by Jess Clackum
U.S. Army veteran Darisse Bowden Smith's family always encouraged her to live her dreams. Her mother, a legal secretary and her father, a lawyer and Circuit Court Judge were incredibly supportive of her endeavors and empowered her to live her dreams. Her older brother Sean would often say, "Don't let anyone tell you that you can't do something because you're a girl."
And she didn't.
Smith applied for West Point but wanted a more well-rounded college experience so she chose Davidson College, her dream school and attended on an Army ROTC scholarship. She wanted to fly and the Army would not only teach her to do it but they would pay her as well. As she says, "I wanted something adventurous and challenging and it certainly was!"
After graduation with a B.S. in English, Smith attended flight school and completed the OH-58D Kiowa Warrior Helicopter Aircraft Qualification Course. Flight training challenged her in ways she had never imagined and from the experience she gained enormous courage and confidence.
"Learning to fly including learning how to fire rockets, Hellfire missiles and Hydra rockets from my helicopter and all my other experiences in aviation taught me that I was capable of more than I ever imagined. I also have a lifetime of bad ass points because of what I got to do in the Army. I also developed a love for the freedom of flying. It is an environment where you are responsible for your own well-being yet you aren't constrained by roads or trails. You get a view of the world that only a privileged few get and I was always sad to come down to the ground."
Smith served with the 10th Mountain Division in Fort Drum, New York and deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom for a year at Camp Zaytun in Irbil where she served as liaison officer to the Republic of Korea Army and the Iraqi Kurds.
During her time as a Kiowa Warrior pilot, Smith experienced a variety of leadership positions including Executive Officer of a flight operations company at Fort Rucker, Alabama, platoon leader in charge of four aircraft and 20 personnel, and aviation logistics and civil affairs liaison officer to the South Korean Army. After seven years of service, the back injuries she suffered as as a result improper seating ergonomics and aircraft vibrations grew to be too painful and she left the Army on a medical discharge. She underwent a number of surgeries and tried to remain active but it was difficult. Through it all, Smith does not regret her experiences.
"I was told by a doctor, 'All KW pilots develop bad backs' so unfortunately some of my life was negatively impacted by a severe lower back injury. I have chronic intractable pain, though the past few years it has been very well managed. Even with the pain, I wouldn't change a thing because I learned so much about myself, the world, physics, freedom and leadership because of my unique experience."
She reflects upon the challenge of being one of a very few women pilots.
"Near the end of my time actively flying in a line unit, I was in one of my last pilots meetings, a time where anyone in the battalion who flew got together to learn, quiz each other and review anyone's mistakes. It was a good-natured, ball bustin' grill session. I had been in the unit for over a year but this was the first time I noticed that I was the only woman in the room. I thought this was cool because I realized that I was as a part of the unit as any man, for the most part. I could never have felt that comfortable in a very macho environment (scout pilots are notoriously full of testosterone, even the girls) without the flight routes already paved for me by the WASP and every other woman who came before me in aviation.
In Flight School, I instantly noticed the lack of women in the branch--out of approximately 2000 students, maybe 20 were female. Even fewer women go into the Attack/Cav community though frankly I would rather be armed in combat than not. Gender inequality still exists, no doubt and I faced it on a daily basis. Hopefully, I handled it in a way that advanced the opportunities for the women to follow me."
Smith, a devoted wife and mother, spends her time taking care of her family and working as a comedian, freelance writer and motivational speaker. She is a tireless advocate for individuals who suffer chronic pain and for injured veterans. Smith was featured in a full-length documentary, Comedy Warriors: Healing Through Humor, a film featuring five injured veterans (Smith along with Stephen Rice, Rob Jones, Bobby Henline and Joe Kashnow) who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, who are embarking on a the challenging arena of standup comedy. The veterans learn to hone their talents from some of the best comedy talent in the business including Zach Galifianakis, Bob Saget, B.J. Novak and Lewis Black.
Those behind the documentary write, "The Comedy Warriors share poignant stories about their injuries, and what their lives have been like post-injury. We’ll see how humor plays an important role in their rehabilitation and healing. This film gives a glimpse into the world of the injured veteran and offers them hope for overcoming the trauma of their experiences. The key becomes finding that perspective and a bigger picture view of their situation, which ultimately becomes the basis of what there is to laugh about."
We salute Captain Smith for her service to our nation, her courage in the face of adversity, and for all she has done to help America's wounded warriors!