When Cornelia Smith joined the military, her family was critical of her choice. Her brother was in the service, but her mother believed that she, as a woman, should settle down, get married and have children. That was not the life Smith had in mind. She wanted to make a difference for women and hopefully open doors for more women down the road. Smith believes that in life, it is essential to pursue something you are good at and enjoy doing.
Smith joined the Army in 1969, serving on active duty until 1972. In 1973, she joined the Reserve and returned to active duty the following year. Smith attended signal school in Fort Gordon, Georgia, and was among the first group of women to graduate from military police school.
Smith served as a recruiter in the Reserve. Known by her nickname, “Sarge,” she said she believes the military taught her the importance of perseverance and good leadership. In her view, a leader should never ask anyone to do something they are not willing to do themselves.
While stationed at Fort Gordon in 1974, she walked past a home that was on fire. Her instincts kicked in and she ran into the home and saved the family. She did not receive any awards for her courage, but she said, “When the fire chief and family said thank you, that was more rewarding than any medal.”
In 1975, Smith went to drill sergeant school. Unfortunately, an injury led to a medical discharge in 1976.
Smith resides at the Community Living Center at the Northern Arizona Veterans Affairs Health Care System and has been there since 2016. She tries to attend all of the events and activities that the Veterans Affairs offers and encourages her fellow Veterans to do the same. Smith is interested in art and participates in free art classes for Veterans. She is legally blind in her left eye, has some hearing loss and has multiple sclerosis, but that has not slowed her down. Smith participates in the National Creative Arts Festival each year and has placed first and second.
“Sarge never ceases to amaze both Veterans and staff with her beautiful artwork,” said Hayley Park, music therapist in recreation therapy for the Northern Arizona Veterans Affairs Health Care System. “She makes items like jewelry and leather purses, and does paintings and drawings. Sarge also enjoys playing bingo and always has an interesting story or funny joke to tell.”
Smith is an advocate for women Veterans and she loves sharing military stories and being a good listener.
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Graphic artist: Grace Yang