Resilient mother, lawyer strives to serve

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Stephan Coleman
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
There are no short or easy journeys into the Air Force. As a single parent and registered attorney, one technical training student has had a somewhat lengthier path than most.

Airman 1st Class Brittany Smith joined the Air Force under unusual circumstance with the sheer will to serve her country.

"I had always wanted to serve, but wasn't sure if I could," said Smith, a 338th Training Squadron avionics systems student. "Like so many times in my life, I had to remind myself that if you really want something, you can find a way to make it work."

Smith appears to be a normal technical training student on the surface; marching with the rest of the Airmen in the Triangle, most would never guess she is a lawyer and single parent.

She doesn't broadcast her struggles, but getting to Keesler wasn't easy.

"She has run into every kind of opposition to get here," said Master Sgt. Mariyka Anderson, 81st Training Wing. "We talk about resiliency and enduring stressors, and she has had plenty, but we took particular interest in her story because she had so many choices when it comes to joining the Air Force."

"She could have had a much simpler time joining as an officer," Anderson continued. "The training would have been shorter and she could have gone into her own professional field. But she chose to join as an enlisted member in a completely new career field."

Smith joined the Air Force because she wanted to, and she did it by the same means she has made most of her accomplishments-- willpower.

Self-made student

In 1996, when Smith was in the fifth grade, her father lost his business and their family moved from Pennsylvania to Florida. From then on, if Brittany wanted something, she had to get it for herself.

Smith describes herself as someone who has always worked.

"I remember at 15, I wanted a gym membership," she recounted. "But I knew my parents wouldn't get one for me, and I wouldn't be able to get a ride to the gym even if I had the money to pay for it. So, I got a job as a lifeguard at the YMCA which gave me free access to a gym and a reason for my father to drive me there."

It's not that her parents wouldn't help, as much as they couldn't.

Neither parent obtained their bachelor's degrees, but always stressed the importance of education, so Smith put herself through college and law school.

Just as everything was running smoothly, a new challenge surfaced.

Lawyer Mom

An unexpected pregnancy didn't change her goals.

"It never crossed my mind that I couldn't do it," said Smith. "I got used to doing everything on my own when I was younger; I had always just taken responsibility."

Taking the right combination of online and in-room classes, as well as establishing a community with fellow single parents, Smith was able to manage her time for both responsibilities.

"I had a lot of friends who were also single mothers," said Smith. "They created a family away from home for me."

The University of Florida, where Smith attended law school, had a day care center for students. However, being a student only covered half the cost. Smith had to get a job at the center to cover the rest of the cost and even then it wasn't a consistent safety net, she said.

"The day care was a part of the central campus and not the law school itself," Smith explained. "When the main school was closed, so was the day care center, but the law school would still have class. I often had to bring my daughter to class with me."

Even with this handicap, Smith did not lower her standards.

"I didn't want to barely pass," she said. "I couldn't do the minimum and still compete after school, so I had to be creative with my time."

Smith managed to complete school and participate in student clubs with the support of her friends. She went on to take the bar examination in her home state of Pennsylvania and find a job as an attorney in Washington, D.C.

"I had a pretty hard time finding a job," Smith said. "Everyone already knew each other. I didn't have the prior family and social connections everyone else had in the legal profession."

In interviews, Smith was asked constantly how she handled the challenges.

"My friends kept me sane," she said.

Eventually everything was in place. The young lawyer had found a job in D.C. She had met her objectives against all odds, but there was one last nagging feeling.

"Joining the military was always a goal of mine," said Smith. "I just had to figure out how I could do it at my age and with my current responsibilities."

Smith was determined to join.

She turned to her friend, Master Sgt. Regina Santos, for advice. Together they worked to find a way to make Smith's goal possible.

"We're both single parents," said Santos. "We both strive to provide the best for our children, and we shared the same values and desires for our children."
Santos was confident in Smith's ability and motivations.

"Her determination plays a key role in her success," said Santos. "I believe Brittany has common core values with the Air Force. She just never defined and identified them until the opportunity came."

Doctor Trainee

"In the Air Force you can be somebody completely different than where you grew up," said Smith. "My great grandparents were immigrants to this country, a country with so much freedom. I always felt like I could help, and it doesn't matter where I've been or what I've done before joining. I was determined."

Joining the Air Force proved difficult, as she had a daughter and law degree. The former required waivers and the latter made her overqualified, said Smith.

"It took a bit for me to convince them I was serious," she said.

Smith scored well enough on her Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery to qualify for any available Air Force Specialty Code. Being a lawyer didn't make her undesirable, but her AFSC choices did make her situation all the more unusual.

Smith wanted to work with aircraft.

"I didn't want to sit at a desk," she said. "And I didn't want to be the boss. I already know what that is like. I wanted something exciting; I wanted to touch an airplane."

As somebody who used to being in charge, her eventual trip to basic military training was a humbling one.

"In basic you're just one of a bunch of people," said Smith. "I was used to being listened to, but your opinion doesn't matter there. Nobody even knew how old I was for quite a while. But when they discovered my law degree -- I was 'Doctor Trainee' from then on."

She was an element leader in BMT and is currently a class leader in technical training school. Her gravitation to leadership roles is not just because of her age or profession, but the fact that she is naturally resilient, said Anderson.

"The power of her story isn't just her ability to cope," said Anderson. "She went after what she wanted and did what it took to get it. It's a success story from the bottom up -- You don't have to stay where you are."

National defender

Smith will graduate from Keesler in June and travel to Sheppard Air Force Base, Texas, to complete her training.

Once she's completed her training, she will return to Washington to work as an attorney and report to Andrews AFB, Maryland, for duty with the 113th ANG.

"She couldn't have done this through active duty," said Anderson. "It was only possible through the Guard. She gets the best of both worlds, and still has to bring her best to both professions. She's an ambassador for the Air Force to her law office and a bridge for the civilian world to her unit."

Back home, Smith will be reunited with her daughter, Alexis, who is eight years old. For the duration of her training she has braved separation with the assistance of her ex-boyfriend.

"It's the first time we've not been together in eight years," said Smith of her daughter.
She says her tenacity has rubbed off on her daughter who always tries to negotiate for what she wants, even at such a young age.

Her attitude should be a lesson for everyone, said Anderson.

"At the end of the day, I'm no different than anyone else," said Smith. "I like to tell my story to young Airmen when I can, because anyone can do what I've done. There are situations we assume are impassible barriers, but there is always a way to make it work."