GARDENERVILLE, Nev. — Just like your average high school junior, Harley Smith enjoys going to the movies with friends and ordering her favorite drink from Starbucks. She loves art, hiking, sports and is incredibly competitive when it comes to her high school’s Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps Raider and Air Rifle teams.
But, Harley is not your average student. Harley is deaf.
All her life, Harley has faced added obstacles when it came to communicating, learning and competing.
Harley's determination combined with her intricate support system of family, interpreters, instructors and friends has led to her success both within the classroom and her JROTC program at Douglas High School in Gardnerville.
“They won’t let me give up, they’re very supportive and push me to do new things that has helped make me more confident,” Harley said, signing to her interpreters. “They don’t care if I’m deaf, they accept me for me and treat me like everyone else.”
As a toddler, Harley was diagnosed with congenital hearing loss — hearing loss present at birth — leaving her completely deaf.
“Hearing aids and cochlear implants cannot help me,” she said. “I do not read lips.”
With her family being all-hearing and knowing minimal American Sign Language, Harley’s grandmother and guardian, Lynne’e Smith, stepped in to advocate and ensure her granddaughter was set up for success with the best resources and care to further her development and education.
Harley has been working with interpreters for as long as she can remember. She has a team of interpreters — one of whom has been with Harley since first grade — that assist her in classes, activities and events.
“My interpreters taught me signs,” Harley said.
“What they did was when I was little was cut out pictures and the signs for the pictures, and then they glued the picture, sign, and the word into my books.
“That’s how I learned to read and write. My ASL interpreters taught me ASL and they continue to teach me signs, so I’m always learning new signs.”
As her ability to communicate and learn began to expand, so too did Harley’s desire for challenges and exploration.
“Harley was very adventurous, fearless, and wanted to try everything,” Lynne’e recalls. “She was very much a girly-girl … but ready to go fishing, hunting, shooting, horseback riding, camping and any other outdoor activities.”
As Harley was preparing for high school, Lynne’e suggested her granddaughter try JROTC along with her other sports and activities.
“I hoped this would help her with some individuality and build on her strengths,” Lynne’e said. “I like that she feels confidence and pride when she realizes she has achieved her set goals.”
Harley joined Army JROTC as a freshman and immediately found herself up against a challenge: Drills and other competitions that required auditory response.
“Drills were really hard for me because I cannot hear, so I would practice the drills and I would watch the cadets around me,” Harley said.
At the end of her first year in JROTC, Harley was frustrated and didn’t think she was going to continue. She took her concerns to her Douglas High School Army JROTC instructors, retired Col. Michael Glynn and retired Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Eastman.
Even Glynn admits her first year was difficult — there was a learning curve for everyone.
“She’s an all-in or all-out kind of person,” Glynn said. “[She thought], ‘I won’t be able to do rifle team, or I won’t be able to do parades because I can’t hear the commands.’”
The JROTC instructors listened to her concerns and pointed out the positives they’d witnessed.
“She has so much drive, dedication, and commitment. She never gives up on anything,” Glynn said.
“She’s so visually astute, she does drill and ceremony better than half the kids that can hear. She might be a fraction of a second behind, but to the masses that are watching, they can’t tell the difference.”
Glynn and Eastman convinced Harley to commit to another year of JROTC.
“[They] said I listened better than the hearing kids because I can block things out and just focus on the task at hand,” Harley said.
The instructors worked diligently with Harley and her interpreters to make instruction and competitions easier for her to navigate.
One of Harley’s biggest concerns was regarding safety and not being able to see or hear the commands during air rifle competitions.
“We worked our way around that, where the interpreter could be right here next to her and when we say stop or cease fire she knows to stop,” Glynn said.
Slowly, but surely, each practice and event started to become easier for Harley. Her drive and competitive nature began to shine.
“She came back the next year and she was on our top Raider Team and she was one of the top shots on our rifle team,” Glynn said.
Harley even put aside her fears of doing drill and ceremony in front of a crowd and “did just fine” in her first public color guard.
“I am really happy that I stuck with JROTC,” Harley said.
“The program is encouraging and supportive. It has pushed me to try new things, to never give up and that has made me confident. Everyone here treats me normal. They don’t care if I am deaf. We are all equal.”
Many of Harley's friends, JROTC peers and instructors have started learning sign language or joined the school’s American Sign Language Club run by Harley and her ASL interpreters.
Harley attends the club every week and has seen the club and other student’s ability to communicate with her grow over the past three years.
“It was hard when kids did not know signs,” she said.
“My ASL interpreters have taught some of my friends signs, as well as some of my teachers, JROTC instructors, and coaches. They are all learning signs. Now, that there’s lots of students interested and want to learn the signs. This has been really helpful because now I have more friends that sign.”
It goes even farther than just an ASL club. This past fall, Harley was chosen to compete in her region’s Ultimate Raider Challenge. She was the Tiger Battalion’s female nominee to compete against 20 other girls from different schools.
All the other schools were aware that Harley was deaf and showed support in an extraordinary way.
“Harley, of course, she won’t quit anything, she’s determined,” Glynn said. “When you’re cheering a [hearing] cadet on, everyone is yelling and clapping, well, the sign for clapping in American Sign Language is having both hands in the air and wiggling them back and forth.
“Harley’s running, and it’s her turn to go towards the end, and the several hundred kids that were there from several different schools all have their hands in the air, shaking them and cheering her on.
“It’s not just my battalion, it’s all the other schools that competed against her and with her. They all recognize her drive and determination and it’s that personal example that I think she’s brought to the table. Everybody respects her because they know what she’s capable of.”
With Harley’s senior year of high school approaching, she has her heart set on a fourth and final year in JROTC before focusing on her goals outside of high school, which include becoming an athletic trainer.
“[JROTC] prepares you for the real world by teaching you respect, expectations, and leadership for school and work,” she said. “It’s taught me to try everything and not give up.”
About Army ROTC
Army ROTC is one of the best leadership courses in the country and is part of your college curriculum. Through classes and field training, Army ROTC provides you with the tools to become an Army Officer without interfering with your other classes. ROTC also provides you with discipline and money for tuition while enhancing your college experience.
Army ROTC offers pathways to becoming an Army Officer for high school students, current active-duty Soldiers, and for current National Guard and Army Reserve Soldiers through the Simultaneous Membership Program.