From Infantryman to CMO: How This Marine Beat the Odds

David Smith (Far Right) served as Team Leader with Alpha Company "Raiders" of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment.

David Smith believed, like many Marine recruits do, in God, Country, and Corps. He wanted to make a difference, and became an Infantry Rifleman and Team Leader with Alpha Company "Raiders" of the 1st Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment. Deployed twice in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Smith’s unit was engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the war, including the battle of An Najaf.

But then the "fog of war" engulfed Smith during an intense gunfight one night, and he shot and wounded a fellow Marine. The incident haunted him for years, and he nearly took his own life as a consequence.

Since that fateful night, Smith’s journey has taken some unexpected turns, including an appearance in former President George W. Bush’s "Portraits of Courage" painting series (now collected in the book Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief's Tribute to America's Warriors). And now he’s making a difference in new ways: as a Chief Marketing Officer for a software company, and as an example for how to move on to a healthy, productive civilian life after military service.

Connecting Through Other Veterans

Smith credits mentors and other veterans for helping him get the help and tools he needed to cope with his crushing guilt and PTSD. Says Smith, "One veteran knew I liked to mountain bike and got me involved with the Bush Center Military Service Initiative (MSI) which does an annual Warrior 100K (100km) bike ride with former President Bush." Smith’s participation with the MSI led to Smith being chosen to be featured as one of the veterans in former President Bush’s “Portraits of Courage.”

"Seek the help you need and you'll respect yourself for it," says Smith.

After graduating from UC Berkeley (and Stanford University’s Ignite program), Dave interned on the New York Stock Exchange, delivered disaster response with Team Rubicon in the Philippines, and traveled to almost 30 countries doing missionary and humanitarian projects. He then moved to Norway, where he lives with his wife and works as the Chief Marketing Officer for Dogu, a software startup.

Smith is living proof that veterans should embrace their military training. Adapt, Improvise, Overcome, is more than the informal Marine Corps motto--it's the grit that gets us over, under, or around any obstacle to our objective.

Says Smith, "I'm always looking for new opportunities to grow and I am a strong believer in brilliance in the basics. The Marine Corps taught me to wake up each day hungry to conquer obstacles and continue driving forward to find new challenges, rather than sit and wait for things to happen."

Mentorship and Grit

Smith encountered difficulties in adjusting to civilian life -- he "missed the sense of purpose, camaraderie and excitement" that comes with being in the Corps. And without a clear sense of mission and purpose, he felt lost. His saving grace? Mentorship (and lots and lots of grit).

"Mentorship was probably the most important factor in my success," says Smith. "I was very lucky to have people reach out and help me apply to schools, find jobs and seek counselling. I quickly learned to apply far above what I felt qualified for and to ask for help often because lots of people want to help others succeed."

Smith's path was circuitous, but he provides the following advice for those transitioning from the military to the civilian workforce for a more direct route to success.

1. For military looking to transition, you need to start early. First, aim far above what you think you are capable of. Apply to schools and jobs that you don't think you'll get. You will be surprised by the results

2. Create a transition roadmap and follow it. Network often because the veteran space is small but incredibly powerful. Make use of all of the resources and organisations available. Seek the help you need until you become the best version of yourself possible and don't settle for less until you reach it. Once you reach peak potential, reach out and help by mentoring other veterans along their path. Service doesn't stop just because you have taken off the uniform.

3. Get registered with the VA and seek the care you need early. Don't be afraid of the stigmas of seeking help.

4. Join local veterans organisations such as Team Rubicon and Team RWB that allow you to find camaraderie and sense of purpose again.

5. Put your GI Bill to good use and get a degree in something you are passionate about. Don't waste your money at for-profit schools that don't provide a high-value return.

6. Start networking and learning tech skills now. I can almost guarantee that there are veterans in your dream job who are willing to help you get there also.

7. Seek great mentors and follow their advice. Organizations such as Veterati and American Corporate Partners are excellent resources to get started.