The heroes among us: Retired Navy E-9 follows father's footsteps

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Cortney Paxton
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs
Editor's note: This is part one of a series highlighting the experiences of past military service members.

They say "Once a Sailor, always a Sailor," and after more than 30 years in the Navy, Command Master Chief (ret.) Ashley Smith couldn't agree more.

"I always tell people, you can't be a Sailor if it's not in your soul," Smith said. "I believed in [the Navy] and there was nothing else I wanted to do."

Now, six years into retirement, Smith still serves his country, but in a different way - wearing civilian clothes. Smith is currently a community readiness consultant for the Airman and Family Readiness Center here. He helps Airmen and their families work through financial and budget issues, transitions, relocations and many other aspects of life.

He joined the Navy in 1975 with absolutely no career aspirations or thoughts of staying in. His reason to join was slightly impacted by his father who was a naval aviation machinist during World War II, but he joined and ultimately "didn't know why or how," he said.

"I never planned on staying because this is my home; I was born and raised here," Smith said. "All I ever wanted to do was come back here. I tell everyone all of the time, I just kind of fumbled a can down the road for 32 years and then it was time to go home."

Smith started his naval career as a ship fitter, or a welder. As a Sailor, he was assigned to a specific ship for five years, then accomplished a shore duty for two or three years and go back to a ship. This rotating schedule took him to various locations throughout the world including Scotland, Guam, Japan and California; and allowed him to travel on destroyers, repair ships and an aircraft carrier.

"I spent about 20 of the 32 years at sea," he said. "I think it was 10 or 12 deployments. The longest I spent at sea, never going into a port, was 117 days. The first 24 hours was always hard because you're leaving your family; they come see you at the pier and wave when you pull away. But after the first day, you're good - you forget about it and move on."

The moments Smith cherished the most while at sea were the times he was the conning officer. The conning officer is the person who has their hands on the ship's helm (or steering wheel) and is ultimately in charge of driving the ship. They stand in the pilot house, crank the commands, look at the radar and know everything that's going on with the ship.

His many days aboard a ship at sea came with almost as many sacrifices including missed birthdays and anniversaries, but his dedication to his country always came first. He rose to the top of the enlisted structure and soon after was dedicated to making the Navy a better service for his country.

"In 1999, I was an E-9; a master chief and I decided that the Navy wasn't necessarily going along the way I thought they should," he said. "People always told me 'if you want to make a difference, instead of just talking about it you need to stand up and do something,' so I joined the Navy's command master chief program. You get to go to a ship and you're the senior enlisted leader on [it]. You can make an impact - you can't make changes but you can effect changes like you always wanted to growing up."

Smith gained an enormous amount of responsibility when he was named the command master chief for the Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier. He was devoted to leading by example and often spent time away from his family to attend to his leadership duties.

Looking back at his more than 30 years spent in the Navy, there wasn't one thing Smith would take back or do over, but there is one thing he will remember forever - his time spent on the USS Stethem, a destroyer.

The USS Stethem is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer based out of Yokosuka, Japan, named after Petty Officer 2nd Class Robert Dean Stethem, a steelworker. According to, Stethem was returning from an assignment in the Middle East in 1985 when his flight was hijacked. As a member of the U.S. military, he was targeted out of other hostages and was beaten and tortured before the hijackers ultimately shot him and left him on the airport tarmac.

"Everyone in that family had served - even his mom," Smith said. "His brother actually came back and retired on the ship since it was Robbi's ship ... Ken Stethem was his name, and he was a SEAL ... he came back and I talked to him about his brother and learned more about Robbi - the namesake of the ship. We used to have some really great talks."

Smith retired with 32 years of service in the Navy as well as various medals and decorations including the Navy Meritorious Service Medal, Navy Achievement Medal, Navy Good Conduct Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, Marksmanship Ribbon and many others. He ultimately enjoyed his time in the service and retired with as much love and commitment to his country as he had when he joined.

"It was more fun than the law should allow," he said. "I loved it."