As a sophomore at the College of William & Mary in Virginia, William C. Smith Jr. was getting dressed for classes when he heard Katie Couric say on television that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.
Days later, Smith decided to enlist in the military. His mother, Patricia, urged him to stay in school and earn his degree. Eventually, he acquiesced and went on to law school, opting to serve his country by joining the U.S. Naval Reserve.
Eighteen years after 9/11, Smith, now a Maryland state senator, is facing his first deployment to a war zone. He is scheduled to spend eight months in Afghanistan as an intelligence officer, part of what the military calls Operation Resolute Support.
“The best thing about this is everyone has been tremendously supportive,” said Smith, 37, an attorney at the Solomon Law Firm in the District. “I’m looking forward to the deployment. I’m a little nervous, but I know my family is in good hands.”
Smith, who completed the Navy’s Direct Commission Officers Program while at Marshall-Wythe School of Law, will leave the country during the final, frenzied days of the General Assembly’s 90-day legislative session.
Before his departure, the Democratic-controlled Senate is moving swiftly to act on key pieces of legislation in which Smith’s vote could be needed to override anticipated vetoes by Gov. Larry Hogan (R).
Among them is a bill to raise the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour, a measure to give local school districts control over school calendars, and legislation to strip control of alcohol and tobacco regulation from the state comptroller’s office.
Smith and his colleagues have also been working to advance his legislative package, which includes a bill that provides gender-neutral driver’s licenses, a measure that allows terminally ill patients to legally take their own lives, and a measure requiring that rape kits be tested within six months of being collected.
The senator, who chairs the legislature’s Veterans Caucus, is one of 25 lawmakers in the 188-member General Assembly with military experience. His deployment during the legislative session is believed to be rare.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there were 63 state legislators serving in military reserve or National Guard units in 2010, the last year data was collected. Twenty-six state lawmakers were deployed between 2005 and 2010. One of them was then-Maryland House Majority Whip Anthony G. Brown. Brown, who went on to become lieutenant governor and now represents Maryland in Congress, was deployed to Iraq in 2004, raising his profile in Annapolis.
He and Smith know each other, but their relationship had been limited to a once-a-year text message until Smith found out about his deployment. Now he and Brown have formed a bond, the two said.
Brown and his wife have offered to check in on Smith’s wife, Camille G. Fesche, who works as a lobbyist in Annapolis, and their 11-month-old daughter, Jacqueline, during his absence.
Smith and Brown are in a fraternity of sorts, Brown said. “I’m really proud of him answering the call that fewer and fewer Americans are willing to answer.”
Smith was elected to the House of Delegates in 2014, and became the first African American to represent Montgomery County in the Maryland Senate when he was appointed in 2016 to fill a seat vacated by then-U.S. Rep.-elect Jamie B. Raskin (D-Md.).
He was elected to the Senate seat in 2018 and was tapped by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) to serve as the vice chairman of the powerful Judicial Proceeding Committee.
Since news of his deployment became public, he has been lauded by colleagues, both in Annapolis and in his legislative district, which stretches from Colesville to Silver Spring, the city where he grew up.
Fesche said even though she and Smith knew months ago that he would probably be called up to duty, “it is still a shock to the system to think that he won’t be there with you for a period.”
Smith’s legislative office will continue to function in his absence, with his staff responding to constituent issues. He is grateful that he will only miss nine days of the legislative session and should be home by Thanksgiving, more than a month before the 2020 session begins.
Over the next couple of weeks, Smith plans to closely watch his daughter, who is pulling herself up and shuffling along holding on to furniture. He said his hope is that the furniture surfing evolves to walking before he leaves.
Earlier version s of this story misstated what William Smith’s role will be in Afghanistan. He will work as an intelligence officer. The story has been corrected.