Visiting the tip land to tag a balsam fir tree in Columbia Falls, Maine is a life-changing experience. One woman recently had this emotional experience when she placed dog tags on a specially selected tree to recognize her family's military service. She is now passionately motivated by the knowledge that the fir tips harvested from her family's tree will one day pay tribute to our fallen in the form of veterans remembrance wreaths.
Retired Army Captain Leslie Nicole Smith understands full well the meaning of service and sacrifice. She lost her leg and is legally blind from a voluntary deployment to Bosnia in 2001 where she served as a Public Affairs Officer. Having faced such challenges, Leslie cherishes the idea that the trees' prunings take shape as a complete circle in honor of the men and women who have sacrificed life and limb to serve and protect our nation. The meaningful tree tagging opportunity helped Leslie to understand that despite loss, continuing to thrive provides new growth. This connection has given Leslie renewed strength and resiliency; the same qualities these magnificent trees represent.
High school cheerleader, student body President, and homecoming queen, Leslie Nicole Smith grew up in a military family in Pennsylvania. She was always proud of her parents, particularly her Dad, Nelson Smith, who worked his way up from a position in a shoe factory to serving six years in the Army in the White House Communications Agency under the Kennedy administration.
Leslie's first taste of military service started with the Army ROTC at Georgetown University through a consortium agreement with Marymount University in Arlington, VA. She recalls that's when she realized she had that special interest and commitment that motivates people who volunteer for service.
She also noted, "Ever since grade school I've always been the type to raise my hand and volunteer to step up because I liked the idea of being out front helping people. I knew I was different when my college friends were getting ready to go out on the town Thursday night, and I was getting ready for drill Friday morning at 4 A.M."
Leslie graduated Marymount in 1991 with a BA in Communications and was commissioned 2nd Lieutenant hoping for an assignment in a public affairs role but instead wound up assigned to the Army's Nuclear Biological Chemical Corps, which she admits was not on her "dream sheet." Eventually, she was assigned to an attack helicopter battalion as their chemical officer and was also offered a chance at flight school. At the age of twenty-seven, she found herself eager and willing to accept the challenge.
Barely meeting the required measurements upon entering flight school, Leslie found herself stretching to see over the instrument panel of the training helicopter. That was not going to stop her. Quit was not, and never has been, a word in Leslie Smith's vocabulary.
"They wouldn't give me a booster seat, so I had to make adjustments and turn the nose of the helicopter a bit askew so I could see the runway lights and then turn it back to land," Leslie recalls. "I managed to do my required solo flight and move on to advanced instruments, but I struggled. I was devastated it was not working out, but they told me not to take it personally because not everyone's brain is wired to fly." After flight school, Defense Information training finally launched Leslie's Public Affairs career with the Army.
With one successful tour of duty in El Salvador and another in Bosnia, Leslie was in her element and on "top of the world," volunteering for a continuation of service in Bosnia when her life changed forever. That persistent pain in her left leg turned out to be a blood clot, which Leslie was quick to dismiss.
"I was arguing with the brigade surgeon trying to convince him I was fine," Smith recalls. Her commanding general's response was, "Smith pack your bags you're out of here tonight."
From Bosnia to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where she was placed on imminent death status and given twenty-four hours to live, Leslie was fighting for her life against a blood illness causing thousands of tiny blood clots to rupture inside her body.
"The pain was really off the charts. It felt as though someone or something was inside my legs shredding them with razor blades."
Leslie remembers waking from surgery after her left leg was amputated saying, "I was a cheerleader," and her Mother calmly reassured her saying, "Yes you were a cheerleader, and now you're the coach."
Unexplained and spontaneous hemorrhaging also injured optic nerves leaving her with just a sliver of sight in her right eye. Smith says some medical experts surmise the idiopathic condition was brought about by exposure to a chemical agent or toxin, possibly the gasses emitted from mass grave sites in Bosnia.
During her treatment and recovery at Walter Reed, Leslie was able to heal physically, psychologically and spiritually. Over time with the support of God, family, and friends she was able to transition her thought process from "Why me?" to "Why NOT me."
"When I emerged from surgery I remember asking the surgeons not if I was going to walk again, rather, would I be able to wear heels," recalls Smith. "When I arrived at Walter Reed in 2002, I was one of two amputees, and they didn't even have a prosthetic for me to look at, let alone tell me if I could wear heels."
Leslie does indeed wear heels beautifully today, has run and cycled in marathons and competed in other sporting events. Her service dog Issac is her best buddy and assistant. Leslie believes her mission now as an advocate for other wounded, ill and injured service members was through Devine design. She was recovering when the first round of soldiers was coming in from Iraq with combat injuries.
"God had to set me up so I would be there for these guys," Leslie explains her revelation. "I would stop in and visit them. In trauma, they were withdrawn and physically weak wanting to dismiss me but I'd pull up my sweatpants show them my leg and say, 'Hey I'm a soldier too' and they'd immediately start asking me questions the doctors just couldn't answer. With all due respect to the doctors, none of them were amputees."
Many years later she learned from some of those very men that she was an inspiration to them in the hospital and they had nicknamed her "legs."
"Throughout my recovery, I have had amazing experiences I can't explain that have helped me realize with each of my losses I have grown stronger and empowered," Smith said. "It's like the balsam fir tree that has some of its limbs removed in the tipping process to make remembrance wreaths. The tree isn't destroyed in the pruning process; it manages to thrive, flourish, and give back."
Leslie will continue to give back and advocate with Wreaths Across America through a series of stories in her words, remembering her initial struggles and revelations, honoring our wounded warriors and their families, and teaching us all how to embrace adversity with strength, resiliency, and new growth.
Watch for Leslie's featured articles coming soon on our blog page!