Maryland lawmaker returns with new perspective after Afghanistan deployment
By PAMELA WOOD | The Baltimore Sun | Published: November 24, 2019
BALTIMORE (Tribune News Service) — When state Sen. William C. Smith Jr. returned to BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport after a six-month deployment with the Navy to Afghanistan, he was most nervous about reuniting with his 18-month-old daughter, Jacqueline.
They’d been video-chatting while he was away, but would she remember her dad? At the airport, she came up to him and ran her hands over his hair and tugged his ears.
“She recognized me, so that was really great,” Smith said.
While Smith was gone, his daughter grew from “a baby baby” to a toddler who runs around and spills out a flurry of words in both English and Spanish.
The Maryland political world changed, as well: House of Delegates Speaker Michael E. Busch died and was replaced by Del. Adrienne A. Jones. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller announced he’s stepping down from his leadership position, to be replaced by Sen. Bill Ferguson. All are Democrats.
“This is a complete time warp, coming back,” said Smith, a Montgomery County Democrat.
Smith missed the last few days of the 2019 General Assembly session to start his first deployment. He landed back on U.S. soil in late October and is returning gradually to civilian and political life.
Smith told The Baltimore Sun he’s bringing new energy to his work as a lawmaker, fueled by perspectives gained working to protect a fragile government halfway across the world.
Smith, who holds the rank of lieutenant in the U.S. Navy Reserve, completed a rare deployment of an active-duty Maryland lawmaker. Republican Sen. J.B. Jennings missed time during the 2011 session for U.S. Air National Guard training in Georgia. Then-Del. Anthony Brown (now a Democratic congressman) was deployed to Iraq for 10 months in 2004.
While he was gone, Smith said he was buoyed by support from his Senate colleagues, who sent him off with prayers and mailed a steady stream of letters and packages to Afghanistan. The senators stuffed their boxes with local products and snacks, including Berger cookies and crab chips from the Baltimore delegation. Smith said he got a reputation on the base for getting the most care packages, which he shared with others. (“It made me a really popular person,” Smith joked.)
Smith deployed as an individual service member, attached to the U.S. Army’s 1st Armored Division as part of the NATO-led Operation Resolute Support, and was branch chief for governance for the Afghan National Defense and Security Force for the Combined Joint Intelligence Operations Center in Kabul. That means Smith provided intelligence and advice to Afghan leaders, particularly related to this fall’s presidential election. It was a role that combined Smith’s military training with his civilian experience as a lawyer and politician.
“This was a natural kind of fit for me,” he said.
He also spent time in Doha, Qatar, monitoring peace talks between the Taliban and the U.S. government.
Smith said his most rewarding experience was working in a command center on election day, watching Afghans go to the polls to vote despite the threat of being attacked. Terrorist groups, Smith said, targeted civilians in the run-up to the Sept. 28 election. Twenty-eight people were killed on election day, according to a report from the United Nations.
“Terrorism, the very essence of terrorism, is all throughout the country, and people still came out and voted,” he said. “So, you start thinking: People literally risked their lives to vote for a government that’s fragile, for a state that’s less than 20 years old, for this idea that things will get just a little bit better.”
(The results of the election have been delayed as the front-runners, President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abudllah, have fought about recounts.)
Smith said he gained a new appreciation for the American model of government.
“People have a grievance, they go to their lawmaker, or they can go to court, and solve problems in a peaceful and a civil and a just way,” Smith said. “People can participate. They have some stake in the matter, which is awesome and which you shouldn’t take for granted.”
Smith said he also gained a new perspective on American issues by watching the news from afar. He was struck particularly by the level of U.S. gun violence and the risks taken by migrants seeking new opportunities in America.
“You start thinking: ‘You are over here doing this, and are we ever living up to these ideals at home?’ ” Smith said.
Now, Smith is using his new perspectives to frame legislation for the 2020 General Assembly session, which opens in January.
He serves as chairman of the General Assembly’s Veterans Caucus and vice chairman of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee. He will sponsor the Home Act, which would bar housing discrimination based on a tenant’s source of rent money, including the use of government housing vouchers. Several local jurisdictions have passed versions of the bill, which he hopes will help the statewide effort.
Smith said he has a heightened sense of urgency to use his position as a senator to make positive changes for Marylanders.
“Time is fleeting,” he said. “You’re not in office forever. It’s supposed to be a temporary thing. You’re not a king or a queen, so you’ve got to max out on the time that you’ve got.”
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