By Brandon O'Connor
Former PV Assistant Editor
It was in the most unexpected moments that Eston Smith’s life changed.
He answered his phone expecting it to be a casual call between him and his sister before quickly realizing it was anything but.
A few weeks later, he was sitting at a bar with friends enjoying the evening when he missed one call from his mom, then another before receiving a text that said “Please call now. Not good. Really, really not good.” And when he did, not just his evening but his life as he knew it up until that moment was shattered.
In the year since those phone calls, he has worked to rebuild the pieces. He’s learned what it means to turn to those around him and ask them to help carry his burdens. He has found ways to cope and grieve even if they weren’t always the best ways in the long term. He has been angry. He’s felt resentment, isolated and misunderstood. But, after the toughest year of his life, Smith has found a new normal even as the world around him has been thrown into chaos.
As a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy, life never stops. From Reception Day to Graduation Day, a cadet’s career is known as the 47-month experience. It is a constant cycle of classes, training and leader development. During the academic year, cadets balance a heavier class load than a typical college student to enable them to graduate in four years. During the summer, they are either going through training themselves or helping to train underclass cadets.
For Smith, that relentless cycle had been longer than most as he spent a year at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School before joining the Corps of Cadets. The first of his siblings to graduate from high school and the first member of his family to attend college, Smith arrived at the prep school for Reception Day having never seen West Point. He’d grown up on the opposite side of the country in Waldport, Oregon, on the coast of the Pacific Ocean. It was a town of 2,000 people; about half the size of the Corps of Cadets he would soon join.
After one year of prep school and two years at West Point, Smith was preparing to lead a squad of new cadets during Cadet Basic Training, or Beast Barracks, when the first phone call came. His sister, Rhawnie, was nearly 20 years his senior, and he admits they had not always been the closest as she filled a partially maternal and partially sisterly role in his life. But they had been talking frequently as of late.
When he answered the phone, Smith was expecting the call to be more of the same. He was having girl trouble back home and his sister was a good sounding board. They had also been talking about her making a trip out to see West Point for the first time once the fall semester began.
In an instant he realized how wrong he was. This was no mundane phone call between brother and sister to catch-up and plan a future visit. She was already crying when he answered and began to tell him a horrifying tale.
Her life had been hard and over the years she’d been to rehab multiple times. This last time, the family had banded together, pooled their money and gotten her help for what they hoped would be the final time. She’d been out a week when life caught up to her again and she ended up in a bar drinking, off the wagon once again. Over the course of the evening someone slipped something in her drink, Smith’s sister told him, and when she awoke, she found herself being raped by multiple people.
She’d called asking for support and help because her history of alcohol abuse had led many of those around her to discount the story and blame her for putting herself in that position.
More than 3,000 miles from home, Smith found himself stuck. He was near the end of a two-week train-up before his CBT detail where he would lead a squad of new cadets through the last three weeks of Beast. The two different duties — one to country and one to family — were pulling him in opposite directions. The stronger pull was family, though, and he decided he needed to step away from his detail and go home to support his sister, but then he learned that leaving and going home to Oregon could throw into doubt everything he’d worked for over the past three years.
Graduating from West Point requires a lot from the cadets and the schedule over the 47 months leaves little room for make-ups and redos. Leaving to support his sister would have forced him to miss his summer training detail putting him behind and potentially keep him from graduating with his classmates in the Class of 2021. With the pressure of being the first in his family to attend college and three years invested into West Point, in the end Smith had no choice. He had to stay at West Point and try to help his sister from across the country.
“Who do you turn to?” Smith said. “You don’t turn to West Point and talk to them about it and you don’t turn to family and tell them, ‘Hey my school is so important I’m thinking about putting it before you guys and what’s going on here.’ So, it really was just a situation that forced me into self-reliance. There wasn’t really anywhere to turn.”
Over the next three weeks, he found two coping methods he would turn to time and time again over the forthcoming year, for better or worse. The first was simply to stay busy. He had to be 100% focused on leading his squad so he dedicated himself to the task throughout the day. Then at night, he took advantage of the time difference between New York and the west coast to call home, support his sister and use what he had learned about sexual assault during his cadet career to convince his family that she was a victim and not at fault.
“There’s a lot of power in being able to lead people,” Smith said. “Simply put, it’s very rewarding and I guess the experience was very rewarding for me and that helped me drive on. At the same time, in the back of my head during the whole time I was thinking like, ‘Can I do something?’ It was just kind of a feeling of being powerless, with everything going on back home.”
The second place he found support was through those around him. He was able to turn to his fellow cadets who supported him. They would be a resource he would turn to again as the academic year began. While he was still busy, it was not the same kind of constant pressure as overseeing 18-year-old new cadets walking through the woods while they learned to use new weapons.
Those three weeks had distracted him, but once classes started and the stress became more mental than physical, the reality of all he was dealing with came crashing down.
“I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to be with family,” Smith said.
He was unable to travel home, but a couple weeks into classes and five-and-a-half weeks after the call from his sister he found himself in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for the Army-Michigan football game. The Black Knights entered the game as heavy underdogs against the Wolverines, but they battled all game long and forced overtime against the No. 7 team in the country before losing.
Despite the end result, the unexpected closeness of the game was still cause for celebration and Smith and his friends went to a bar to enjoy the evening and relish the performance by their peers on the field prior to heading back to West Point the following morning.
“We were all just chilling out, having a good time and celebrating the game,” Smith said. “We played really well, or the team did.”
