When Eli Smith enrolled in classes at the OTC Lebanon Center in 2006, he wasn't thinking about a military career. Now, he's a career Marine officer who serves his country thousands of feet in the air.
When Eli Smith enrolled in classes at Ozarks Technical Community College’s Lebanon Center in 2006, he had his sights set on a career in law enforcement. Teaching was Eli’s backup plan. Almost two decades later, Eli is a teacher. But rather than instructing high schoolers in history or physical education, he trains Marines how to fly aircraft thousands of feet in the air.
“I’m just a country boy who grew up on a farm in Lebanon, Missouri,” Eli said. “I never imagined I would have the opportunity to travel around the world and pilot aircraft over places like the fjords of Norway, near the French Alps or over the Straits of Gibraltar.”
Captain Eli Smith is a Marine aviator who trains future Naval Aviators like himself. When Eli graduated from Lebanon High School in 2006, a military career was not even on his radar.
“I wanted to go to college, and with the A+ scholarship program, OTC was the best deal,” Eli said. “Plus, I could live at home and still work full-time.”
Eli is definitely a hard worker. During his time at OTC, he worked at a local furniture store in Lebanon, and in the summers, he worked at a campground and canoe rental facility near Bennett Springs State Park.
Eli liked that his OTC instructors had real-world experience. One of his education teachers became a school superintendent, and another was a local judge. Plus, Eli enjoyed the small class sizes with students who had similar goals.
“We were all working and going to school,” Eli said. “We were trying to do it smart and not take on a lot of debt.”
After graduating from OTC, Eli transferred to Columbia College to pursue a degree in criminal justice. He graduated in 2011, but Eli was undecided on a career plan.
A conversation with a high school friend who became a Marine aviator gave him the idea to pursue a military career. After speaking to an Officer Selection Officer, Eli began preparing to pursue a flight contract in the Marine Corps, which, to be competitive, included a strenuous physical fitness test that involved running three miles in under 18 minutes.
In the summer of 2013, Eli received an air contract in the Marine Corps, but it would be a long time before he set foot in an aircraft. First, he had to complete Officer Candidate School and then six months of the Basic School, where Eli learned the basics of being an “Officer of Marines.”
“There’s a saying, ‘Every Marine is a rifleman,’” Eli said. “To be a Marine officer, you need to understand the capabilities of what each Marine brings to the fight.”
Following Basic School, Eli received his orders for flight training. Before reporting to Pensacola, Fla., Eli married his long-time girlfriend, Brittany.
“I proposed to her after being accepted into flight school,” Eli said. “I knew I would have a career where I could care for a family.”
Flight school involved several stages. First, Eli had to master a civilian airplane. Then, it was on to military aircraft. Finally, Eli chose his specialty — the MV-22 Osprey, which is an amphibious assault aircraft and looks like a cross between a fixed-wing airplane and a helicopter.
After nearly three years of training, Eli graduated from flight school in 2016 with his Gold Wings, but his education wasn’t over as he continued to learn his aircraft and how to command a flight crew.
Five years after his first day in the Marines, Eli was deployed to Spain and Italy in 2018 as part of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response – Africa.
“If that 9-1-1 call comes in because something is popping off, we had to be ready to go,” Eli said.
He served two deployments in Europe, and all the time, Eli’s family was growing with two children and a third on the way. Eli was hoping to become a flight instructor in Pensacola, but when it came time for his next deployment, Eli was on a naval ship.
“I was part of the Aviation Combat Element deployed with a Marine Expeditionary Unit. Wherever Marines are needed, the ship got us close, and then we fly in to get boots on the ground,” Eli said.
When Eli completed his commitment to the Marines, he had a choice: stay in the Marines or become a civilian and take a job with the airlines. Eli remained in the Marines and received his dream assignment as a flight instructor in Pensacola.
“Just like my OTC instructors, I draw on my real-world experience in the cockpit to teach the next generation of Marine aviators,” Eli said.
Eli has done far more than he ever imagined when he first set foot in an OTC college classroom in 2006. A man of deep religious conviction, Eli attributes his achievements to his faith and support from his family.
“I am constantly praying for wisdom and guidance,” Eli said. “I credit all of my success to God.”