For many individuals, high school involved a stressful transition to what feels like adulthood; a time when people are thinking about the future and embarking on new adventures in college or work. For Jonah Smith, he was interested in the military.
“I grew up all throughout my childhood with the military as something that I had my mind on,” Smith, sergeant in the U.S. Marines and freshman nursing major, said. “In high school, I ran cross country and track to prepare for it.”
When Smith graduated high school in 2015, he had to wait a year to join the military to complete lengthy and thorough physical evaluations. In August 2016, he went to boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, graduating in November that year. He then traveled to North Carolina to complete infantry school.
“That’s essentially where you get trained up in any specialty,” Smith said. “My specialty was in anti-tank, and so, starting out, I shot javelins and worked the saber system.”
Smith said the javelin is a man-portable missile, which allows for it to be carried by troops on the ground and locks onto targets via heat signatures. The saber system is typically mounted on a vehicle due its weight but generally serves the same purpose as the javelin.
“In an infantry tank unit, anti-tank missile gunners are the experts when it comes to identifying tanks and other technical vehicles as well as engaging them,” Smith said. “I only worked in this speciality for about a month before going over to the scout sniper platoon.”
After graduating, Smith showed up to his first unit, the First Battalion Eighth Marines at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. Shortly after his arrival, he noticed his unit was running a screener — series of physical, mental and written tests — for their scout sniper platoon.
“That was something that interested me because I wasn’t really enthusiastic about the job I had been randomly assigned going through the school of infantry,” Smith said. “So, that was my opportunity to go in the direction that I wanted.”
Smith said the screener was an “incredibly difficult” two-week indoctrination process designed to test the Marines’ abilities to perform under stressful conditions. The process started with 20 Marines and ended with three, Smith included in the passing group. He spent a year as a professionally instructed gunman (PIG) preparing for sniper school.
“He was the guy who you knew was going places,” James Kamp, his boss at the time and current MBA student at MIT Sloan, said. “Jonah elevated those around him with his work ethic and his humble approach.”
In the year he waited for sniper school, he was deployed to Japan. Once he returned to the states, he was told he’d attend sniper school, which Smith said has the highest rate of attrition in the Marine Corps.
“Jonah was the first of two of our peer group to go to sniper school and knocked it out of the park,” Xavier Johnson, who served in the Marine Corps with Smith, said. “He got high shooter out of his class and was second best in the class when it came to stalking.”
Smith said the school evaluated many different aspects: marksmanship, stalking, mission execution and planning. In August 2018, Smith graduated with an overall 90% hit rate on all of the evaluations he faced.
“Since day one, he was always making things look like they were second nature to him,” Johnson said.
Smith rejoined with his platoon as a hunter of gunman. He was given his own team and deployed to Morón Air Base in Spain located just southeast of Seville. They were deployed as a Special Purpose Marine Task Force for a crisis response force to Africa. This type of job was designed after the Benghazi incident, which was a secret attack on the U.S. embassy after emails leaked its location, resulting in the deaths of several American diplomats.
During this deployment, Smith went to Uganda where he experienced the highlight of his military career.
“I actually felt like I was making a really big impact there,” Smith said. “On Thursdays, the entire community would come out and we would play soccer with whoever wanted to play.”
After his deployment in 2019, Smith was offered a prestigious position in the Marine Special Operations Command but decided to turn it down to pursue a college education offered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill.
The GI Bill has allowed many veterans to attend college and pursue higher degrees by greatly reducing the cost. It’s opened the doors for individuals who may not have been able to attend college otherwise.
“If it weren’t for the GI Bill, I would have had to take out loans and work a considerable amount,” Smith said.
Now, Smith is pursuing a degree in nursing — one of JMU’s more difficult majors — and he said he’s ready for the challenging courses that are yet to come. He said certain classes like chemistry have been difficult to learn online, but this is something that Smith’s friends are confident he can overcome.
“Jonah is going to thrive at JMU because he has a tremendous work ethic and has been preparing himself by doing online college for months before he was even out of the military,” Johnson said.
Smith said being a freshman at JMU during the COVID-19 pandemic has been a testing experience and especially difficult. Between online classes and a lack of campus activities, he described the experience as “isolating.”
“You can’t do a lot of the things that you would normally do in a college town, and so that’s really put a damper on things,” Smith said.
Even with current circumstances, Isaac Swofford, one of Smith’s friends from the Marines, is confident in his ability to get the job done.
Swofford recalled a time when he was on a training mission and Jonah saved his life. They were on the back of a tank, the tank stopped and Swofford thought it was time to get off; Smith grabbed Swofford immediately, knowing that the tank was about to reverse and would’ve crushed him.
“Jonah’s forethought and due diligence beforehand to understand all aspects of the plan is a reason I am alive and why he will succeed at JMU,” Swofford said.
Smith said he has a tough road ahead because COVID-19 will still be a factor next semester, and the nursing program won’t get easier. But with the tools he’s developed and the passion for his degree, people close to Smith aren’t worried about his success.
“With nursing, I feel like it will be a way of continuing my service in the community in a very tangible way,” Smith said. “That’s something that really interests me and I don’t think I would have had that direction at 18.”
Contact Will Roberts at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.