By: John Cuddy – 11/22
Lawrence’s, and the rest of our Merrimack Valley’s Homeless are fed daily by organizations such as the Cor Unum Meal Center, Bread & Roses, Good Shepard Center, and the TMF Organization, all working tirelessly to feed our homeless. Curious to find out how many of our Merrimack Valley (and our Nation’s) homeless are military Veterans.
I had a conversation with Kevin Drouin, owner of Tough Love Intervention, a Merrimack Valley company whose mission is to fight opioid abuse. Kevin is on the front lines each week, feeding the Merrimack Valley’s homeless.
Unlike most of the United States, the Merrimack Valley and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been very successful in housing our homeless Veterans and their families. While serving as Massachusetts Secretary of Veterans Affairs, US Marine Francisco Urena, learned of a Boston woman, living in a homeless shelter, while one of her sons was serving in the Middle East with the US Military.
Secretary Urena, cut through the red tape of our government, and got the family into public housing. My research on the issue of homeless Veterans, led me to US Air Force Veteran Gretchen Smith, a native of the “hills of North Carolina,” an area known to our university academics as “Appalachia.”
While learning and educating myself on the issue of homeless Veterans, I found success stories, such as our Merrimack Valley providing Veterans housing, and failures, such as the massive homeless communities of Veterans in Arizona and Hawaii.
Gretchen is the founder of “Code of Veterans” a 501-C3, whose founding was inspired by her own dad’s, a US Army Vietnam Veteran, struggle with PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress syndrome.
Currently, the focus of Code of Veterans is homeless Veterans or Veterans facing imminent eviction. Gretchen grew up extremely poor, spending her childhood in Appalachia, while she had plenty of food, much of which the family grew themselves, clothing came from thrift shops, yard sales, and a local discount store, “Sky City,” part of a chain of discount stores in the rural south. Both of her grandparents served in the US Military, as did her father and brother. Shortly after graduating from high school, at the age of eighteen, she joined the US Air Force, to both serve our Nation, and to escape the economic situation at home.
Posted in Germany as a member of the US Air Force Security Forces, she was assigned to Ramstein Air Force Base. While posted at the base, Gretchen met and married her husband, who was also assigned there, as a Transportation and Logistics Specialist. A native of the birthplace of NASCAR, Gretchen said she only reached 90mph on Germany’s Autobahn, her husband drove the car 100mph+. The couple both served nearly five years in the US Air Force, rising to the rank of Senior Airman or pay grade E-4.
Her dad served in Vietnam, as a teen, in combat, he was an 11B or Infantryman in the US Army. After serving four years, including two tours in Vietnam, he left the US Army and returned home. The war would haunt him for the rest of his life, poorly served by his local Veterans Administration, his PTSD went untreated, and he was never able to get his personal or professional life together, as a result, the family was poor, and often a paycheck away from homelessness. He became another casualty of the Vietnam war in 2017, his untreated PTSD finally getting the better of him.
It was this tragedy, which led to Gretchen Smith and Dr. Cindy Walter, a public health professional, to founding and building the organization now known as Code of Vets. Using small donations generated from social media, they have raised nearly $6.5 million dollars, ninety eight percent of the funds are used to assist veterans in distress, only two percent is used for overhead. The fact that currently the average American charity is spending thirty six percent on overhead, Gretchen’s figures illustrate just how efficient and effective, Ms. Smith and Dr. Walter’s organization really is.
Code of Veterans, is a lean organization, run by two unpaid volunteers, spending ninety eight percent of the funds received on direct service to our Nation’s Veterans. As good stewards of their limited funding, Gretchen and Dr. Walter personally verify the need, then preform triage, prioritizing three specific issues, in this order, “family living in car,” “Veteran (and or family) living in a shelter,” and “utilities being turned off.” Gretchen shared with me the story of a Veteran, a single father of two, working as a bartender, living paycheck to paycheck, but otherwise keeping it together. Then the US Government restrictions around COVID- 19, shut his bar down. His income cut off, Federal aid months off, the single dad and his two children faced homelessness.
Just one of many cases at Code of Veterans, where a Veteran and his family, faced a crisis, and even a disaster, through no fault of their own.
After leaving the US Air Force, Gretchen and her husband raised two children, she was a proud full-time housewife and mother. Her daughter and son are now grown, and she is the grandmother of two today! Protecting homeless and indigent Veterans, Gretchen Smith is truly a “Hero in Our Midst.”
Wishing all US Marines, a Happy 247th Birthday on November 10th, and all Veterans, a Happy Veterans Day on November 11th!
To help support Code of Vets efforts to assist Veterans in crisis, simply visit the organization’s website, https://www.codeofvets.com/. All the organization’s financial reports are posted on the site. They depend on our patriotic Americans that donate small amounts, often as little as $5.00 a month, around the price of a large coffee with tip, to service our Veterans in need. and expand the footprint of the organization. Are you, or do you know a Veteran in need of assistance? Or, are you a concerned citizen looking to get a specific Veteran aid? The referral link is on the same site.
The Dracut American Legion asks all World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War Veterans, to call (603) 518-5368 and sign up for an Honor Flight to the Memorials in Washington DC! Veterans of all eras are asked to go the American Legion’s Web site www.legion.org, and join the American Legion, our mission is working with Congress, Veterans, and the Community, preserving our Veteran’s Benefits for future generations.
John Cuddy served in the US Navy’s Construction Battalions (also known as the Seabees) after retiring from the US Navy; he earned a bachelor’s in history and a master’s in economics from the University of Massachusetts on the Lowell Campus. He has been employed in Logistics at FedEx for the last 25 years. If you know a World War II, Korean War, or Vietnam War Veteran who would like their story told, please email him at John.Cuddy@Yahoo.com ◊