Cadet Brett Smith has wanted to be a fighter pilot for the U.S. Air Force for as long as he can remember.

Smith, a Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets senior majoring in physics through the Virginia Tech Honors College with minors in mathematics and leadership studies, comes from an Air Force family. His mother is a retired chief master sergeant who worked as a chaplain’s assistant. His father, a retired senior master sergeant, was a jet propulsion expert who worked on aircraft. Smith grew up admiring the Air Force’s jets and their pilots.

“From the outside looking in, it’s the best community in the Air Force,” Smith said. “I want to be part of that community because it’s tight-knit and offers a lot of opportunity for mentorship. Plus, the impact you have on the Air Force’s mission is unparalleled.”

During his four years at Virginia Tech, Smith has taken advantage of opportunities to travel abroad, to expand his leadership skills, and to give back to his community.

This month, Smith was named one of two national Navy Federal Credit Union ROTC All-American Scholarship winners who tied for Students of the Year. The competition showcases the pillars of the ROTC program: leadership, military excellence, scholarship, and service. The honor comes with a $6,500 scholarship for Smith and a $7,500 enrichment donation for Virginia Tech’s ROTC programs, and Smith will be recognized during the Military Bowl, featuring the Hokies vs. Cincinnati, on Dec. 31.

Col. Eric Dorminey, professor of aerospace studies and head of Virginia Tech’s Air Force ROTC Detachment 875, said Smith takes advantage of leadership training offered by his ROTC and the corps like few others.

“He has tried a variety of leadership techniques within both organizations, and in most cases he has succeeded,” Dorminey said. “Most impressively, however, is that in the cases that he has failed, he has picked himself up, dusted himself off, and pressed forward, emerging wiser and more effective than before. In my mind, this is what makes him stand out from his peers.”

During the fall semester, Smith commanded the corps’ Golf Company, overseeing a unit of 85 students, including 28 first-year cadets. The corps’ 13 company commanders also serve as resident advisors, responsible 24/7 for the health and well-being of their cadets.

The most important lesson he learned is the importance of compassion. “You have to be compassionate about your people. You have to be their advocate, and you have to build trust,” he said.

This spring, Smith will be the cadet wing commander for the Air Force ROTC. It’s the top position a student can hold, responsible for 275 ROTC students. His tasks will include preparing sophomores for summer field training — the summer leadership evaluation course attended by all Air Force cadets between their sophomore and junior years — and preparing seniors for commissioning.

Smith himself is a distinguished graduate of summer field training, a designation given to the top 10 percent of cadets. He also earned recommendations to serve as a cadet training assistant in future summers.

He has traveled to France to study the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II with the corps’ Global Scholars Program, and he traveled to Panama through Olmsted Cadet Travel and Cultural Immersion Program, designed to help prepare future military officers for international assignment.

Smith continues to be an active volunteer for community service projects with the corps and the Air Force ROTC.

He is a member of the leadership honor society Omicron Delta Kappa, the military honor society Scabbard and Blade, and the Robert Femoyer Service Squadron.

Written by Shay Barnhart