By 1st Lt. Nadine Wiley De MouraAugust 30, 2018
AMARILLO, Texas- Spc. Samuel Villa-Smith looked on to Lake Meredith in the small town of Fritch, Texas, just 36 miles north of Amarillo, with a pensive gaze. He clutched the only photo he had left of him and his father, who died from an overdose in 2016.
Villa-Smith smiled and shared some of the only good memories he had of his father before he left his family when he was nine years old.
"My father taught me everything I know about fishing and camping at this exact spot," Villa-Smith said. "The last time I was here with him I was seven years old and found a Native American spearhead. My father had us turn it into the museum because it was the right thing to do. Memories like that remind me that he was a good man, he was just overcome by his addiction."
Villa-Smith, a Soldier with the 1st Squadron, 124th Cavalry Regiment, was recently chosen to lead Civil Operations in the Texas Panhandle region with the Texas National Guard Joint Counterdrug Task Force.
The Panhandle, slightly larger than the size of West Virginia, is a region rich in oil fields, agriculture and wind turbines, nestled among miles and miles of plains and geological formations like the Palo Duro Canyon.
For natives like Villa-Smith, the region is also known as a high intensity drug trafficking area.
In 2015, Amarillo was one of the four top 25 cities in the U.S. for opioid abuse, according to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.
The Drug Enforcement Agency's National Clandestine Laboratory Register identified that three of the top 11 counties in Texas with meth labs were in the Panhandle.
"This region is my home, where everything is for me: family, churches, schools," Villa-Smith said. "Civil Ops provides me with the opportunity to help fight this enormous battle that is taking this community over. This community has struggles with meth, cocaine, heroin, prescription addiction and alcoholism."
As a Civil Operator, Villa Smith will coach, train, facilitate, lead and support coalition and community-based organizations in an effort to impact substance abuse in his region.
For Villa-Smith the Counterdrug mission is personal.
"Growing up with my father like that was a world of terror and a world of constant heartache seeing him sell everything he had to get his next fix," said Villa-Smith. "Seeing him completely passed out from the drugs. He was so far gone and the more he took the greater his tolerance became and he needed more and more. It ended my mother's marriage to him. It destroyed all of us."
Villa-Smith, who enlisted in 2011, said his father's experience with addiction was what motivated him to come back and contribute to Amarillo and the wider Texas Panhandle region.
"When I joined the Counterdrug program I had a personal vendetta," he said.
Villa-Smith explained that civil operations are focused on long-term, multigenerational, cultural and community change that will involve cultivating coalitions and focusing on prevention.
"We can probably intercept more people and their behaviors now," Villa-Smith said. "I'm just thinking about what would have happened if my father had those opportunities, resources and people who actually cared about him in the community. We could have made a difference."
Villa-Smith has already met with key players in the community who are on board with starting a coalition that will address the issues in the area.
Dr. Dwight Vick, who has a doctoral degree in public administration with a concentration in substance abuse policy, is one of them.
"The coalition is in the building process," Vick said. "Without out Spc. Villa-Smith it is not going to happen-without that Guard, military support."
Vick explained that the community is very supportive of military personnel and families and that having them involved will provide immediate credibility when addressing issues.
"There have been coalition efforts in the past, but in my opinion they have fallen because people are not able to separate personal and professional viewpoints, and there was no uniting force to pull everyone together," Vick explained. "With the National Guard coming in, they will help provide support and direction to go forward and combat the substance abuse problem."
Vick said that their first line of order would be targeting schools, since children are on the frontline of the issue. The children come from homes with addiction, which results in instability and behavioral issues.
"Spc. Villa-Smith is the face of what the problem can be like for families," Vick said. "This has to be treated for the individual, family and community, which is why having the military involved is critical because they can provide the guidance and social support that people can rely on and they can work within the community with the coalitions."
Although, Villa-Smith is the only one currently assigned to the region, he will be strategizing with his Area Team Leader, 1st Sgt. Warren Bainbridge, who has extensive knowledge on the civil operations program and has been with the Counterdrug program for over a decade.
"A lot of people have good intentions here, and we will be synthesizing efforts to provide leadership and guidance so that they can make an impact on the community," Bainbridge said. "The plan is to move forward with basic things, do a business plan to ramp up and when they get funding step off into action."
The coalition leaders and Guardsmen both emphasized the need for first responders, schools and hospitals to be a part of the coalition efforts.
"It will take every one of us to change this and to synthesize our efforts," Villa-Smith said. "What we are doing with Civil Ops is just as paramount as our criminal analyst mission. It's just as impactful, because if we don't reduce demand there is no way to win the war."
Filled with ambition and hope for the future, Villa-Smith hasn't forgotten the strong community that gave him balance as a young child watching his father struggle through addiction.
"My mother, my strong Pentecostal community, neighbors and friends were the ones who instilled values in me in order to avoid that kind of lifestyle," Villa-Smith said. "It took a synthesis of efforts. That is why I turned out the way I did today and another reason why I believe in Civil Ops."
After 11 years of not knowing whether his father was dead or alive, Villa-Smith was finally able to make contact with him. By that time, his father was an entirely different person.
"I didn't see the same man anymore and it was everything in me to try to support him and help him to move past this," Villa-Smith said. "What I could do just wasn't enough, it was just too much for one person, even a son."
Just shy of 30 years old, Villa-Smith imparted years of wisdom that displayed his investment in combating the war on drugs and what he experienced while watching a loved one-battle addiction.
"Sometimes it's not the rappers on TV or the narco-culture itself but it's us turning a blind eye to our friends and our families and allowing them to continue to struggle like that," Villa-Smith paused and gathered his thoughts. "That is the main culprit of the demise of our communities. We turn a blind eye all too often, but we have to be there for each other."
Villa-Smith received the tragic phone call that his father had died of an overdose on his 27th birthday, just a little over two years ago.
"You never think it will happen until it happens to someone you love, then you'll wish that somebody had been involved--drugs affect so many of us," Villa-Smith said as he took a deep breath. "If you love someone don't give up on him or her and if you have a problem get help. If not it will cost you everything like it did my father and family."
Not only is Villa-Smith personally invested in impacting his community, but he is also pursuing two different master's degrees in software engineering and business administration with a focus in finance. These degrees, he says, will enrich his knowledge in every aspect of his Counterdrug duties.
"This is my passion, to assist in the reduction of demand and fighting drugs on the street today," said Villa-Smith.