From war zone to classroom: Army veteran helps Butler County soldiers start next life chapter

When you ask First Sgt. J.P. Smith where he’s from, it may take him a while to answer.

He was born at Fort Belvoir in Virginia where he lived for one year; then moved to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri; back to Fort Belvoir; then to Athens, Greece where he graduated from high school and enlisted in the Army; and now he lives in West Chester Twp. with his wife and stepchildren. He has spent a small fortune in return address labels.

The 54-year-old Army veteran seems to have found another home: Miami Regional campuses in Hamilton and Middletown, where he works as coordinator of Veterans Services.

He never figured he’d be working at Miami University.

Prior to overseeing veterans services for the past two years, Smith worked in sales management, what he called “a stressful job.”

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Sales, he said, “is a numbers game.”

That wasn’t the right fit for Smith, who served 23 years in the Army following in his father’s footsteps. His brother, sister and daughter also served in the Army. The Smith family has a closet full of “Army Strong” T-shirts.

“That’s the only branch that counts,” he said with a laugh.

And, of course, every sentence ends with: “Yes, sir.”

He was attracted to Miami Regionals because in his role he sells the military service and there’s “no better product,” he said.

“It’s good to be on a positive team again,” he said. “I like removing roadblocks so they can continue their goal of an education.”

His responsibilities include ensuring a smooth enrollment process and providing student support for Miami’s military-affiliated students. The veteran population at Miami Regionals is proportionately three times larger than at Miami’s Oxford campus, while the population of Butler County alone includes more than 26,000 veterans, with an additional 16,000 in neighboring Warren County.

There are 371 students enrolled at Miami University who receive Veterans Administration benefits, and 168 of them, or 45 percent, attend Miami Regionals.

For many veterans, the transition from military to civilian life, including higher education, can be daunting, Smith said. He works collaboratively with colleagues across the university to ensure best practices and service. He’s confronted with problems and seeks solutions.

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He’s an Answer Man.

“That’s the dream of a soldier,” he said. “That’s what it’s all about.”

Kristen Taylor, senior regional director of Enrollment Management at Miami University Regionals, said military-affiliated and veteran students — like much of its student population — are a diverse student group. From the entering enrollment process to graduation, these students have “specific needs” to ensure a smooth transition to college and success through graduation, she said.

She said Smith works closely with these students to support them through their application and continuation of their education benefits and helps them “navigate policies and procedures.” Smith has built a network of advocates through which Miami students seek assistance, she said.

Taylor said Smith is passionate about students and “untiringly works” to ensure they receive high quality attention and care in service. He’s regularly involved in supporting student veteran events, and has built a community of students on both campuses through the Veterans Centers and activities, Taylor said.

Smith’s “commendable career” in the Army undoubtedly adds value to Miami Regionals, she said. His knowledge and understanding of what students and their family members experienced, blended with his knowledge of and experience with education benefits and working in higher education, are an “ideal fit,” she said.

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