The Marine Corps is an organization in which strangers come together and build bonds as strong as family. But what happens when two brothers join the world’s greatest fighting force?
Marine Corps Lt. Col. Jonathan R. Smith, the ground combat element commander with the 13th Marine Expeditionary Unit, and Maj. Michael F. Smith, the air combat element operations officer with the 13th MEU, are deployed together during Western Pacific Deployment 16-1.
‘6 Feet Tall and Bulletproof’
The Smith family history of military service extends back to the Revolutionary War. The brothers grew up hearing the tales of their grandparents, who all served in the armed services.
“It starts with my grandmother being in the Army Nurse Corps and my grandfather being in the Army Air Corps during the World War II era,” Jonathan said. “We have service on both sides of the family. My mother’s father was a doctor in the Army, and my grandmother was a nurse.”
This history led their father, William Franklin Smith III, to join the Marines, the Smiths said. Being a Marine meant the world to their father, they said, and he would talk highly about the Marines he served with and his time in service.
“That was a very important part of his life,” Jonathan said. “He would say how every Marine was 6 feet tall and bulletproof.”
The family has a deep devotion to service, patriotism, and love for country, Michael said. William told his sons that Marines are cut from a different cloth, and this became a driving factor in their desire to serve their county. All three of the Smith boys would ultimately become career Marines. The oldest brother, William Franklin Smith IV, or “Bill,” joined the Marine Corps as an enlisted reconnaissance Marine and, after 24 years of service, retired in December as a master gunnery sergeant.
Meanwhile, Jonathan and Michael went to the University of Maine together, and upon graduation, were commissioned as Marine Corps officers.
Jonathan, the second-oldest and commander of Battalion Landing Team 2/1, became an infantry officer. He said he wanted to take on the challenges faced by Marines in so many of his father’s stories.
“When I heard my father talk about the important aspects of service, the highlights of his career, I heard about Marines being on the ground and struggling through personal and unit sacrifice,” Jonathan said. “I knew it was going to be a physical and mental challenge, and that’s what I wanted.”
As Jonathan began his career as an infantry officer, Michael, the youngest brother, went down a different career path.
“I’ve always been fascinated by my grandfather’s life; his record as an aviator is unbelievable,” Michael said about his paternal grandfather. “He had in the realm of 60 to 80 air medals, two distinguished flying crosses, was the commanding officer of a squadron at a very young age and loved by all those he served with. This was always in the back of my mind.”
His grandfather’s legacy and a few gentle nudges by previous aviators led Michael to pursue a Marine Corps aviation career. But this sent him to the opposite side of the country from his brothers on the East Coast.
Splitting Up the Team
Although he was skeptical at first, Michael said, “getting stationed in Hawaii was absolutely the best thing that ever happened to me. It allowed me to figure out who I was as a Marine, independent of my brothers, [to] learn my craft [and] become a subject-matter expert on the employment of a CH-53 helicopter.”
This separation also gave Michael the opportunity to grow as a leader and reinforce the bonds with his wife and young children, he said. The brothers had some chance encounters and near-misses as their careers progressed.
“We missed each other by minutes, in Iraq in 2006,” said Michael. “I think I was actually going out of the country as [Jonathan] was getting established.”
It wasn’t until 2008, when Michael was a part of the Unit Deployment Program and Jonathan was a company commander with the 31st MEU, when they were deployed together to Okinawa, Japan.
The brothers share some special memories due to their tight relationship and service in the Marine Corps.
“One day, while I was playing video games or something … and Jon was doing [professional military education] assignments, Jon received a message about the recipient of the Leftwich Award for that year. Jon said, ‘It’s some crazy guy named Smith.’ I stopped playing and looked at him and said ‘No way you’re that guy!’” It was. Then-Capt. Jonathan Smith won the Lt. Col. William G. Leftwich Award for outstanding leadership in 2009.
After Okinawa, the Smith brothers wouldn’t meet up again professionally until pre-deployment training for Western Pacific Deployment 16-1. Michael was stationed at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, California, as the officer in charge of the 13th MEU’s CH-53E Super Stallion detachment, while Jonathan assumed command of 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment — which would later become the 13th MEU’s ground combat element.
“It wasn’t until Jon’s change of command ceremony, while I was sitting in the audience and thinking to myself, ‘This is going to happen’ that it sunk in,” Michael said.
As pre-deployment training began, the Smith brothers said, they would discuss their training experiences together as colleagues. With both brothers being subject matter experts in their fields, they said they had rich conversations about the capabilities and limitations of the ground combat element and air combat element.
“Those kinds of frank discussions probably wouldn’t occur if it wasn’t with Mike, my brother, the ACE operations officer, talking about how we could make things better after completing operations,” Jonathan said. “We do this while still being completely professional and not severing or circumventing the chains of command in any way because we’re brothers. He has his boss, and I would never step in the way of that. But those rich discussions allow me to understand the [Marine air-ground task force] as a whole. I think it will help me design operations and training a lot more effectively when I can understand the air combat element and how its capabilities and limitations can be maximized and minimized.”
Forming a Military Family
The way they did business trickled out to the entire task force, they said, and soon the 13th MEU seemed like one big, happy family.
“Our relationship and family oriented style, in my opinion, really spilled over to the initial gathering of the MAGTF, specifically, the [air combat element] and [ground combat element] relationships,” Michael said. “We were really close because we treat each other like family and that has filtered out to where the battalion landing team operations officer and I have grown very tight. The camaraderie felt from all those things has been positive. We’re able to work through problems and gain deep integration, because there’s an openness and teamwork to all that we do. That’s what gets things done.”
The 13th MEU family wasn’t the only family growing closer during the trials and tribulations of deployment. The brothers said their families are also able to conquer the struggles of deployment together.
“Because we are stationed in California together, our kids are able to spend time together and have sleepovers,” Jonathan said. “They’re able to talk about what it’s like to move from different areas in the country. They’re able to talk about the separations that they’ve gone through as a result of the deployment. All those things really build a foundation of a family and really bring it closer together.”
The Smith family name drives the brothers to push each other and want to seek excellence, along with their families and healthy sibling rivalry. Throughout their lives, the brothers said, they have used various phrases to remind them what it means to be a Smith.
“A little witty banter like ‘Don’t disappoint us, uphold the legacy with the name, don’t let the Smith name fail,’ has pushed us to achieve excellence,” Michael said. “The sheer terror of letting your family down is enough to keep you pushing, regardless of the task!”
With their legacy, families and sibling rivalry fueling them, the Smith brothers said they will continue to push each other. Once the deployment is over and everyone is safe back in the states, they said, they intend to take the opportunity to “look at the forest for the trees,” and understand how special this experience has been.
By Marine Corps Cpl. Alvin Pujols