Jennie Smith-Height's decision to join the military is a familiar story: a chance to explore the world. But serving her country was more than an escape - it became a path that led to a career of supporting people.
Smith-Height is an administrative office professional at U.S. Army Chemical Materials Activity (CMA) headquarters at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. Her military career took her from her hometown in Mississippi to a short stint in the U.S. Navy, performing ship maintenance "using power tools that were almost bigger than I am, hanging over the side of the ship, chipping paint and treating rust."
Not the best fit for her skills, she now admits. After one year, she was honorably discharged for medical reasons and went home for almost four years before deciding to enlist in the armed forces again. Her uncles, Sgt. Maj. Ted Smith and Sgt. 1st Class Link Smith, urged her to follow in their footsteps, and she enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1985 as a personnel administration specialist.
During 20 years in uniform, Smith-Height worked as an orderly room clerk, personnel staff non-commissioned officer (NCO) and human resource manager. She also served as a battalion equal employment opportunity representative, reenlistment NCO and postal supervisor, achieving the rank of sergeant first class and earning a bachelor's degree in psychology.
"I was able to understand the different emotions of each customer and tailor my language to diffuse aggressive behavior and to encourage those who had hardship situations," she said. "This enabled me, with the assistance of my Soldiers, to run a successful Personnel Action Center."
Smith-Height's active-duty military career ended with her October 2005 retirement, but her civilian career began within two months. Continuing to serve the Army in customer service was a natural fit and maintained her connection to the military community. As the principal office assistant, Smith-Height performs administrative and clerical duties in support of CMA.
"It is a privilege work in the defense industry, not only as an African-American but as a person," Smith-Height said, "because what we do as government workers is important in the overall Army mission to ward off any aggressive forces that would threaten our way of life."
CMA manages the nation's remaining stockpile of chemical weapons in Kentucky and Colorado, assesses and destroys recovered chemical warfare materiel, ensures United States compliance with the international chemical weapons treaty and protects communities surrounding the stockpiles. Smith-Height said CMA's unique mission depends on the highly trained men and women who monitor, assess, stabilize and destroy stockpiled and recovered chemical weapons, and those who support them.
"I am sure that CMA's mission goes unnoticed by states that don't have depots and chemical activities," she said, "but if they were aware, the organizations would have an endless number of thank-you cards."
When asked what she would tell an African-American youth who is interested in working in the defense industry, she draws advice from her own career path.
"I would advise them to find out what their passion and strengths are and work hard to get the education and training required for the chosen area of expertise," she said.
With confidence and determination to be the best, success will follow - a piece of advice passed down from the person Smith-Height called the most inspirational individual in her life, her great-grandmother Emma Smith.
"She taught me to be proud of who I am, to hold my head up high and know that I could achieve whatever I chose to do in life," she said, adding that her great-grandmother also taught her to disregard malicious criticism.
"With those words of wisdom, I've had a successful career," said Smith-Height, who this year will celebrate her 34th year in service to the Department of Defense.