WASHINGTON -- The Army’s inspector general preaches building trust when he meets with Soldiers and civilians at Army installations throughout the country.
Lt. Gen. Leslie Smith demonstrates that in the way he listens to Soldiers as they tell their life stories or talk about their backgrounds. With Southern charm and a humility that comes from a blue-collar upbringing, the Atlanta native speaks to Army members the way he speaks to his family or old friends.
He and his wife of more than 30 years, Vanedra, have also instilled trust and respect for others in their two daughters, Taylor and Tori. Tori, the youngest, is an Army officer attending medical school at Howard University and plans to become an Army doctor.
The couple taught their children that building trust comes from treating others equally.
“We always fall back on things that our parents taught us,” Vanedra Smith said. “My mom always said, ‘It's important to treat people the way that you want to be treated.’ And that's one of the things that I've always instilled in my daughters, and I also let them know that there's one race: the human race.”
Leslie Smith also believes that a more diverse force will make the Army stronger. Smith also joined acting Secretary of the Army John E. Whitley to speak virtually with cadets at Alabama A&M and Alabama State universities Feb. 18 and 19, as part of the Army’s wider effort to recruit more African-Americans into its ranks.
“We want to make sure that we focus on a diverse group of people coming into our Army and into our armed forces, because we are representative of the nation,” Smith said by video conference on Feb. 9. “So we need to fight for that talent.”
Smith also recorded a special Black History Month message for the NBA’s Washington Wizards to air during the team’s historically black college and university night on Feb. 27. Later this year, Smith will visit Army installations as part of the Project Inclusion listening tour.
Smith praised the efforts of Project Inclusion, an initiative that includes listening sessions that are scheduled to continue on Feb. 23-25 at Fort Irwin, California. The program collects data from the sessions to identify social issues related to diversity and inclusion that can be brought up to Army leadership.
To mold the Army into a welcoming, inclusive place for all backgrounds, Smith understands Army units must be united from the ground up.
Sergeant Major of the Army Michael A. Grinston strives to foster trust at the squad level through the “This is My Squad” initiative to build greater team unity, similar to the bonds formed in special forces units. Other Army leaders, including Smith, have taken it upon themselves to spread that message throughout the force.
As the Army’s inspector general, Smith doesn’t take his position of influence lightly.
“If I say one thing and I do something else, that's a problem,” Smith said. “So I have to make sure … I demonstrate what I expect [Soldiers] to be. So if I expect someone to be in good physical shape, I have to be in good physical shape. If I expect people to treat everyone with dignity and respect, I have to do the same.”
“All of it comes back down to trust at the individual level, the team level, the organization level and then on the Army level.”
After recent events at Fort Hood, Texas, which included the deaths of missing Soldiers, the focus on race relations and accountability within the Army’s ranks has been pushed to the forefront.
Last summer, then-Secretary of the Army Ryan D. McCarthy ordered an independent review that revealed significant improvements must be made to the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program as well as Soldier accountability procedures.
“There are areas that we need to work on,” Smith said. “I think the Fort Hood independent review showed us some things that we need to continue to highlight. But for me, it comes down to how we’re building trust. And the only way you build trust is getting to know the people that are around you.”
Smith spoke at a Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Fort Lee, Virginia, last month and has participated in similar events over the years. He said he encourages Soldiers to honor King’s legacy by acting against incidents of sexual harassment/assault, racism, extremism and bullying, and reporting occurrences to their chain of command.
Vanedra Smith supports the Army in any way that she can, as a member of the Army Spouses’ Club of the Greater Washington Area and by attending events that promote diversity. General Smith said that Soldiers must not only know their peers better, but should also encourage their families to become involved.
“The atmosphere of a place, or the success or the failure of it, starts at the top,” Vanedra said. “So in order for an organization or person or people to succeed, we need everybody involved.”
Knowing where you came from
Smith said understanding the nation’s diverse history will help foster that trust. At speaking engagements, he talks about Black pioneers such as Benjamin Banneker, a surveyor who helped Andrew Ellicott map the initial layout of Washington, D.C., in the late 18th century.
The Atlanta native also frequently speaks about his summer visits to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a farming community where his family originated. Mound Bayou became a prosperous Black community amid racial segregation in the Deep South. Smith spent time learning from his uncles and cousins about his background and what was expected from him.
“To this day, my relatives still have high expectations of me as a leader, not only in the Army but in my family and community,” Leslie Smith said.
He also spoke of Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III, a close friend of the Smiths who became the nation’s first African-American to hold the position on Jan. 22.
Austin broke several barriers in his military career, becoming the first Black operations officer of the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. A native of Thomasville, Georgia, Austin also became the first Black commander of U.S. Central Command and the first Black vice chief of staff of the Army. He retired from active duty after 40 years in the Army.
“He’s been blazing a trail for a long time,” Smith said. “We have to talk about those things.”
Smith said that the Army must continue to honor not only Black History Month, but other months that celebrate diversity including Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May and Hispanic Heritage Month during September and October.
“We celebrate the differences that make us stronger,” Smith said.
Tori Smith, who graduated from her parents’ alma mater, Georgia Southern University, is now a first-year medical student at Howard, a historically Black institution. Vanedra said her daughter chose to attend the school in part to gain a greater understanding of her heritage. Tori wanted to become an Army doctor after noticing a disparity in the number of Black doctors.
“She really wanted to go somewhere where she could learn a little bit more about her history, and so as an African-American, she can give back to the African-American community,” Vanedra said.
In that way, Tori can continue to follow in her father’s footsteps. Taylor, the Smiths’ elder daughter, said her Army experiences helped her become a global citizen. These experiences enabled her to bring a multifaceted perspective as an advertising graphic designer in Austin, Texas.