Mary Ellen Smith, a retired Air Force veteran, began her career as a K-9 handler. (Courtesy photo)

By Helen Bezuneh,
Special to the AFRO

For Mary Ellen Smith, a 64-year-old from Las Vegas, Nev., joining the Air Force after high school was the option that she knew would open doors for her.  

Understanding that her parents were likely unable to afford college for her, she embarked on a journey that would ultimately provide her with life-changing benefits, ranging from college tuition to veterans’ discounts when purchasing a house.

“My dad was in the Air Force and I knew that they had a lot of benefits …[which] would allow me to learn a job, turn it into a career if I wanted to and then all the additional benefits that I got,” she told the AFRO, noting that she earned an associates arts degree that lead to “the job opportunities, for which I would already have training when I got out.

“Trust me, the benefits when you get out are too good to pass up,” she added. “And you don’t have to be active, you can be in the reserves, you can go [on duty] once a month. The benefits I get now for different shows, organizations that just know your background so they’re willing to skip certain application hoops that you gotta run through to get a job.”

Smith’s family has a stout tradition of military service. 

“We have an uncle, he was a Tuskegee Airman,” she said. “He had some great stories about how that whole thing went and how he got hired to be a pilot. They had them in completely separate groups. I had a couple of uncles that were in the military because at that time, you had to go into the military.”

Smith served in the military, mostly as a K-9, or dog handler, for six years, followed by similar work in federal organizations until she retired in 2015.

“I picked the Air Force because my dad was in the Air Force,” she said. “I picked it because I wanted to be a K-9 handler. I wouldn’t say it’s a done deal because…there are certain things you gotta do to say, ‘Yeah, I have the physical capability and all to do it.’ So that was the same thing in the military. You go to basic [training] first… then you go to whatever school you put in for. which is figured out before you go in. Mine was law enforcement because you have to be law enforcement to be a K-9 handler. So that school was about six weeks,” she said, followed by K-9 school.

After succeeding in becoming a K-9 handler,  Smith said she was sent to her first post in Tampa, Fla. Some security personnel were responsible for guarding aircraft on the runway, while others patrolled the base with their dogs, conducting inspections to ensure that no illicit drug use or other unauthorized activities occurred.

“I didn’t run into any challenges because my parents disciplined me as a child,” 

“In my dog handling course, I considered it a man’s world,” she said. “Their expectations weren’t high,” she said. “I didn’t really consider that any challenge, other than the fact that I’m trying to prove myself.”

“When I got to my first base, the challenges came not from the people that I work with but the people I am dealing with,” she added.  The personnel she was monitoring had the attitude that, “We don’t want you in our dorm. We don’t want you checking our dorm, why are you giving me a ticket there’s more things you could be doing,’” she said.

After a year and three months in Tampa, Smith was moved to a base in Panama in Central America for two years. During her time in the Air Force, she encountered some individuals who doubted her skills. 

“I ran into problems with a couple of supervisors [for whom]who, I don’t think it really had anything to do with my color, it probably was more that I was female because law enforcement was predominantly male,” she said. “So you run into where they think there’s assumptions that either you can’t do the job or you’re not good enough for the job.”

One supervisor in particular posed a challenge for Smith, she said.

“One of the things that he said to me was ‘You’re probably going to get a lot of things because you’re female, because you’re Black, you’re probably going to get a lot of things when you leave here, a lot of benefits,’” she said. “‘There’s an award coming up and I’m going to give it to this guy and not you.’ I said, ‘But both of us are capable of doing the job.’”

After spending time in Panama, Smith got assigned to her final base in Mountain Home, Idaho. Her six years in the military proved to be instrumental in her job search after she left.

“I worked for another company and then a federal position opened up,” she said. “A federal position is like the military, but they consider you a civilian. So some of the jobs are exactly the same, you’re just getting paid a lot more.”

“All your training is free [in the military],” she said. “If you were gonna be an admin, all the training to understand what you need to be a good administrator within your organization, all the training is free, they give it to you. This is stuff you use when you get out. You go to another job and say, ‘I’ve had all this training and these are all my certificates that show I’ve been through this training’ and most people will hire you, That’s what happened with me. Most people said ‘Yeah, you’ve been in the Air Force and you did these things, I wanna hire you’ because they know you already have that underlining loyalty, discipline and understanding responsibility.”

The benefits of having been in the military go beyond employment opportunities, Smith said.

“Restaurants, you always get either 10 or 20 percent off,” she said. “For buying houses, you get a different loan, which is usually better…Travel was awesome. Being able to go wherever you wanted to go. You can kinda pick and choose. Now it’s better than it was for us…You were able to catch what they call ‘hops’ – quick trips to different locations – because they had a seat available. It cost you 10 bucks. Buying cars is cheaper because you’re military, they give you a military discount.”

Smith now recommends joining the military to anyone who’ll listen, knowing that the benefits can be monumental. 

“Sometimes the benefits that are available and the things you don’t know hurt you,” she said. My brother in law told his kids, ‘just don’t go in. you’re gonna have to go overseas, you’re gonna have to do this, they’re gonna be telling you what to do’. To this day he tells me, ‘I regret saying that. Because I see what you did, I see what you were able to do.”