Born in San Diego, California, but raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia, Smiley has been a military dependent for 30 years. She is the daughter of Rear Admiral Lindell "Yank" Rutherford (USN, Ret.), a career Navy F-14 pilot. Sarah's husband, Lt. Dustin Smiley (USN), whom she met when her mother and Dustin's were in the same military "wives club" together the year Smiley was born, is a navy flight instructor and SH-60 helicopter pilot. Unlike many military brats, Smiley spent most of her upbringing in one place (Hampton Roads Virginia) where she grew used to being on and near aircraft carriers and Navy bases.
In 2003, Smiley began writing a column titled "On the Homefront" for the local military newspaper at NAS Jacksonville in Jacksonville, Florida. When her husband was transferred to Pensacola, Florida later that same year, Smiley asked the The Pensacola News Journal to consider her writing for a weekly column. "Shore Duty" first appeared in the paper on September 16, 2003, and within a month, Smiley self-syndicated the column to other newspapers, and eventually reaching more than 11 publications and 2 million readers weekly.
In late 2003, Smiley was criticized for posing for a picture wearing her husband's Navy cover (hat). The infamous "Hat Photo" bothered some people who believe no one besides a service member should ever wear the uniform. Other people deemed the photo "nostalgic." Comparisons were drawn between Smileys photograph and old World War II photos featuring wives and girlfriends in their sailor's hat and/or uniform. The debate over Smiley's "Hat Photo" caused heated arguments on message boards across the country.
In January 2004, Rick Broadhead, a Canadian literary agent, approached Smiley about writing a book. In September, reportedly while Smiley and her family were displaced by Hurricane Ivan, Broadhead sold Smiley's memoir, Going Overboard: The Misadventures of a Military Wife, to New American Library, a division of Penguin.
Going Overboard was released in hardback on November 1, 2005.
On November 6, 2005, The New York Times Magazine ran a six-page feature on Smiley ("Confessions of a Military Wife," by Alex Witchel). Smiley was eventually featured in Newsweek and on ABC's Nightline, CNN Sunday Morning, CBS The Early Show, Fox News and MSNBC.
Prior to the release of Going Overboard, Smiley's life rights were optioned by Kelsey Grammer's company, Grammnet Productions and Paramount Television. A half-hour sitcom based on her columns and book is now in development for CBS.
Smiley's husband and father have never publicly agreed or disagreed with Shore Duty. Both, however, claim to support Smiley's First Amendment right to express herself. Smiley's husband once said, "It's [Sarah's] column, so it's her opinions. I fully support her right to express them. But they don't always reflect mine. And that's OK."
Her second book, I'm Just Saying... A Collection of Essays was released on August 15, 2008, and is a collection of her syndicated columns.
Sarah Smiley has a B.S. in Education from Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama.