KINGSTON, R.I. – April 4, 2013 – As a Marine in Iraq, she’d come under fire, recoiled at the charred remains of blown-up trucks and watched in horror as artillery rounds secretly packed in a car trunk were detonated. But nothing was worse than the crash that nearly took her life.
It was a blue-sky morning, Aug. 24, 2006. Cpl. Staci Renee Smith, in the war-torn country only six months, was delivering ammunition to troops at a faraway combat post when her vehicle flipped over. She hit the ground, headfirst.
“My first thought was ‘I’m going to die,’ ” says Smith. “Then I passed out.”
When she woke up, an oral surgeon from the U.S. military was hovering over her offering comforting words: “Your jaw is shattered. I can fix it.” After multiple surgeries, he did just that, inserting two metal plates – one in her chin, the other in her right jaw – and securing them with five screws.
“He saved my face,” says Smith, 27, who lives in Woonsocket. “I could have scars all over, but I don’t. He inserted the plates through the inside of my mouth. You can’t even tell.”
The University of Rhode Island senior is so grateful to the doctor she plans to become what he is. Smith will attend a California dental school in the fall and, if all goes as planned, continue studying another five to seven years to be an oral surgeon.
“I was inspired by what he did for me,” she says. “I wanted to take something horrible and turn it into something good.”
A member of the Honors Program with a 3.75 grade-point average, Smith, fresh-faced with soft green eyes, has excelled both in and out of the classroom at URI, where she’s receiving a bachelor’s in biological sciences.
She has volunteered at a local health clinic and interned in two dentists’ offices. This spring, she spent 10 days in Guatemala teaching dental care to villagers as part of her senior honors project. She’s a member of the Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society and the Golden Key International Honour Society. She also works part-time as a nanny and helps her fiancé, Michael Chenot, take care of his ailing parents.
“Staci is a great student,” says Brenton DeBoef, associate professor of chemistry at URI. “She is very smart and Marine-tough. It’s been a pleasure to teach her and see her grow both in the classroom and recently in the highlands of Guatemala, where she provided open-air dental care for an entire town that you can’t even find using Google Maps.”
Smith is no stranger to hard work. The daughter of a truck driver and supermarket clerk, she grew up in Oroville, Calif., a rural town of 12,000 just north of Sacramento. She was an excellent student in high school, even spending her senior year taking college-level courses at a community college.
She joined the Marines after graduation. “I wanted more with my life,” she says. “I knew I had higher aspirations than what my town, even though I loved it, could give me.”
At 18, she went off to boot camp, taking daylong hikes with 80 pounds of gear strapped to her back as she endured the wrath of drill instructors. She made it through and received more training at another post to become an ammunitions technician. In February 2006, she left for a U.S. military base at Taqqadum, about 60 miles from Baghdad.
Her job was to transport C4, grenades, and other ground ammunition to units and bases. That meant crossing treacherous territory. “I remember making a trip to Fallujah one day and we came under fire,” she says. “I remember the pop, pop, pop. I’ll never forget the feeling, the panic that I’m being shot at, that someone is trying to kill me.”
Another time, her convoy came across the burning shell of a truck that had been blown to bits by a roadside bomb. Three American soldiers had been killed an hour earlier. “That could have been me,” she says. It’s a pretty intense feeling.”
The accident that left her jaw shattered happened just five miles outside her compound. The driver lost control of the vehicle and it flipped over. She ended up on the asphalt, narrowly missing a gun turret that came perilously close to crushing her skull. Diesel fuel coated her body. Looking back, she says it’s remarkable that she wasn’t burned – or worse.
After the crash, she was taken by helicopter to Balad Air Base in Iraq, where she underwent two reconstructive surgeries. Then she went home to recover. She soon joined her fiancé in Rhode Island. She graduated from the Community College of Rhode Island after two years and enrolled at URI in the fall of 2010.
“It’s been an awesome experience for me here,” she says. “I like the feel of it. It’s a homey place and the teachers are wonderful. I’ve enjoyed every minute.”
Next September, she’ll head off to Western University Health Sciences College of Dental Medicine in Pomona, Calif., for a four-year dental program. Smith, the first in her immediate family to graduate from college, can’t wait to get started.
“At age 19 my life was changed,” she says. “I was thrust into my future. That doesn’t happen to a lot of people so young. We take so much for granted.”
Her Iraq journey is always with her. She’s being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and gets panic attacks in a car that leave her sick to her stomach and dizzy. Sometimes, her jaw locks up while she’s sleeping and she has to massage it open. Her back aches and she has a scar from the crash near her right eye that she wishes was not there. She can’t eat anything too chewy. “Too much effort on the jaw,” she says.
Still, she has no regrets about joining the marines. “I’d sign on the dotted line again, even after all I’ve been through,” she says. “It was a great experience.”
The name of the Air Force surgeon who preserved her face is a mystery. Some day, she might track him down to say thank you; then again, she might not. “I think I like not knowing who the man is,” she says. “He knows what he did, and so do I.”
Staci Smith, a 2013 graduate of the University of Rhode Island who was wounded in the Iraq war and is attending dental school in the fall.
Photo by Michael Salerno Photography.