There are rodeo queens, and then there’s Jenna Smeenk.
Sure, she’s blonde and beautiful with a million-dollar smile, but she’s also so much more. Smeenk, the reigning Miss Rodeo Florida, is just as likely to be seen wearing fatigues as she is leather and sequins.
That’s because the 24-year-old just happens to be a Staff Sergeant in the Air Force’s Air National Guard, a calling she discovered after her older sister, Trisha, joined the same military branch. Smeenk joined the Air Force right out of high school in 2007 after seeing how much her sister enjoyed serving, and their younger brother, Jed, followed in their footsteps as well.
“My sister was the first one to take the plunge, and she really encouraged me and let me know that basic (training) wasn’t going to kill me,” Smeenk said. “She was the biggest influence on me, definitely, because we’re so close in age and we share many of the same opinions and outlooks on life. I knew I could trust what she was saying about being in the military.”
Now stationed at Hurlburt Field near Destin, Fla., Smeenk works as an Operations Intelligence Analyst, a job that has led to her volunteering for tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“Once you get to be a part of this group, (deployment) is something everyone looks forward to,” she said. “It was real exciting to get to put all of those years of training to use. But then again, the pressure really does come down on you, because people’s lives are at stake and the decisions you’re making on the job are much more important in that environment than in a training environment.
“It was an experience that really opens your eyes to the things that are happening in the rest of the world. It brought a whole new perspective to the things we take for granted every single day here.”
Before she joined the Air Force, Smeenk could usually be found on the back of a horse. Growing up on a ranch in Northwest South Dakota, Smeenk’s parents, Greg and Sherry, encouraged their children to participate in rodeo.
Smeenk competed in barrel racing, pole bending, goat tying and queen contests growing up and found success at various levels. She is a two-time National High School Finals Rodeo competitor, was named a member of the Wrangler All-Star Team and 2X Extreme Team and was a six-year member of the Wrangler National Finals Rodeo Flag Team.
Smeenk competed on the South Dakota State University equestrian team and received an associate’s degree in Communications Applications Technology from the Community College of the Air Force. She is pursuing a bachelor’s of science in political science and has big plans for her college and career in the future.
“As it turns out, intelligence has become a career choice for me, and I’m going to school for political science,” said Smeenk, the first veteran to hold the title of state rodeo queen. “Once I finish my undergraduate degree, I plan to go to (Washington) D.C. for school to pursue a master’s degree in strategic intelligence. I’ll do basically the same thing I do in the Air Force, but just in the private sector.”
Becoming Miss Rodeo Florida was a joy for Smeenk – her sister was Miss Rodeo USA in 2012 – and she has been able to travel the country promoting rodeo and the military. Smeenk spent the Fourth of July carrying the American flag while dressed in fatigues at the Black Hills (S.D.) Roundup Rodeo in Belle Fourche, where she received a huge roar from the crowd. (There is a YouTube video of her carrying a flag at a rodeo this year.)
“Getting to carry the American flag in uniform is hands down the best experience of my life,” Smeenk said. “I can’t even describe the patriotism and the pride that just overwhelms you, and the crowd’s reception to that is amazing. It’s out of control. You get a standing ovation every time, and there’s just wild enthusiasm.
“It makes me emotional even thinking about it and not because of the attention I get in the arena, but because I’m bringing attention to the troops overseas. That’s what I’m thinking about when I carry that flag – what it represents and the people who are fighting overseas and who are putting their life on the line every day so we can be here and enjoy this sport.”
Smeenk’s superiors at Hurlburt have been behind her run as Miss Rodeo Florida from the start.
“The people I work with at Hurlburt are really supportive of my campaign as Miss Rodeo Florida, because I get to do a lot of promoting for the Air Force and for the military at a lot of the events I go to,” Smeenk said. “They’ve been really lenient about giving me time off and letting me do everything I want to do this year, and I think if I were to win Miss Rodeo America, they would be supportive of that as well.”
Smeenk also was able to serve as a guardian for retired World War II veterans as part of an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., in August.
She doesn’t like to sit still very long, and so her roles as Miss Rodeo Florida and in the Air National Guard definitely suit her well. In addition, Smeenk volunteers for the Special Olympics, the Children’s Miracle Network, the Harvesting Opportunities to Promote Education (HOPE) program, the Humane Society and the Suncatcher Therapeutic Riding Center.
“I do like to keep busy, and I have a lot of goals and priorities,” she said. “I definitely have a lot that I’m interested in and focused on.”
Little girls growing up on ranches across the country no doubt dream of wearing a crown as a rodeo queen, and Smeenk was no different.
“I’ve always dreamed of being Miss Rodeo America,” she said. “A lot of girls probably have the story that they saw a rodeo queen when they were really young and wanted to be just like her, and that’s kind of my story, too. I’ve grown up in the rodeo industry and have really grown as a person and have come to love this sport. To be able to represent it as Miss Rodeo America at the highest level would be just a real honor.
“I feel that I really understand patriotism and want to stand for this country and represent that to rodeo fans and people across the U.S. I just have a real love for my country, and to be able to fight for it overseas and then come back and represent it and my favorite sport would just be the highest honor.”
Trading in her state crown for the MRA 2014 crown is what Smeenk now has her sights set on.
“It’s been a fantastic year, and I think it’s just leading up to the Miss Rodeo America pageant,” she said. “Hopefully, I walk away with the crown, but if I don’t, it’s been the most phenomenal year of my life and nothing can change that or take that away.”
She’s a rodeo queen. She’s a patriot. She’s a soldier.
And soon, she just might be Miss Rodeo America.
For more about Smeenk, check out this YouTube video.