By GSE2 Lexie Perez
Navy Region Hawaii Public Affairs
When you enlist in the armed forces, war is inevitably something that crosses your mind. You accept the fact that one day you may end up right in the middle of it. But what happens when you are told that the war is inside of your own body? For Senior Chief Jackey Smith, that was a question she was forced to answer.
War was something Smith knew all too well. In 2006, she was deployed with Combat Camera to the war in Iraq. One evening she and her troops had gone out on a mission “to look for some bad guys, ” Smith explained.
Still in pursuit as morning began to rise, she started to document as normal. As they got out of their Humvee she heard gunfire start to erupt. She had heard gunfire before, however, so she was not too alarmed. It wasn't until she heard an unusual “zing” sound go right past her ear that she knew something wasn't quite right.
Smith had gone through months of training prior to this moment and "fortunately or unfortunately I had to use that training," she explained. She was able to take charge allowing her and her troops to reformulate and get back to their base safely.
Though she survived being shot at in a foreign country and witnessed death up close and personal, nothing could have prepared her for the news she received years later.
In 2014, while she was in the midst of her career, Smith was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. As the first and only female combat photographer in the Navy to be awarded the Bronze Star, this was devastating news for such a warrior to receive.
“I thought my Navy career was over,” explained Smith. “I was working as the public affairs officer for the Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy, I was working inside of the Pentagon and I had just come off of a tour as an instructor. So I felt like the brakes were screeching, and the words ‘cancer’ and ‘Navy’ don’t go together,” she continued.
As she worked through her battle, she realized that the brakes were not so much screeching but the tires were just steering towards a new direction. She gained a new appreciation and outlook on life that she was able to incorporate into her role as a chief.
At the time of her diagnosis, her husband was deployed, so the support and understanding she received from her Navy family meant the world to her.
“Wearing the chief’s uniform and crying were something that, prior to diagnosis, I would have seen as a weakness. So that in itself, being vulnerable to the people that I worked with is essentially what got me through.”
As her treatment went on, she received more overwhelming news. Her diagnosis went from stage II to stage III breast cancer only five months after her initial diagnosis. However, rather than looking at this new news with a pessimistic view, she decided to see her glass as half full.
She remained determined to fight this ugly disease and with opening up and accepting the support from her friends and family, that's exactly what she did.
It was through vulnerability that she found strength and that new found trait is something she wishes others will take away from her story.
“Senior leaders; it’s okay to be vulnerable, it's okay to ask for help and it's okay to know that you don’t have to have a coat of armor 24 hours a day."
Smith looked back on herself saying “If you were to look at Chief Bratt [Smith’s maiden name] in 2008, she was a bull. It was my way or the highway; it was survival of the fittest. It was any description of what I would never want to have for a leader. That’s who she was.”
On Jan. 13, 2019, Smith was announced cancer free. War and cancer were experiences that changed her. Yet through those challenges and adversities, she was able to better herself and hopes to use her journey to help better others.
“I am the most determined, energetic person that you will ever meet, but I use that for good now. I don’t use that for myself, I use that for ‘how can I help the Navy’ and ‘how can I help the Sailors.’”
(Editor's note: Published in the Ho'okele magazine - October 2020 edition as a part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month)