Maj. Gen. Tammy Smith displays a UO flag in Afghanistan
If it were up to Major General Tammy Smith, BS ’86, she’d stay in the army forever. Her fundamental love for the organization is unequivocal and clear-cut; she describes sliding past the mandatory retirement date as being “fortunate to have the opportunity to serve longer.”
Smith’s intrinsic passion for the army, however, didn’t begin with military dreams. Rather, it began with began with her value system, a twist of fate, and the small town of Oakland, Oregon, and had to overcome a conflict between love and laws to flourish.
Upon graduating high school, Smith—who could not afford to pay for college and so decided to become an agricultural journalist instead—was selected by the Oregon Future Farmers of America (FFA) chapter to be its state reporter. While reading her FFA magazine she saw a Reserve Army Training Corps (ROTC) advertisement captioned “Can’t afford college? Let the army show you how,” so she applied for and received an ROTC scholarship, and shortly after found herself enrolled at the University of Oregon.
“As a first generation college student, I didn’t come from a college family,” Smith said. “There is an immense difference between capability and preparedness; I was capable—but I wasn’t prepared.”
Despite struggling with coursework, Smith excelled when it came to leadership. She realized her core values were in perfect alignment with army values, and dedicated herself to improving her capabilities.
She observed, “I wanted to be more than Oakland, Oregon, but now it is my touchstone for the values I have. Integrity, selfless service, honor, and the element of courage—both personal and moral—I found are both small town and Oregon values.”
Both Smith’s personal and moral courage were tested greatly during her time as an ROTC cadet. She was one of only two women in her ROTC class at a time just two years after the first female cadets had graduated from West Point. Additionally, Smith knew she was gay, at a time when there was great tension between the ROTC program and the university due to the Department of Defense’s harsh anti-gay legislation and ban on homosexual servicemen and women. This meant Smith was at risk of losing her scholarship at any time—regardless of her courage and dedication and even though the Department of Defense was out of compliance with the university’s non-discrimination policy—simply because of who she was.
“The department created the statement on paper where we had to explicitly state what our sexual orientation was,” she said. “It was not a welcoming time, and people weren’t accepting towards LGBT people. My scholarship was the only way for me to stay in college, so I knew I couldn’t be discovered. It was an economic choice for me—I had to put myself second.”
Despite the tension between her academic and private life, Smith built on her strong leadership foundation by spending extra hours working outside the classroom to build up her skillset.
“One of the character traits I have is that I’m willing to do the hard work that’s necessary to be prepared and to be an expert,” said Smith. “The difference between being a woman in a male-dominated environment is I can’t slide through anything. It is incumbent on me that if I’m unfamiliar with what I’m doing I’ll educate myself and practice relentlessly. I’m not afraid to do more to prepare myself. I’ve consistently done this to make myself credible.”
Smith graduated on time with a history degree, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Quartermaster Corps upon graduation. She then went on to earn master’s degrees in management with a focus on organizational leadership from Webster University, and in strategic studies from the Army War College. Smith began active duty in Panama, then commanded the Logistic Support Detachment in Camino De La Paz, Costa Rica.
“My favorite assignment goes back to being a lieutenant in Costa Rica with a task force of engineers, because it had lasting impact that we could see,” said Smith. “Before having built bridges, during the rainy season these remote areas would be cut off. Twenty-five years later, we went back to the peninsula to find they had built new bridges. Now there are modern bridges in place and paved roads. The work we did started this, and it and eventually led to a major infrastructure change.”
She went to work at the Pentagon in 2004, and that same year met Tracey Hepner while on a cruise to the Caribbean. As their relationship became more serious, and as she moved up through the ranks, Smith became increasingly aware of the gravity of the situation in the military, knowing that if she were to be discovered it would result in an automatic discharge.
“From being an ROTC cadet to first being commissioned in the military, with time it gets increasingly risky,” Smith said. “The risk becomes more of what you have to lose personally. Your peer group becomes smaller with promotions in ranks, and when you think about how few individuals around you might be LGBT friendly—as a senior officer you’re less willing to socialize. It becomes more isolating, because to avoid conversations about your personal life you inevitably avoid socializing with peers.”
Finally, in 2009, the weight became too much for Smith to bear. She made the difficult decision to retire from the military, after almost 25 years of service—a quarter century spent hiding her life under Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.
“The hardest part is hiding your family,” she said. “In my heart I knew I wasn’t doing anything wrong, and there was nothing wrong with me that would prevent me from serving my country. But there was a disconnect. Over time America changed, and became more accepting and understanding. But as America was changing, my army wasn’t changing. I lost hope.”
Smith was heartbroken by the loss of her military career, and felt as though there was much more she could have accomplished. But, at a 2010 hearing, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen made a statement that illuminated a world of hope for Smith, and many other LGBT servicemen and women.
“No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens,” said Mullen.
Smith retracted her retirement.
“It resolved my internal dissonance,” she said. “A little hope can go a long way.”
On September 20, 2011, Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was repealed. As part of the terms of her retirement retraction, her boss put her name in for promotion. Smith was deployed in Afghanistan at the time, but upon her return she and Tracey got married. On August 10, 2012, Tammy Smith was promoted to brigadier general, and became the first openly gay general officer to serve in the U.S. military since the ban was repealed.
“One of the things that has been a privilege, is with the visibility of my promotion I have met a lot of people who were harmed by their discharge and felt like they let down their service,” she said. “Now, I have this great privilege to have healing conversations, and tell them that their service was just as valuable.”
Additionally, Smith became the first female flag officer from Oregon’s 100-year-old ROTC program. The UO’s ROTC has produced more general officers than any other nonmilitary university in the country; now a major general and serving as the deputy commanding general of sustainment in the Eighth Army in South Korea—the first female general officer to hold a headquarters-level position in the Eighth Army—Smith is the 47th general officer produced by the UO's ROTC program.
“The current ROTC program at the UO is amazing,” she said. “The increased enrollment is very telling of how many people go to the UO specifically for the strength in the program and its high profile, and we see that based on the increased numbers going in the military afterwards. Oregon doesn’t have an army base and we’re not a military state, so the program gives people a place to be connected, making Oregon’s ROTC particularly impressive.”
No matter where in the world she is serving, Smith follows the UO and is proud to be a Duck fan. When the UO played Auburn in the 2011 BCS National Championship game, a friend sent a box filled with hundreds of duck lips to her in Afghanistan to give to fellow soldiers while watching the game. They didn’t arrive in time for kickoff, but when they did show up she gave them to hospitalized children, who used them for respiratory therapy. One day her friends sent her a UO flag; while she and some fellow soldiers were driving, she stopped take a photo with the flag, and found one of the soldiers with her was from Eugene.
“What’s cool about Oregon is when you circle back and you run into someone who is a former Duck, it’s like you’re instant friends,” she said. “We were both so excited, and we took the photo holding the flag, together.”
Smith now feels she is “living a charmed life,” leading wholeheartedly as the bridging of her values and military value system are in alignment.
“I feel like I’m on borrowed time being a general,” she said. “The army trusted me to lead, and it feels too good to be true. The goal for me is to continue to always try to improve my leadership and do the best work for the soldiers I have responsibility for.”
Tammy Smith is a Bronze Star recipient, holds the Legion of Merit Medal, Meritorious Service Medals (two oak leaf clusters), Army Commendation Medals (four oak leaf clusters), Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Combat Action Badge, Senior Parachutist Badge, Parachute Rigger Badge, and the Army Staff Badge.
- by UO student Mina Naderpoor