Much like the country it protects, the United States Army is a collection of complex, diverse individuals with goals and ambitions, all seeking a sense of family, purpose, and dedication to a mission in life. “It’s not a job, it’s a calling,” says Lt. Gen. Leslie C. Smith, the Inspector General of the Army, of serving in the armed forces. “Service to the military should not be viewed as a last choice if you can’t do anything else, rather a great opportunity; a stepping-stone to do different things. It’s not for everyone, but it
prepares you for anything you need to do in life.”
It’s important for members of the community, particularly those not personally acquainted with a member of the military, to embrace whatever reflections of themselves they may see in the uniform. “I think sometimes people think we’re monochromatic—that we don’t have families, we don’t have objectives. It’s not like that,” says Smith. “We grow up, we have families, we have aspirations. We’re from the community, we all are.”
Smith was born and raised on the concept of community. His father, who served in the Korean War, died when Smith was just five years old. Smith spent every summer in his father’s hometown of Mound Bayou, Miss., an independent community founded after the Civil War in 1887 by former slaves. “It became a utopia,” says Smith. “African American business owners ran the hospitals, became the Mayor. I learned through them, and through my family, how to be self-sustaining, to have high
standards, to be disciplined.”
He then joined junior ROTC, which is a great opportunity for young people to learn about citizenship, leadership, and service, according to Smith.
“It gave me the framework to learn what service really means,” he says. “What it means to work hard, to be humble, and to be a part of something greater than myself.”
Smith rose through the ranks and is now (as of Dec. 16, 2019) one of the Army’s 44 active-duty African American general officers—out of 314 total active-duty general officers—ranging from one to four stars. About 6,000 second lieutenants are commissioned every year and only about 52 of those reach the rank of general.
“Focusing on diversity is important in our Army,” Smith says. “The Army is comprised of over 20% African Americans and has identified and selected 10 African Americans to be either three- or four-star generals today; that’s unheard of in the history of the Army.”
Of course, no matter the race, there is one color that rises above the rest in the U.S. Army—they all wear green.
To learn more about the Army and its ranks, visit www.army.mil/ranks. Lt. Gen. Smith also recommends looking into how you can help the Soldier for Life program at soldierforlife.army.mil.