Among the many leadership skills that propelled Brig. Gen. Isabel Rivera Smith to the top of the New York National Guard, her ability for introspection might be the quiet MVP.
Smith, of Goshen, New York, recalled graduating from high school in Lorain, Ohio, a few decades ago without having a clue about what she would do next. It’s not that she didn’t have options; her parents had already offered to help pay for college, if she chose that path.
But after an uninspiring high school academic career, she realized that jumping straight into higher education was not her best option. She just wasn’t ready, she said.
Fortunately, that sense of self-awareness paid major dividends.
“I decided to join the Army, and from there I matured, I grew and I met phenomenal people,” said Smith, who ascended to the top spot of the New York National Guard in January. “I aspired and wanted to be better than what I did before. I am trying to be the person I wanted to aspire to be when I was younger.”
Charting a path
Smith said her performance at a Lorain, Ohio, high school was quintessentially average. In fact, she said she was ranked about 150 out of 300 students in her graduating class.
Fortunately, she had a post-secondary fallback. A friend had introduced Smith to some of the jobs available to soldiers in the U.S. Army, in which she saw potential for the structure she craved.
Plus, she got to drive some really cool trucks.
“My first job was as a motor transport operator,” Smith said. “I was excited because I had just recently got my license, and the thought of me driving trucks and people around was exciting to me.”
Smith spent four years as an active-duty soldier stationed at Fort Bragg. It was there that she met her eventual husband, Peter, also an active-duty soldier.
Peter’s career eventually took the couple to New York. Smith, still an active member of the National Guard, worked a civilian job for a time, taking on some administrative clerk duties at a hospital.
But service called, and soon she was back working full-time for the National Guard. She attended officer candidate school and was promoted to lieutenant.
“My career as an officer began back in 1995,” Smith said. “Since that time, I have had many assignments. I was an administrative officer and I was an operations officer. My forte was as a personalist in HR and also as a logistician.”
Her military career ultimately took her to Iraq in 2013, when she served a 13-month tour-of-duty as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“In all this time, I was going to school, getting my bachelor’s degree,” Smith said. “I was a mother and a wife. It took me eight years to get my bachelor’s degree, and then I got my master’s degree.”
Inspiring by example
Maj. David Myones met Smith about 12 years ago, when he was lieutenant. He was seeking a full-time job in the National Guard, and Smith was one of the officers tasked with making the hire.
“I wound up not getting the job I interviewed for,” Myones said. “But (Smith) saw enough in me that she offered me another position that kind of spring-boarded my career.”
Now Myones serves as director of the National Guard’s State Partnership Program, through which New York soldiers receive training from their counterparts in Brazil, South Africa and Israel, and vice-versa. He continues to work closely with Smith and said he sees firsthand the way she inspires young recruits.
“Diversity is an absolutely crucial component to the military,” Myones said. “It takes different viewpoints, different perspectives and different backgrounds to make us better as an organization… Just seeing someone of a different background break those barriers and provide those examples for others is very special.”
Smith’s job involves overseeing all of the New York National Guard’s domestic operations, a feat that effectively puts her in charge of up to 19,000 soldiers and airmen. Having a Hispanic woman in an important leadership position is sure to inspire others – just as a female commander at Fort Bragg once inspired Smith.
“It’s just an honor to be able to do this for as long as I’ve been doing it,” said Smith. “I started at 18. I just turned 54 years old. I love my job.”