The moments after finishing high school are generally a transformative period in the life of a youth since they must begin to map out an assortment of possibilities for their future. For Carl Smith II, when graduating from Jefferson City High School in 1989, his journey as an adult began with employment at a restaurant in the Capital Mall while mulling over the prospects for his future career.
“The owner of the restaurant and one of my coworkers were veterans and I often overheard them sharing stories about their military experiences,” said Smith. “Between that and some of the inspiring recruiting commercials I saw on television, I decided to enlist in the Army infantry,” he added.
Receiving orders to report to Fort Benning, Georgia, in the late summer of 1990, the young recruit completed several weeks of basic training and remained at the post for additional training to prepare him as an infantry soldier.
A significant portion of their training regimen was spent tramping through the dirt and grime while learning to prepare their fighting positions, the operation of an assortment of weapons and building the confidence needed to ensure battlefield readiness.
Smith explained, “I got to come home for Christmas and then flew to Germany in January 1991. My first duty assignment was with 3rd Brigade, 8th Infantry (Division) at Lee Barracks in Mainz. It was a mechanized cavalry unit that used the M113 armored personnel carriers.”
For the next year and a half, he participated in a variety of training maneuvers, some of which were at the expansive Grafenwoehr Training Area. Since he was both stout and young, Smith was often selected to carry the radio in a backpack while also toting the M249 Squad Automatic Weapon (a light machine gun) during their training exercises.
At other times, there were training events during which there were too many soldiers available for the limited number of infantry tasks to be performed. On occasion, recalled Smith, he was given the bland assignment of assisting the staff in the mess section with their responsibilities of preparing meals for the troops.
“Actually, even though that was something I hadn’t necessarily trained for, it wasn’t bad duty,” he laughed. “When you were done for the day … you were done. Many of the other soldiers involved in the exercises still had training they were doing even after the end of the normal duty day.”
During 1991, his unit also participated in “Reforger 91,” a major training exercise involving thousands of U.S. soldiers and troops from an assortment of NATO countries. By this point, the Soviet Union was in tatters and the Cold War had fallen in hindsight, but many of the U.S. forces in Germany were preparing for deployment to the Persian Gulf War.
“In late 1991 and into early 1992, many of the units had deployed from Mainz for Desert Storm and since we had not deployed, our unit often pulled guard duty in Martin Luther King Village (a housing area on the base),” he said.
Departing Germany in late Spring of 1992, Smith received orders for Fort Campbell, Kentucky, and was assigned to 2nd Battalion, 327th Infantry Regiment. His unit was designated as air assault and was trained to utilize helicopters for insertion into areas of combat.
With a chuckle, Smith noted, “I went from tracked vehicles to helicopters … and that was a little bit of a change.”
In the months following his transfer to the Kentucky military base, Smith’s unit traveled to a reserve component base in Arkansas to perform training maneuvers and exercises. They wore equipment called “MILES Gear” (multiple integrated laser engagement system) that helped them simulate combat. The gear sounded an alarm if a soldier was “shot” by opposing forces.
With his enlistment soon to expire, Smith began weighing options for the future and chose to return to the civilian world. He received his discharge from the Army in the spring of 1994.
“I enjoyed my time in the service but I was ready for the next stage in my life,” he said.
After returning to Jefferson City, he was employed at Scholastics for a couple of years before being hired into state government in 1996. He eventually completed law enforcement training and has served as a deputy marshal with the Missouri Supreme Court since 1999
“Tyronne Allen used to work in the library here at the court and he was commander of American Legion Post 231,” said Smith. “He convinced me to join and I have been commander of the post since 2015.”
American Legion Post 231 is named in honor of Toney Jenkins, an African American soldier from Cole County who was killed in World War I. Since its charter in 1934, it has been a predominantly Black post.
Reflecting upon the years he spent as a soldier, Smith remarked, “Whenever you completed a challenge the military placed before you during your training, you discovered that you aren’t so concerned about trying new things.”
He added, “I guess that I feel like the United States Army helped me accomplish a lot more since it instilled me with the confidence to know that I could overcome challenges and succeed in my life.”
Jeremy P. Ämick writes on behalf of the Silver Star Families of America.
Jeremy P. Amick is a military historian and author dedicated to preserving our nation's military legacies.