Soldiers assigned to the U.S. Army’s 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment train against almost a dozen units a year as the opposing force at the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.
For one officer, 1st Lt. Brad Smith, this rotation’s unit, the Idaho Army National Guard’s 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team, looks extremely familiar. Smith enlisted into the Idaho Army National Guard in 2009 when he was 19.
“Joining the National Guard demanded that I be responsible for my actions and it ended up showing me that there’s a lot of opportunities if you’re willing to put in the work to obtain those opportunities,” Smith said.
Smith’s service in the Idaho Army National Guard helped lead him from Bonners Ferry, a small town in Northern Idaho, to one of the nation’s top public universities, the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
“I wanted to support and defend the Constitution,” Smith said. “There was a huge patriotic aspect of me enlisting, but education benefits were the big thing I was looking for.”
Smith grew up hauling water and hay on a small farm. He spent his days taking care of horses, dogs, goats and other farm animals. Education wasn’t a priority in his house, as his mother didn’t finish high school and his father barely graduated himself.
Smith said the last formal education he had growing up was in fourth and fifth grade. His parents told him to get his GED when he was 16. While he was an avid reader, he didn’t do much school work in between.
He enrolled at North Idaho College, a community college in Coeur d’Alene, after realizing most of the jobs he was interested in required higher education. While at North Idaho College, Smith enlisted into the Idaho Army National Guard as a heavy equipment operator in the 126th Engineer Support Company, headquartered in Moscow.
His company commander, Capt. Steve Keeton, instructed a military science course at North Idaho College and encouraged Smith to enroll into his class. During one class Keeton, now a major, discussed military officers and how to become one through Officer Candidate School, ROTC or through West Point.
After class, Smith approached Keeton and asked him if he could help get him into West Point.
“I said ‘yes,'” said Keeton. “I told him it would take some work on both our parts, but yes.”
While at North Idaho College, Smith said he worked hard to catch up to his peers academically and retook college entrance exams. Based on part due to Keeton’s recommendation, he was admitted to the United States Military Academy Preparatory School in 2011.
“Brad was extremely determined,” Keeton said. “He put in the work it took to get accepted.”
Prepping for the Academy
The preparatory school is located on West Point’s campus with the goal to help prepare candidates for West Point. Each year, roughly 250 high school students and enlisted Active Duty, National Guard and Reserve Soldiers are selected to attend the school in hopes of gaining admission to West Point.
Smith said he knew about West Point growing up from a friend who looked into applying. While it interested him, it seemed unattainable to him due to his lack of formal education. He doesn’t think he’d have been accepted to the prep academy without Keeton’s recommendation.
“Without his recommendation, I never would have gotten in,” he said.
Smith spent the year on active duty orders studying math and English to prepare for the academy’s rigorous engineering curriculum. He also did physical fitness training every morning trained with the Sandhurst Military Skills Competition team. At the end of the 10-month program, he was accepted to West Point. Only 85 National Guard or Reserve Soldiers are accepted into the academy each year.
Duty, honor, country
“West Point truly upholds its reputation,” Smith said. “The school’s mission is to build leaders of character committed to the values of duty, honor and country and they hold to that tradition very well.”
At 24, Smith said that listening to 19-year-old upperclassmen was challenging at times but he went through every day with the end goal in mind: to become a commissioned officer in the United States Army committed to the values of duty, honor and country.
U.S. News & World Report consistently ranks West Point as the nation’s top public school and toward the top of several other categories. The school’s curriculum focuses heavily on math, science and engineering. In addition, cadets must compete in an intramural, club or intercollegiate sport each semester.
Smith said every class was intense as he earned a bachelor’s degree while majoring in Chinese and studying nuclear engineering. In between summers, Smith had the chance to attend air assault school, train alongside special force Soldiers.
Full spectrum of operations
After graduating West Point, Smith commissioned and attended Infantry Basic Officer Course at Fort Benning, Ga., and airborne school before reporting to his first duty station with the 11th ACR at Fort Irwin in 2017.
The 11th ACR provides near-peer opposing forces to rotational units at the National Training Center, one of the Army’s four combat training centers. Each year almost a dozen brigades train at the NTC to prepare for combat operations under the most realistic conditions the Army can provide.
While at Fort Irwin, Smith has served as a platoon leader, company executive officer and an assistant battalion logistics officer. He estimates half of his platoon leader time was spent fighting against U.S. Soldiers as a conventional enemy force in armored vehicles and the other half in civilian clothes fighting as local guerrilla warfighters.
“As a platoon leader, I got to see the full spectrum of the battlefield,” he said. “I understand at a high level how to fight as a platoon leader or company commander. I really understand what maneuver is and how to use the assets we have assigned to us.”
Smith is responsible for managing more than $30 million of equipment and 66 Soldiers as a company executive officer.
“No matter the position, servant leadership is the key,” Smith said. “It’s not about telling Soldiers to do something, but actually making sure that you’re taking care of them.”
Smith credits the years he spent as an enlisted Soldier with helping him understand how to mentor his Soldiers.
“I’m constantly talking to my Soldiers and letting them know if they want to develop themselves and push themselves, they can do anything,” Smith said. “Whether that Soldier has a GED or comes from one of the best-educated families ever, they can use the assets of the Army to have an amazing career.”
Ready to fight
Smith wants to attend special forces selection later this year, but until then he’s focused on preparing units for war, including the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team.
“I care about the 116th CBCT being successful,” he said. “I care about them getting the best training that they can in the event they deploy overseas. I’ve trained against my West Point classmates during rotations and have seen them deploy overseas almost immediately. My Soldiers want to make it hard so when they get to combat, they are ready to go and take the fight to the enemy.”
Smith said National Guard units bring a lot to the table during NTC rotations.
“They don’t just have the training the Army provides them,” Smith said. “They have life experiences from their civilian careers and education. They bring a full spectrum of knowledge and resourcefulness with them.”