Jamaican Janice Smith makes history as Navy Commander

Jamaican Janice Smith makes history as Navy Commander
Commander Janice Smith (at center) receives salute

Jamaican Janice Smith makes history as Navy Commander

When Janice Smith arrived in Miami from Jamaica in 1988 she had no idea she would make history as the first Jamaican-American and second black woman to become a commander in the U.S. Navy.

After joining her mother Gloria and brothers in South Miami and attending Miami-Dade College, she joined the Navy in August 1989 to expand her educational opportunities.

“My Grandmother Iris taught me the importance of school and I was determined to complete college,” said Smith in an interview with Caribbean National Weekly. “Coming from a single parent family in Linstead, Jamaica, with little resources for college I seized the opportunity.”

Smith started out as a cook onboard the USS YOSEMITE AD-19, stationed in Mayport, Florida, and went on to complete a BSc at Saint Leo University and an MSc at Troy State University, before applying for the Officer’s Candidate Program in 1997. After several prestigious appointments, Smith now commands a crew of over 300 sailors as Commanding Officer of missile destroyer USS Oscar Austin. She is responsible for ensuring her crew is “trained in the ship’s assigned warfare areas, that the ship is certified to execute assigned missions and [that] we return every sailor home safely to their friends and family.”

As commander, Smith particularly takes her responsibility for the lives of the men and women she oversees as her greatest challenge.

“The responsibility of leading and ensuring the safety of over 300 sailors is tremendous,” says Smith. “My actions or inactions impact not just the sailors onboard, but by extension each sailor’s family members and friends.  I want to get it right. I have to get it right because the lives of young men and women are at stake if I don’t.”

The responsibility to the families is particularly significant for her as a wife to husband to Julius Lyles and mother to Alexander 13, and Xavier, 8. Being away from home between one week to nine months at a time, Smith says she is grateful to Lyles for his support, as “[it] would be impossible without a spouse who understands and willing to fill the gaps when I am away missing a lot of day-to-day opportunities to influence our children lives.”

Smith is also particular proud of her fellow Caribbean-American women who have risen through the naval ranks, including many serving under her leadership on the U.S. Oscar Austin. “Another Jamaican colleague recently made Captain and is Director of Contracting Department for Navy Supply Fleet Logistic Center in Yokosuka, Japan.”

Despite the challenges, Smith recommends a Navy career for other women.

“Whether serving 2 or 20 years it provides good education benefits, opportunity to travel and lead a young, smart and educated work force,” says Smith. “The U.S. Navy has done a great job of implementing policies to ensure all sailors have equal opportunity to excel. I’m very grateful to the courageous woman who paved the way for myself and other young women in today’s Navy.”

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