Dentist follows diverse career path

  • Published
  • By Steve Pivnick
  • 81st Medical Group Public Affairs
For many, aspiring to succeed in one career is often a challenge. Then there is Capt. (Dr.) Justin Smith.

Dr. Smith, currently completing a one-year advanced education general dentistry residency program with the 81st Dental Squadron, is now beginning his third career.

An Air Force officer since July 10, he had served as an enlisted pararescueman from November 1991-October 2000 before leaving the military to complete his education.

"I received my bachelor's degree in biology (at East Carolina University, Greenville, N.C.) and was planning to apply to either medical or dental school. However, I had a friend in the FBI who encouraged me to apply."

An "Air Force brat" born in Germany, Dr. Smith spent most of his time in training in pararescue. "It's what we did. We trained constantly for the 'big mission.'"

"It took 1½ years to become a PJ. Afterwards, I spent three years in a rescue unit at Nellis AFB, Nev., and the remainder of my enlistment with a special tactics squadron at Pope AFB, N.C., working alongside sister-service special operations forces. I got to do some amazing things in pararescue. It was a great adventure!"

"I jumped out of several different airframes, SCUBA dove, fired all kinds of weapons and basically did everything young boys dream about while growing up. While stationed at Nellis with the 66th Rescue Squadron, I did have the opportunity to go to Kuwait and participate in 'Southern Watch.'

"I trained with Rangers and SEALS while stationed at Pope, the 24th Special Tactics Squadron. They (the 24th STS) are the 'cream of the crop' in special tactics and the best people I have ever had the honor of working with."

He continued, "There was a lot of training. I 'spun up' for several different operations but each was called off. We were always on one-hour recall and had to be ready to go with all our gear to anywhere in the world within one hour."

Dr. Smith recalled training in a drop zone a few weeks before separating from the Air Force. "A soldier was severely injured in a jump. Fortunately for him, there were a bunch of us PJs out there that day."

His 16 weeks of FBI training at Quantico, Va., were a far cry from what he experienced to prepare for pararescue.

"They have a lot of restrictions as far as what they can do during training. It's nothing like the military where you can be left out in the wilderness or be PTd into the ground."

After completing training, the captain was stationed in Memphis for three years.

"I was a special agent in the violent crimes squad. I mainly saw a lot of bank robberies, a few kidnappings, gang violence associated with drugs, captured a few fugitives (murderers) and did a little work on crimes against children," he said. "I was also sent to Birmingham to assist the task force working on a series of church burnings.

"At the end of three years, they wanted to send me to a large city like New York, Los Angeles or Chicago. I couldn't see spending another 17 years doing that, so I applied for an Air Force dental scholarship, received it and completed dental school at the University of Alabama at Birmingham."

Explaining his desire to serve his country, Dr. Smith said, "You might wonder why I joined the Air Force in the first place. I grew up as an Air Force 'brat' and always loved it. That's one of the reasons I became a pararescueman -- I wanted to do something really cool that would make a difference in the world.

"Being on the outside really made me appreciate the Air Force family, which really does a great job of taking care of their own. The Air Force pretty much has always taken very good care of me and my family."

He met his wife, Natalie, while at East Carolina and married her during his first year with the FBI, so she had no Air Force experience. His father, Marshall Smith, a retired Air Force master sergeant, and stepmother Debby, live in a small town a little bit  north of Charlotte, N.C. Ironically, his wife's parents reside in a small town just south of Charlotte.

"Interestingly, my wife and I met on the east side of North Carolina while she was going to Appalachian State University, which is on the western side of the state," he said.

In summing up his multicareer path, Dr. Smith said, "It's a little weird to go from jumping out of an airplane at several thousand feet over the ocean to arresting violent federal fugitives to sitting in a dental operatory. But, I really love dentistry -- it's an extremely satisfying and rewarding career."

The new Air Force dentist and his family move to Maxwell AFB, Ala., following his residency graduation in July.