KINGSTON, Jamaica – Among the thousands of Jamaican immigrants that move to the United States and maintain the standard of excellence is Navy Captian Janice Smith who recently became the first African-American woman to head the Military Sealift Command Atlantic (MSCLANT).
She assumed leadership of MSCLANT during a change of command ceremony held at Naval Station Norfolk on Thursday, March 19. The promotion places Smith in control of the entire Atlantic regarding the execution of strategic sealift missions, the transportation and maintenance of military equipment, as well as logistics coordination.
Smith is also one of only two active-duty African American women within the US Navy Surface Warfare Community who are screened for Major Command.
Janice Smith, like many Jamaican-Americans, came from humble beginnings. As a child in Jamaica, she was raised by her late grandmother, Iris Plummer, who sold goods in Linstead Market to make ends meet. Her mother had left Jamaica in search of a better life for her family.
Smith lived in Morris Hall, not very far from Bog Walk in St. Catherine. She attended the Bob Walk Secondary School, now Enid Bennett High in St. Catherine.
After graduating from high school, she migrated to Florida in 1988, joining her mother Gloria and brothers in South Miami.
She was attending Miami-Dade College when she joined the navy in 1989 to expand her educational opportunities.
In a 2016 interview with Caribbean National Weekly, Smith recalled a valuable lesson taught by her grandmother, which impacted her decision. “My Grandmother Iris taught me the importance of school and I was determined to complete college,” said Smith. “Coming from a single-parent family in Linstead, Jamaica, with little resources for college, I seized the opportunity.”
Smith started out as a cook onboard the USS YOSEMITE AD-19, stationed in Mayport, Florida, and went on to complete a BSc at Saint Leo University and an MSc at Troy State University, before applying for the Officer’s Candidate Program in 1997.
In 2016, she created history when she became the first Jamaican-American and second black woman to become a commander in the U.S. Navy. At that time, she assumed leadership of the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Oscar Austin (DDG 79).
As a trailblazer in her field, her demanding job has not been without sacrifices. The wife and mother of two has been candid about the strain of navy life on her family. Being away from home between one week to nine months at a time, Smith says she is grateful to her husband, Julius Lyles for his support, as “[it] would be impossible without a spouse who understands and willing to fill the gaps when I am away missing a lot of day-to-day opportunities to influence our children lives.”
Despite the challenges, Smith recommends a Navy career for other women.
“Whether serving 2 or 20 years it provides good education benefits, opportunity to travel and lead a young, smart and educated workforce,” says Smith. “The U.S. Navy has done a great job of implementing policies to ensure all sailors have equal opportunity to excel. I’m very grateful to the courageous woman who paved the way for myself and other young women in today’s Navy.”
Although she has now lived in the United States for the majority of her adult life, Smith still remains close to Jamaica. Up to last year, she was on the island visiting relatives. She also remains in contact with her alma mater – Enid Bennett High.