Coca-Cola will welcome Lt. Gen. Leslie C. Smith, the 66th Inspector General of the U.S. Army, as the keynote speaker during the company’s 19th Annual Veterans Day Employee Celebration at its Atlanta headquarters on Nov. 8. 

An Atlanta native, Smith’s personal journey and distinguished career embodies the U.S. Army’s core values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Smith commissioned through Georgia Southern University and holds a Master of Science degree in Administration from Central Michigan University and a Master of Science degree in National Security Strategy from the National Defense University.

The U.S. Army Office of the Inspector General provides impartial, objective and unbiased advice and oversight to the Army through relevant, timely and thorough inspection, assistance, investigations and training. Smith’s team also works to promote and enable stewardship, accountability, integrity, efficiency and good order and discipline to enhance total Army readiness.

Ahead of his appearance, Smith shared insights on his career in service, leadership acumen and the importance of honoring veterans:

What is it like to come back to Atlanta, where you grew up?

Thanks for asking. I think it is always great to come back home to where you grew up and see the changes and evolutions of the greater metropolitan area. Vanedra and I still have family in the area in Atlanta and Flowery Branch areas, so we try and come back at least once a year.   

Can you tell us about your journey to the U.S. Army?

My journey in the Army is so much like most people. I never intended to stay past my initial commitment of three years, but found that the people made a big difference. There are several seminal events that pushed me in the direction of service. My ROTC instructor in Atlanta at Frederick Douglass High school asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I told him I thought I wanted to major in business in college. He provided the spark about joining the Georgia Army National Guard or the Army Reserve. Without that initial engagement, I am not sure I would have known about the National Guard. I visited Georgia Southern in June 1981 because my best friend, Gary Vance, had a cousin at the school. They had recently restarted their ROTC program and were very interested in obtaining new people to serve in their program. So I did two things: joined Army ROTC and the Georgia Army National Guard. This allowed me to start the senior ROTC program as a junior in the program, while I was a freshman, and receive a commission as a 2LT at age 18.   

What drove you to serve?

My family has always served. I have several uncles who were drafted and served in WWII, and my father, Calvin Smith, served in the Korean War. We lost him when I was five, so we all ended up serving in the military. My sister, Lola Burse, served three years as a Marine and continues to serve today as a former principal and now an elementary school teacher. My brother, Lawrence, served as an Army logistician and now as a business leader in Orlando.  

What is one of the most memorable moments from your career?

I think one of my most enjoyable and memorable moments was our battalion’s mission in support of 9/11. Since our battalion supported the Army’s Airborne Corps, we ended up deploying or redeploying units every 90 days for two years. Deployments included Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Korea, the Pentagon and Jordan. We also sent units to support operations around the Pentagon because of the threat of anthrax attacks in the national capital region.    

As a top-tier leader in the U.S. Army, what leadership trait is most important to you?

Character. It’s not something that can be quickly taught, but it’s something your family helps you build from a young age, and it serves as a guidepost for making ethical decisions as a leader.

Why is it important that we honor our nation’s veterans?

A nation who honors its veterans shows the importance of their service. We have gone through different phases in our nation when we have forgotten the service of our young men and women. It is important to honor veterans because of the great service they do for our nation, but also because it’s important for future generations to recognize the honor in service so they are inspired to serve as well.

What qualities do veterans bring to the table that are beneficial to companies like Coca-Cola?

Veterans bring competence, commitment and character to the companies that hire them. Their competence comes from high quality training received in the military, and veterans carry forward everything they learned as they enter the work force. The commitment to excellence doesn’t disappear with a career transition, and neither does the character built through hardship and service to a cause greater than oneself. Companies stand to benefit from leveraging these traits that veterans bring to the table.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Service to the nation should be a first choice, not a last resort. We thank those men and women, and their families who have stood up to serve. 


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed by Lieutenant General Smith in this article are his personal views and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.