the move.

After arriving on U.S. soil, one of the challenges Smith faced was a change in climate.

“I never experienced winter before,” he said. “It was sleeting at the Dallas airport and I was running through the car park towards my uncle who was there to pick me up.”

Smith had never seen ice fall from the sky and was a bit scared and worried.

“I’m trying to get away from this ice,” he said to his uncle, who was wondering why he was in such a hurry.

Smith went to college and studied health care management before contemplating what service branch to join. After discussing the matter for some time with family, his brother suggested the Air Force.

“That’s what I did,” he said. “That kind of pushed me to look at the Air National Guard because I could be at home and go to school and still work in my community. So those types of things kind of helped me to make that decision.”

He joined the Air Guard in 2004 and was able to select a job in the medical field, basing his career field choice in part on his civilian job.

“I was working in an ER in Bethesda (Maryland)” in patient administration, he said.

But enlisting had other benefits.

“Once you serve in the military for three years, you can apply for citizenship,” he said. Smith became a U.S. citizen in 2007.

His journey to the U.S. and experiences gave him much to reflect on.

“Coming from a smaller island, a smaller place, a developing country, you tend to look at things within a particular box,” he said.

Smith said his worldview has changed.

“You come to the U.S. at 26 years old, you join the military, your eyes are opened to how things are around the world,” he said. “You meet people of different ethnicities, you communicate, you network with people of different backgrounds and you also see that America is not just New York and Manhattan.”

The military played a crucial part in his development, he said.

“The military teaches you a lot of leadership skills that you know you can take with you throughout your daily [life],” he said.

After much mental growth, Smith looks to the future. He’d like to continue working at the NGB.

“I’m very vetted in what I’m doing right now with this job,” he said.