NATICK, Mass. (April 19, 2016) -- Capt. Laurel Smith was 8 years old when her uncle, now retired Chief Warrant Officer Mike Durant, a Black Hawk pilot, was shot down in Mogadishu, Somalia, in October 1993.
When she and her family attended his homecoming at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, Smith developed an interest in the military and a desire to one day help wounded Soldiers recover from injuries similar to the ones sustained by her uncle, whose story was told in the 2001 movie "Black Hawk Down."
"I had an innate need to serve wounded Soldiers, but I did not know what I would do in the Army yet," said Smith, detachment commander and a principal investigator at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. "When I attended the University of New Hampshire, I thought I would get a teaching degree, join the Army, and be a teacher when I got out. I had this plan to serve and then fall back on a background in education."
While working as a student teacher in a traditional classroom, however, she found her true calling.
"When I was doing my student teaching, the teacher had me work with students with special needs, and I fell in love with it," Smith said. "I really wanted to work with kids with learning or other disabilities. My mom, who worked in the school, talked me into looking at occupational therapy as a career field. Occupational therapists work with individuals who, as a result of disease or injury, are not able to complete activities that promote functional and independent living."
According to Smith, while she envisioned working with children, she gradually saw a direct connection between occupational therapy and that childhood desire to help wounded Soldiers.
With a master's degree in occupational therapy from UNH in hand, she immediately joined the Army in 2008. After completing her Officer Basic Course in San Antonio, Texas, she reported to her first duty station, Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, where she was assigned as a staff occupational therapist. After two years in Hawaii, she was deployed in Afghanistan to work as a concussion care specialist in support of an infantry brigade.
Smith said occupational therapy is a predominantly female profession in the civilian sector, but in the Army, the male-to-female ratio among occupational therapists is more equal. In her year in Afghanistan, Smith experienced a bit of "culture shock" while working in an infantry unit.
"While there were certainly a number of females, I worked predominantly with males," Smith said. "The majority of my patients were combat arms guys who received concussions outside the wire and were coming to me for their rehabilitation. Initially, there was a lot of unfamiliarity and challenges I had to overcome working with this population, but I think, in the end, it taught me a lot, and I believe (it) was a valuable experience for them, as well."
After her deployment, she was transferred to USARIEM to receive mentorship in scientific research. She started her first research project in musculoskeletal injury reporting. After three years as a principal investigator, she was asked to fill in as the detachment commander.
Smith described her job as "wearing many hats." No matter what hat she wears at the moment, however, she finds her job in USARIEM rewarding.
"I think the mentors who have reached out to help me are the true reason for my success," Smith said. "You are going to make mistakes. Going into a situation where you know adversity is inevitable is never comfortable, but I think it is how you grow and learn about yourself that determines your success.
"Women's History Month is a chance to celebrate those women who were courageous in the sense that they stepped up to the plate, took really tough jobs, and carved their way into fields they were not part of before. By doing that, they showed other women that with enough confidence and personal courage, success is possible."