2019-03-08 / News Update

IG: Early investment in American youth pays dividends for future generations

Joe Lacdan
Army News Service


Lt. Gen. Leslie C. Smith, center, stands as his wife, Vanedra, (left) and his mother, Lily, affix new rank epaulets to his jacket during a promotion ceremony Feb. 9, 2018, at Fort McNair in Washington. Smith was promoted two days after being sworn in as the Army’s 66th inspector general. Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Porch / U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Leslie C. Smith, center, stands as his wife, Vanedra, (left) and his mother, Lily, affix new rank epaulets to his jacket during a promotion ceremony Feb. 9, 2018, at Fort McNair in Washington. Smith was promoted two days after being sworn in as the Army’s 66th inspector general. Sgt. 1st Class Andrew Porch / U.S. Army FORT MEADE, Md. — Lt. Gen. Leslie Smith faced the pivotal moment of his life as a 5-year-old child growing up in Atlanta.

His father had fallen ill with liver disease. At the time, Calvin Smith had worked as a teacher and his illness took a heavy toll on the Smith family. He eventually passed away, leaving behind Smith’s pregnant mother, Lillie, and their two children. In the years that followed, Leslie would learn the importance of community and having a nucleus of support for him and his siblings.

To shield themselves from racial prejudice during the civil rights era, African Americans often would need to depend on one another, Smith said. Community programs including the Boys and Girls Clubs, Boy Scouts and local churches would provide much-needed safe havens for black children in the American South.

Smith came of age during tumultuous times in the 1960s and 1970s as race relations remained tense in parts of Atlanta. Much of the South still rocked with political turmoil and violence. Smith learned the value of hard work DOESthen, YOURknowledge that would eventually

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Delta jewel

The roots of Smith’s ascension in the Army can be traced(803)400648-miles2311 west of Atlanta, to Mound Bayou, Mississippi, a small farming community entrenched deep in the Mississippi delta.

Founded in 1887 by free slaves on swampland just east of the Mississippi River, the town is the nation’s oldest predominantly black settlement.

Nicknamed the “Jewel of the Delta,” the working class city fostered ample socio-economic opportunities for the Smiths and other hardworking African Americans. The town had defied the odds, forming a prosperous black community at the height of racial segregation in the Deep South.

Mose and Rosetta Smith didn’t have much money or education. The Smiths made a modest living growing corn, sweet potatoes and soybeans on their 40-acre farm in Mound Bayou. They raised their 10 children: Smith’s father and his uncles and aunts – on the belief that hard work made career aspirations limitless.

Their grandparents’ worldviews left a lasting impression on Smith and his brothers and sister.

“They didn’t have a lot of money,” said Smith’s older sister, Lola Burse. “But what they had was a burning desire for their children to do well.”

Eventually, one of the Smith’s sons, Calvin, moved his family out of Mound Bayou, to pursue opportunities in the metropolitan sprawl of Atlanta. There Calvin and Lillie planned to raise their children.

Giving back

The lessons Smith learned as a youth haven’t left him. Now in a senior leadership role under Secretary of the Army Mark Esper, Smith notes the importance of providing young students of all backgrounds the opportunities afforded to him.

Despite a very busy calendar, he still makes time for speaking engagements with students and cadets. He recently mentored African-American high school students at the annual Black Engineer conference in Washington earlier this month. He uses his own career to show students an example of what they can achieve by embracing the pursuit of excellence and commitment to selfless service.

At his promotion ceremony to lieutenant general a year ago, Smith’s mother Lillie and his wife, Vanedra, pinned on his new rank at Fort McNair, in Washington, D.C. Smith considers it an honor to have his family’s support during promotions and other special events. He also preaches the value of community and the important role that leaders play in communicating with youth about opportunities for military service.

“He’s never forgotten about our family’s beginnings in a very small town in Mississippi,” Burse said. “And that nucleus of family support and strong belief in God.”

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