WASHINGTON - Five months ago commands sought out their best of the best. They submitted packages and conducted boards; reviewing performance, testing Navy knowledge and current events, and analyzing military bearing and boardsmanship, or the ability to think clearly and stay calm under pressure. Amphibious assault ship USS Essex (LHD 2) found their Sailor.
Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Corey Smith was Essex’s best of the best. He would go on to compete against the top Sailors in the rest of the amphibious ready group, in San Diego, and eventually, against the top Sailors in the entire Pacific Fleet. More than 100,000 Sailors, a third of the entire Navy, work, live and deploy in the Pacific. He was their top Sailor.
Pacific Fleet Master Chief Suz Whitman sat the board in Hawaii where seven sea Sailor finalists spent a week preparing.
“Everybody who came in front of the board was fully and highly qualified,” said Whitman. “But what Corey had was a genuine care for Sailors, a sense of humility, and could go into any chief’s mess and be accepted. He was the guy we knew we could sit around the table in the chief’s mess and could count on to do whatever was needed.”
Hawaii. Pacific Fleet Headquarters. The finals. HMC (Select) had made it.
“It’s crazy. You know, I don’t think you start the year with goals of being the Sailor of the Year,” Smith said. “Just start out working hard and taking care of Sailors and you end up here. It’s been an amazing process.”
Whitman commented in March during the PACFLT SOY Week Sailor of the Year announcement ceremony in Pearl Harbor, that the board wasn’t just selecting a Sailor of the Year, but had “the honor of selecting the Navy's newest chief petty officer."
Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman Amanda Wardleigh, Smith’s leading chief petty officer aboard Essex, thinks that’s the right move. She submitted his Sailor of the Year package nearly eight months ago now. She saw in him then, what each board saw throughout the competition.
“When you think about the foundation of the chief petty officers and our Navy as a whole, with honor, courage and commitment; loyalty, respect, traditions...he embodies those things,” said Wardleigh. “I see the way that Sailors respond to him and that’s a true test to your leadership. So, when I’m looking to write up a package for Sailor of the Year, I always think ahead to the end result. Do we need this person as a chief petty officer? Because of his values, his presence and natural gravitation that our Sailors have towards him, made it an easy choice to select him as our Sailor of the Year.”
Even with all the winning, hype, and kudos, Smith remains humble.
“We had a deployment for about seven months and I think she (Wardleigh) saw that I genuinely care about people and was trying to take care of...you know we had our original group, we had an FST team, we had a bunch of Marines with us too from the MEU (Marine Expeditionary Unit).” Smith said. “I think that’s what she saw and submitted my name and I’m thankful for it.”
Humility. That’s one of Smith’s strong suits, according to his wife, Holly.
“My husband’s very humble so he was just like ‘oh yeah, I got this Sailor of the Year thing, I have to go do some boards,’ very like, low key,” she said. “Every round he did the same thing, ‘oh no, there’s so many great people here...there’s no way...I don’t have shot.’ It’s like, well alright, it’s fun so let’s just enjoy it.”
You can ask any Sailor of the Year, at any level, and they would all say they were competing against great people. That’s not what Holly saw though. She recognized what it was in those Sailors that made them who they are.
“From my perspective, it was never a competition,” she commented. When she looked back on their study sessions, “they all were like, ‘we made it this far guys.’ Everyone you met was really a genuine great person that you really wanted to see succeed.”
The time has finally come. The USS Essex commanding officer, command master chief, and even Wardleigh are in Washington, D.C., to watch their Sailor put on anchors at the Navy Memorial.
“It’s impossible to be on Essex and not know Chief Smith. He was everywhere and had an impact across the crew. He represents USS Essex extraordinarily well,” said Capt. Brian Quin, Essex commanding officer. “I came out to show the ships support, and to know that all 1,200 Sailors support him.”
“Take notice! USS Essex is a great command,” said Command Master Chief Pete Santos, assigned to Essex. “We teach to put people first and he (Smith) was already doing that.” Smith and the three other Sailors of the Year have been in D.C. since May 9th with their families touring national museums, visiting monuments and paying their respects at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the grave site of MCPON Delbert Black, as well as visiting Mount Vernon and George Washington’s tomb.
“The most exciting part, I think, has been able to get this far and to bring our daughter along,” Holly said. “I think for a seven year old it’s really hard to grasp. Why is daddy gone for this long? Why are we moving? Why do I have to leave my friends? It’s hard to understand what he does, so this kind of gives them a sense of ‘ok, this is what daddy does, and it’s kind of important.’”
Now that the boards are over and the pinning is done, it’s time to get back to work. “The biggest thing I want to do is go back to the Essex and share my experience,” Smith said. “A lot of work goes into preparing for boards. I really learned how to look things up and how to study and what to look for. I just learned so much about the Navy. Whenever these quarter boards roll around I can share this experience with them and tell them how it went for me and hopefully everybody can learn a little bit for it.”
Sharing his experiences and what he’s learned is important to Smith.
His advice for others: “I think to be successful, you have to remember you are here to work, you’re not here to collect a check. Whatever you learn that day, you know at the end of the day if you see somebody struggling, pull them to the side, check on them and then teach them what you learned. If we’re doing that, then the sky is the limit. I think we can do anything.”
Also pinned with Smith were:
Fleet Forces Sailor of the Year, Chief (select) Aviation Boatswain's Mate (Equipment) Tinisha Franklin assigned to USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75)
Shore Sailor of the Year, Chief (Select) Hospital Corpsman Jessica Wentlent, assigned to Naval Medical Center, Balboa
Reserve Sailor of the Year, Chief (select) Equipment Operator Steven Butterhof, assigned to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 27