What ‘Right’ Looks Like
Alumnus Lt. Gen. Leslie Smith is Highest-Ranking Military Official in University History
Lt. Gen. Leslie C. Smith (‘85) is charged with a mission unimaginable to many of us.
As the 66th Inspector General of the U.S. Army, Smith works for the Secretary of the Army and is tasked with the enhancement of total readiness for 1.2 million Army soldiers and civilians stationed around the world. He’s the highest-ranking military official Georgia Southern has ever produced. Out of more than 6,000 second lieutenants commissioned in 1983, Smith is one of only 52 who have reached the rank of general.
Smith’s ascent to Army leadership would have proven an improbable path for anyone. But considering the challenges he faced at a young age, and the humble beginnings from which he emerged, the achievement is even more remarkable.
When Smith was only five years old, his father, Calvin, a veteran of the Korean War, died suddenly. In his absence, Smith’s mother, Lillie, raised her three children on her own, and worked hard to create an environment where they could succeed. To hear Smith tell the story, however, it was all part of a plan — a higher calling in his life.
“I tell my kids all the time, you got to go through in order to get to what God wants you to do,” he said. “So while you’re going through it, you don’t understand. Why do you have to be the guy to go make the first step? Because you know the way is already paved for you to do it.”
For Smith, the way was paved by his family and his community, who expected great things from him, who invested in his life, and who taught him “what right looks like.”
Though his father wasn’t there to help him, Smith had the benefit of his father’s large family — 10 brothers and sisters. They kept him tethered to his father’s memory, and instilled a sense of pride in his heritage.
Calvin Smith was born and raised in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, which holds a special place in African-American history. Founded by former slaves in 1887, Mound Bayou was designed to be a selfreliant, autonomous, all-black community, populated by entrepreneurs who had a vision for progress. Renowned educator and intellectual Booker T. Washington praised it as a model of “thrift and self-government,” and former President Theodore Roosevelt called it “The Jewel of the Delta.”
Every summer, Smith traveled from his hometown of Atlanta to visit Mound Bayou and reconnect with his history. With every visit, the town and his family came to serve as the foundation upon which his character was built.
“We didn’t know as kids growing up the things that we needed to do,” said Smith. “But we knew that there were high expectations. Because from that family, those 10 brothers and sisters, one was the dean of Alcorn State University College of Mathematics. Another worked for FedEx and then became a postman. Another worked down on the farm. Another was a teacher in Memphis and her husband drove trucks. So there were high expectations that were there.”
A large part of his father’s legacy was military service, and several of Smith’s family members served in different branches of the military, including his brother and sister. Lola, who served in the Marine Corps for three years, led a charter elementary school and now is a teacher in Atlanta. His younger brother, Lawrence, served three years as an Army officer and now serves in the business field in Orlando.
Lt. Gen. Leslie C. Smith flanked by his wife, Venedra (left) and mother, Lillie (right).
Smith pursued the call to military service in high school, and joined the Junior ROTC program at Frederick Douglass High School in Atlanta. He later entered Georgia Southern’s newly reinstated ROTC program in 1981 on the Simultaneous Membership Program, which allowed him to become a second lieutenant in two years while serving in the Georgia Army National Guard.
At Georgia Southern, Smith found a mentor in Sgt. First Class William Saunders, who taught him what it meant to be a good soldier and to strive for excellence in any mission. As a young soldier in Vietnam, Saunders lost most of his platoon. Due to that experience, he focused on developing great officers to lead in the Army.
“We were focused on the mission because of him,” said Smith. “He told us, ‘You will be a Lieutenant if you’re going to be in my program…you have to be the best in the job. You have to be squared away. You have to exercise. You have to do what things you need to do because that’s what the nation needs you to do.’”
After graduation, Smith was assigned as a Chemical Officer, which drew jeers from his classmates. “They gave me a brochure and said, ‘Hey! You’ll be wearing your gas mask all day! Hahaha!” Leaning on the lessons he’d learned at Georgia Southern, however, Smith took the job seriously, and worked to be the best in his division.
By the summer of 2001, Smith had worked his way up to Commander of the 83rd Chemical Battalion, and reported to Fort Polk, Louisiana, to assume command. Just a few months later, on 9/11, all of his previous training was put to the test. After the terrorist attacks, Smith’s unit deployed soldiers to Iraq, Afghanistan, Jordan and other parts of the world every 90 days. And in the wake of the anthrax scares all over the country, his unit deployed to the Pentagon, where they set up bio-detection systems on all five corners of the building.
“It changed our way of life,” he said. “It changed the military way of life. I think it shook the foundation of the United States, and it really tested us to do what we needed to do.”
Smith spent the rest of his career in the Chemical Corps, serving on staff in the Army G-8, as the Deputy Division Chief and Chief of the NBC Branch for the Full Dimensional Protection Division. In 2005, he assumed command of the 3rd Chemical Brigade at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and later served as the G-3, 20th Support Command for CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and High-Yield Explosives), and the 25th Chief of Chemical and Commandant of the United States Army CBRN School.
He became the first Chemical Officer to command the 20th Support Command, and the first Chemical Officer to command the Maneuver Support Center at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. He was appointed Deputy Inspector General in 2015, and assumed the role of the Inspector General in February of 2018.
“People always say, ‘Well, what was your favorite assignment?’ I said, ‘All of them!’ I mean, some of them may have been harder, but they were good assignments because they helped prepare you for what you are going to do,” said Smith. “You know, your competence and commitment you get over time. Your character is what your family helps you develop, and all those things come together into developing an Army leader.”
No matter how far Smith has ascended in the Army ranks, he always makes time to invest in others. Even before his daughter Tori attended Georgia Southern and graduated in May, Smith would visit his alma mater at least once a year to speak to cadets, business students or anyone else he felt he could inspire. He’s hosted groups from the Boy Scouts and other organizations, and was recently added to the Boys and Girls Clubs of America Alumni Hall of Fame.
It’s the way he gives back to the people who helped him become who he is today.
“If you help somebody else, you think you’re helping them but you’re really helping yourself,” he said. “You’re not only helping yourself, but you’re helping your family and all those other people who come behind you — because investment in others is how you move forward.”
— Doy Cave
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed by Lt. Gen. Smith in this article are his personal views and do not necessarily represent the views of Department of Defense or its components.