An aerial view of the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower. Stephen Smith said his living space is right below the flight deck, about where the first three planes at left are staged; he said hearing takeoffs is like hearing a “diesel truck driving right into your house.” Courtesy of the U.S. Navy.

You can take the boy out of Rio Rancho, but you can’t take Rio Rancho out of the boy.

When Stephen Smith was home last week for a few days, there was absolutely no way he’d leave town with eating at Dion’s, where he’d worked during his time as student at Rio Rancho High School, or miss the pleasure of green chile.

Eating at Dion’s, he said, “is always the first meal back.”

They don’t serve anything with green chile on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, basically Smith’s home away from home most of the year. But that was pretty much his choice, after he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in the summer of 2006.

“Join the Navy and see the world” seemed more interesting to him than “Join New Mexico State University and see Las Cruces.” And it’s worked out well, Smith admits.

The funny thing is, he never planned on getting into the military; as a senior, he was planning to attend NMSU and get into engineering.

Stephen Smith

Then a funny thing happened.

“I was found by mistake,” he recalled. “A recruiter showed up to the high school one day and I was called out of art class to see Dr. (JROTC leader Larry) Morrell. He told me, ‘Take this test, we’ll see what you qualify for.'”

Smith was thinking, “Fine, anything to take me out of art class.”

As it turned out, there was at the time another Steven L. Smith at RRHS, a sophomore who’d apparently signed up to meet the recruiter, but Morrell and the recruiter figured it’d be the senior who wanted to be seen.

“Four days later, I was signed up,” Smith said, happy ever since that strange mix-up.

After enjoying the summer of ’06 at home, Smith headed to basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center near Chicago and then went to Pensacola, Fla., for 10 months for “A” School for technical training. Next, he “attached” to the Eisenhower at the Fleet Readiness Center in Virginia Beach, Va., where scheduled integrated maintenance inspection and repairs and miscellaneous non-destructive inspections are conducted on the aircraft carriers.

Fourteen years later, Smith, a lieutenant junior grade aviation electronics technician with his seniority, is now also a quality assurance officer. He spends lot of time on the flight deck and said some scenes in the 1986 movie “Top Gun” are similar to what he sees and hears daily.

He’s assigned to Strike Fire Squadron on the Eisenhower, a naval aircraft carrier launched in October 1975. The ship has been deployed in the Arabian Sea, monitoring what’s going on in the Straits of Hormuz, an  important narrow strip of water that links the Persian Gulf with the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman.

It’s basically a peace-keeping mission for the Eisenhower — its flight deck, 4½ acres of sovereign U.S. territory, it’s been said — “making sure everything is going as it should; we’re more of a deterrent,” Smith says.

He is the stepson of Anthony Jaramillo and son of Claire Jaramillo, proprietors of Tony Claire Photography in the City of Vision. After attending a school in Albuquerque, Smith went to Mountain View Middle School, Rio Rancho Mid-High and then RRHS, where he played football and was, as a senior, the state bowling champ for the Rams.

Former Rams football coach David Howes, Smith’s position coach when he was in the defensive backfield, isn’t surprised by Smith’s career choice and dedication to his country.

“He’s one of the bright spots for sure of Rio Rancho and Rio Rancho athletics,” Howes said. “He was one of the first kids I grew close to; I was his defensive-backs coach in ’05.

“The thing I remember most is him being dependable. He worked really, really hard every day,” Howes said. “It wasn’t about the playing time or wins and losses; it was about the teamwork and putting the team first — that’s obviously grown into a loyalty for the Navy and the country.”

Smith’s bowling coach in his senior season, Jim Tillery, also remembered him.

“He was a pretty laid-back, quiet young man compared to the other knuckleheads on that team,” Tillery said. “I’m proud of him for doing so well in the military.”

Smith’s wife of four years, Danielle, and their 4-year-old son, Grayson, live in Virginia Beach, where the Smiths own a home.

Not seeing them is the lone drawback to being in the Navy, he said.

“Since January 2019, I have been home about three to four months, and it’s been sporadic,” he said. “We spent 480 days out.”

But, he said, “Port visits have been really fun.” As part of the Navy’s promise for its sailors to “see the world,” Smith has visited Spain, Greece, Italy, Turkey, Dubai and France.

Another perk, he noted, is the ability to find work once he’s out of the Navy; he’s eligible to retire in six years.

“The great thing about the Navy is there are so many potential jobs,” he said. “Everything we do is technical — all that translates to civil jobs.”

Oh, yeah, the Navy also “guarantees a paycheck, guaranteed medical, guaranteed benefits. … I wouldn’t change (my life) for the world,” Smith said.

Given all that, someday he envisions himself coaching football, and maybe even bowling, in which he occasionally partakes.