Russell Smith, a 1988 graduate of Lassen High School found a place for himself in the U.S. Navy and has risen to the highest enlisted rank possible — Master Chief Petty Officer.
“I give advice and counsel,” to the senior admiral of the Navy, Smith said, “I have a bit of expertise and experience that he doesn’t share.”
Smith said the military, and the Navy, have a “two caste system” — enlisted men who only need to have a high school diploma and officers who require a college degree, so the enlisted men make up “a different workforce than you get in the officer corps. I provide advocacy and advice and counsel on what’s going on with the enlisted force.”
Smith said the Navy has an enlisted force of about 292,000 sailors and about 33,000 officers.
Smith said the Navy has been a great career for him. He graduated from Lassen High School in June 1988 and enlisted in the Navy that September.
“There were three of us from the class who left in September,” to enlist in the Navy, Smith said.
He began his Navy career on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise, an aircraft carrier. He said he didn’t especially like that job, so he trained to become a nuclear weapons technician.
When the Navy reduced the size of its nuclear arsenal, Smith lost his rating and had to find a new job, and he became an intelligence specialist.
“If you say spy work, that sounds like James Bond Hollywood stuff that’s not real,” Smith said, “but it’s people talking to others and gleaning information that’s helpful and useful.”
Career changes continued, and he worked with a SEAL team (“I was driving boats,” Smith said. “Please don’t say I was a member of a SEAL team.”) when he became a human-gathering intelligence specialist.
Smith explained there are SEALS, and then there are “critical enablers” who do the intelligence work, handle communications, drive boats, manage the guns, service the diving equipment, manage the aviation operations, their parachutes and things like that.
“SEALS know it’s not just the people who wear the trident, it’s a team effort,” Smith said, “and that’s where I cut my teeth in the Navy and where I found my home and where I’ve been most comfortable throughout my career” as a naval special warfare enabler.
But Smith still faced additional changes in his career. He had to make a choice to divorce himself from his technical specialty in order to focus on “people, policy and command execution to follow sort of a command leadership track,” and eventually become the “sole advocate for enlisted sailors in your command, and you work for the CO.”
Smith said those who do well on those tours may advance to serving higher ranking officers and ultimately, as he has, wind up working for “the four-star admiral who runs the Navy.”
But he added moving up to the top position requires a lot of luck because there aren’t that many spots, “and there’s a whole lot of super qualified, talented people. At some point everyone you talk to is qualified. It really comes down to personality and best fit.”
As you might expect, Smith believes the Navy is a great career for kids from Susanville.
He said 78 percent of those who enlist in the Navy do not stay past the 10th year of service., “and what we endeavor to do is provide a good foundation for a solid citizen and then turn them back to the nation. I think you find structure and discipline, a skill, some real world experience and hands-on doing rather than a continued, sterile experience in a classroom — not that there’s not a place for that — but I think it’s a healthy break between high school and college for many young men and women.”
He said those who go back to college after the age of 25 are more apt to complete college in four to five years.
Speaking strictly antidotally from his own observations, Smith said sailors from rural environments tend “to have a more independent sense of self and are more comfortable early on with leadership positions and things like that. That doesn’t mean anyone coming from anywhere doesn’t have the capability of rising to the occasion and succeeding.”