Then his phone rang. He missed the call, but it was 11 p.m. and he thought nothing of it, figuring it was unimportant. Then it rang again and when he checked to see who had called, he found an alarming text from his mom, “Please call now. Not good. Really, really not good.”
Smith disengaged from his friends and a girl he was talking to and walked outside to call his mom back. Much like the phone call a few weeks earlier from his sister, as soon as his mom answered he realized something was wrong. She was barely coherent as she told him his sister had been the passenger in a car when it ran off the road and hit an embankment killing her.
Standing on the street outside a bar in an unfamiliar town, Smith felt alone and isolated in the world. What had been a night of celebration had quickly turned to one marred by tragedy, but once again it was those around him who helped him through. After hearing the news, his friends wrapped up their evenings and headed back to the hotel with Smith.
Then life became a blur. Driving back from Michigan to New York, he made call after call. He had to call his chain of command to get emergency leave to head home, because this time there was no choice. He had to return to Oregon. He called a benefactor to get help booking a flight home and renting a car. He called his family to support them and begin planning the funeral. All while processing his grief in a state of whiplash, he and his family were still trying to process and work through his sister’s attack that had occurred less than two months earlier.
As he traveled home, his life at West Point didn’t stop. Amidst funeral planning and collecting his sister’s belongings, Smith had multiple assignments due, problem sets to turn in and tests he had to be ready to take when he returned.
Friends sent him notes and he kept himself busy with his dual responsibilities, which dulled the pain. But over the next few months, his grades would start to “plummet” as he was befallen by tragedy after tragedy. Three weeks after his sister’s death, the father of her oldest child died. Then over the next few months, Smith’s grandfather and his mentor on West Point’s skeet and trap team both died. All before a pandemic spread throughout the world in March throwing his spring semester at the academy into chaos and trapping him near Boston where he had been visiting during spring break.
As his world shattered, he worked to rebuild the pieces and immersed himself in his work. He is a mechanical engineering major at West Point, and he’d spend hours at his computer working on designs and projects to keep his mind off the world. He poured his time into a business he’d started after plebe (freshman) year called CrestSteel, which produces licensed West Point memorabilia such as steel crests that alumni can hang outside their houses. Through CrestSteel, he was able to occupy his time, but it also was a way to support his family during the time of tragedy.
The money he made also enabled him to support his nephew, who in a span of three weeks had been made an orphan.
“He didn’t have parents now and my mom wasn’t in a position to raise him, neither was my dad,” Smith said. “So, I put a lot of time and energy into CrestSteel and helped him pay his bills and get him a phone and all this stuff.”
When the pandemic hit, he got linked up with a Harvard research project trying to build a 3-D printable ventilator. He spent 15 hours at his computer tinkering and designing before submitting a 95% complete solution to the research team that they could then work to get approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
The projects kept him busy, but as he worked to process all that had happened, Smith would still find himself feeling down at random moments and unsure why. He felt the gratification of doing something good and making a difference, but the pain he felt wasn’t going away.
He knew he had to find a better way to cope, and he found it by turning back to the same lessons he’d learned when the first tragedy had occurred back during the summer — it is OK to ask for help from those around you.
“The people in my company I’m convinced are some of the best people in the world,” Smith said. “They’re always happy to listen. I was having a really hard day and they’re always happy to help when I started struggling in a class.”
His company-mates helped him through by “simply caring.” They may not have understood exactly what he was going through, but through it all his fellow cadets, who Smith calls “the best resources at West Point,” were there to help, to listen and to take some of the weight off his shoulders.
“I didn’t expect any of it to go away but just like caring and communicating with them, they started to absorb some of the burden,” Smith said. “They started to feel the pain with me, and I don’t know if that’s selfish or whatnot but it’s a simple fact that they care and cared so much. It meant so much.”
While they were his rock, he had to be the same for his family. They had struggled to make peace with his sister following her attack because they were inclined to blame it on her previous choices. And before they had a chance to reconcile, she’d been killed. He worked to bring the family together and use what he had learned through sexual assault prevention training at West Point to educate his family.
“His advice, his suggestions and his education, pointed out to all the family that no one, no matter what position they are in, deserves such treatment,” Smith’s mom, Susan McGill Lauglin, said. “In a sense, it brought the family together in support for Rhawnie. After her death, it was Eston who was able to articulate the family’s grief in a matter that expresses what we were all experiencing. Through this last year, I watched a side of Eston grow and develop more so than any other time in his life. It’s a side of extreme compassion for others and the desire to help others better themselves.”
More than a year since his sister’s death, and with the world still in turmoil, Smith has learned that there is no returning to the normal he had before. He said he is finally OK with that as he’s come to understand being resilient doesn’t mean returning to life as it was in the moment before he answered the call from his sister. It means learning how to operate in a “new normal,” how to turn to those around you and ask for help.
The scars of the past year do not manifest on the outside. There was no bandage or cast to tell the world he was injured, but an injury it was, nonetheless. And like any injury, it takes time to heal.
There are infrequent moments where the injury still rears its ugly head, but he has found ways to talk about all that he has struggled with. He has become stronger for all he has endured, and he has learned to support those around him, just as they did when his injury was fresh.
“Every injury is unique,” Smith said. “Just because the details make it sound worse than someone else’s, it doesn’t mean that I’m hurting more than someone else or vice versa. I’d say the same as never judge a book by its cover, never judge someone’s mental health by their story, because there could be so many details that they don’t even understand that are playing into it. Just kind of go into mental health with a very open mind, that regardless of the details someone might be doing really, really bad.”