From enlisted Airman to mentor

MAXWELL AIR FORCE BASE, Ala. -- The Key Spouse Program at Maxwell continues to grow as a commander's program, influencing individual programs throughout the Air Force, as local spouses extend their help beyond traditional roles and families.

Key spouses of a squadron, under the guidance of their key spouse mentor, unit and wing commander, are there for squadron families who may need advice or a listening ear when loved ones deploy and they are left to manage homes and families alone.

Cassandra Nagaoka-Smith, key spouse mentor of the 42nd Security Forces Squadron and a former Air Force enlisted SFS Airman herself, enjoys being a part of a team that cares.

The title of mentor is traditionally associated with a squadron commander's spouse. Nagaoka-Smith, though not such a spouse, feels she is equipped to help spouses and Airmen of all walks of life.

"My hope is to inspire other enlisted spouses to take risks themselves. I want them to find their voice and speak up and volunteer and use their strong points to improve the Key Spouse Program even more," Nagaoka-Smith said.

Every Air Force squadron manages their key spouses and key spouse mentor in accordance with their wing command. Together they create a team to connect families with the commander and the first sergeants of the unit.

Through creating a network of communication, the Key Spouse Program can provide an environment for families to share experiences, be supported and become aware of events, programs and resources offered at each installation.

For Nagaoka-Smith, supporting families might mean helping with Hearts Apart dinners or being called upon to help care for a spouse's child during a family emergency. Either way, she tackles each challenge with care and respect.

Both Maj. Benjamin Jacobson, commander of the 42nd SFS, and his wife, Maj. Angela Jacobson, a student at Air Command and Staff College, feel Nagaoka-Smith is the right individual for the position.

"Casey is a great fit as a mentor because of her maturity and professionalism," Angela Jacobson said. "She has provided meaningful continuity for the squadron's program during a time of immense transition. I believe the spouses trust her in this position because she genuinely cares about their well-being."

Her journey
Nagaoka-Smith had a large role to fill when she was presented with the mentorship position. Though she was hesitant to become a key spouse, she began attending meetings to learn more.

"That's when this journey really started taking off for me. I found my balance and, even though it's not a paid job, it's something I love doing," she said. "My goal is to make sure the spouses I am assigned know me, know my face and can call on me."

Nagaoka-Smith's experiences as an Airman, a wife and a mother have equipped her to help others struggling in different areas and stages of their lives.

Through the Airman and Family Readiness Center, Nagaoka-Smith earned her certification as a key spouse and then as a mentor after completing the five-part training, which included the initial training course and the crisis intervention course training, which is unique to Maxwell.

Key spouses are taught by the Family Advocacy Program to recognize the signs of grief and loss, domestic violence and suicidal intentions within others and to direct them to helpful resources. Any spouse has the opportunity to become trained as a key spouse and make a difference in their squadron.

Vanessa Edwards, wife of Col. Trent Edwards, 42nd Air Base Wing commander, is proud of the difference Nagaoka-Smith is making every day in the lives of families and the Key Spouse Program at Maxwell.

"Casey Nagaoka-Smith is a wonderful example of the caring spirit and commitment with which Maxwell Air Force Base's key spouse mentors support key spouses and our unique and ever-improving Key Spouse Program."

Support from the group and wing leadership is crucial to the success of all key spouses, said Nagaoka-Smith.

"The leadership team at Maxwell-Gunter has been amazing to me," she said. "They have given me the opportunity to really take hold of my calling and progress within the Key Spouse Program not only at a professional level, but at a personal one as well."

Since becoming a key spouse mentor, Nagaoka-Smith has had the opportunity to brief the Air University and the First Sergeants Academy, speak at commanders' calls and with commanders' spouses and attend a key spouse luncheon with Betty Welsh, wife of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh.

Staff Sgt. Craig Nagaoka-Smith, Nagaoka-Smith's husband and a 42nd SFS combat arms instructor, said he fully supports his wife, especially after seeing how well she fit into the role of mentor.

"I saw how perfect she was for this program. She has done a phenomenal job balancing the Key Spouse Program with everything in her life, and I am very proud of what she has accomplished so far," Staff Sgt. Nagaoka-Smith said.

"I believe her being given this opportunity has opened a lot of eyes to show that the enlisted side of the house can do great things and be entrusted with great tasks," he said.

Andrew Tveit, AFRC consultant and facilitator of the key spouse education at Maxwell, agrees the program was established to help all loved ones while military members are deployed.

To contact a key spouse or to register to become a key spouse, call Tveit at 953-2353.