Kaelynn Smith was in the midst of her graduation from Army basic training when she heard a very familiar name announced as guest speaker.
“They said ‘Army Command Sgt. Major Smith’ and my thought was, ‘Hey, my dad is a Sgt. Major Smith,’” she said. “It didn’t click for me that it was actually him. I thought, ‘wow, there are so many Smiths!’
“I have some slow moments at times,” she went on to quip, “and I’d definitely say that was one of them.”
Jokes aside, things came into focus soon enough for her as her father, an Army veteran of nearly 42 years, walked out to speak to the graduates – a surprise to Kaelynn, her family members in attendance and everyone else.
“A few tears came out of my eyes,” Kaelynn said. “That was such an emotional moment. Who can say they had their own father speak at their graduation? It’s definitely something special to start my career as a soldier. I just felt very happy, special … it was one for the books.”
Renee told no one at all, not even his wife and Kaelynn’s mother Angie.
“He’d be writing (the speech) and I’d walk over there. He’d say, ‘Hey, this is top secret,’” Angie said. “At the ceremony, he didn’t sit by us and I thought, well, it’s probably something where, with his rank, he’s sitting in front. When I saw him with his glasses on, I knew then that he was going to go read something … it was very surprising.”
Renee said he wasn’t absolutely sure he’d be able to speak at the ceremony, hence the secrecy. He couldn’t be more thrilled that he was able to experience the moment.
“It was an honor,” he said. “And … in August, I’m going to be at 42 years of service. To be able to have my own daughter in the formation, to be able to look at her in the same uniform I wore, there were tears in my eyes … I can’t even describe how proud I was to see her for the very first time in uniform.”
The family moment was just one of several noteworthy items attached to Kaelynn’s accomplishment. The Hahnville High School alum returned to St. Charles Parish after graduating from Southeastern Louisiana University – where she attended on a track scholarship – and became a teacher at R.K. Smith Middle School, where she was once a student herself. She went back to school to earn her master’s degree with aspirations to one day become a school principal in her vision.
“Something was missing,” she said. “I always had an idea I wanted to join the army just like my dad. I felt like it would suit me and that urge never went away.”
Renee said when Kaelynn told him of her intentions, he was touched – but also adamant that the choice be 100 percent her own.
“I wasn’t going to encourage her, but also I wasn’t going to discourage her,” he said. “I felt like 42 years of me wearing that uniform exempted my children from ever having to put on the uniform. She wanted to do it.”
When he asked her why, the answer was simple.
“She said she wanted to give back,” Renee said.
Kaelynn’s grandmother Aleshia was in attendance at the graduation and has great pride in her granddaughter.
“I was really happy to see Kaelynn achieve the goals she’s set for herself, and also seeing my son and his wife be so involved in her life, guiding her to be independent and set and achieve goals. It’s wonderful to see,” Aleshia said.
Aleshia’s brother Ryan – who just welcomed a newborn daughter into the world, another happy milestone for the family – said Kaelynn is selfless and has been a major influence in the lives of his children.
“She’s always in the stands, cheering, so involved with my kids’ extracurriculars,” Ryan said. “You see all she’s accomplished and her drive is just all day, major work ethic … she’s giving up a lot to become a U.S. soldier. She deserves everything she’s achieved.”
Kaelynn said basic training was challenging, as one might expect. Something helpful in her corner was her background as a collegiate athlete, helping her endure the most draining physical challenges presented to her.
The toughest tests were as much a mental challenge as physical.
“You learn you can survive through it. You’re not gonna die,” Kaelynn said. “Basic training showed me you can survive. It’s just a matter of learning the tactics to survive.”
She plans to complete her military training and return home to teach while maintaining reserve military status.
And CSM Renee Smith’s message of “Victory begins Here” was well received and resounded among the hundreds of new soldiers and their families at the Fort Jackson, SC celebration.