Gretchen Smith lost her father to the demons of war. He didn’t put a gun to his head, but rather used the bottle to drown out the images seared in his mind from Vietnam.
Smith said her father, Sgt. Danny Smiley, went to the VA when he came home because he didn’t understand what was happening to him mentally and emotionally.
“They actually told him to suck it up and to be a man, to shove it way down deep, to never talk about it again,” Smith said. “He took it to heart, and I lost him because of that. It ate away at him like a cancer, and it ended up killing him.”
Smiley died in 2005 at age 57.
Just over four months ago, as her time freed up, Smith, a veteran herself, was soul-searching for a way to honor her father.
“I wanted to do something to honor his life—his troubled life, his death, his service,” she said. “And I wanted to reach out and let other veterans know it’s okay. You’re not walking this path alone.”
Hence, Code of Vets was born, as a tweet, in October 2018.
Smith started by sharing her father’s story, and the organization has since blossomed into a nonprofit that assists veterans all over the country. She has built a community on Twitter that responds to calls for help—sometimes it’s simply a call to prayer for a struggling veteran; oftentimes it’s a call to help veterans who are either at risk of becoming homeless or already are homeless.
Reservist Cpt. Heath Bertram and his two daughters are a prime example. Last October, Bertram and his daughters, aged 10 and 7, were homeless, living in church shelters after he lost his job and separated from his wife. In the ultimate catch-22 situation, too many things had stacked up all at once, and Bertram’s credit rating was shot, making it hard to secure a job and rent a house.
“It was very distressing,” Bertram said. “Very, very hard. Very difficult.”
But he was lucky that the girls viewed living in the church shelters positively. “I’ve been fortunate because they always thought it was some sort of adventure,” he said.
The Family Promise church placed the Bertrams in a new church shelter each week. Each family member had a plastic tote for their personal effects as well as one shared family tote.
“And every Sunday we leave and go to church and while we’re gone, they move all our stuff and have another room set up at the next church,” Bertram said.
In December, Bertram met Seth Ninger through their daughters, who are second-grade classmates.
“While sitting there and talking to him that night, the coincidences and similarities between our lives and our stories, and how we both came to be single dads, and trouble in transitioning careers, and things of that nature—we just kind of instantly bonded,” Ninger said.
Ninger is also a single dad of two children and had to change careers when he divorced his wife and gained custody of their children. He wanted to help. “He’s just a genuinely kind, good, God-fearing, Christian man who hit a tough patch,” Ninger said of Bertram.
He had followed Code of Vets on Twitter for some time and in January posted a tweet to the account, giving some details of Bertram’s predicament.
Code of Vets sprang into action and contacted Ninger to verify the information.
“When they learned that he was living in a shelter with his two girls, the rest just kind of happened in such a quick, firestorm fashion,” Ninger said. “I saw a tweet that Gretchen had put out with a short video making a plea for help to Code of Vets followers. And they immediately engaged some local realtors and folks on the ground here in Georgia.”
Bertram got the keys to a house on Jan. 15, the family moved in on Jan. 21, and Code of Vets raised enough money to prepay the landlord six months of rent. The organization also set up an Amazon wishlist so that supporters could purchase houseware, toys, and other items to be sent directly to the new home.
“I’ve been blown away. I mean, boxes are still showing up,” Bertram said. “It’s just amazing. Everything has come together.”
Other organizations have pitched in, with Simple Needs of Georgia helping furnish the house.
“Hopefully, in six months, I’ve got money saved up and permanent work and I’m able to put an offer on the house—that way we don’t have to keep moving,” Bertram said.
Last week, Ninger took Bertram to an appointment with a recruiter he knows, setting into motion a high chance of a job offer.
“There are a lot of things in the works, but who knows what I’ll end up with,” Bertram said.
As Bertram gets settled, Ninger is reflecting on the whirlwind he has watched unfold.
“These last couple of weeks have just kind of affected me in a way that I haven’t been affected before. Helping our shared heroes is a kind of joy I really haven’t experienced until now,” Ninger said. “The fascination and amazement that I’m experiencing with all of this is something that I’ve openly discussed with [my children]. And I’ve used it to reinforce my beliefs in God and the faith that we have, and the reason why we pray, and the miracles that are possible.”
Bertram is blown away by how quickly the Code of Vets community responded to his plight. He said he’s had contact with 22 different veteran organizations over the last few months.
“And there’s been several where I had to meet with them in person and fill out 20 pages of paperwork, and then go to another meeting, and then be on a waitlist,” he said. “I haven’t filled out anything with Code of Vets. The day after they found out my situation they were hands-on making a difference.”
A Giving Community
When a request comes into Code of Vets (usually via Twitter), Smith and her team contact the veteran to get more details and to obtain proof of service.
“It literally is that we listen to their story, we vet them, and I live stream,” Smith said. “The response is just overwhelming. When I share an individual story, literally within 24 to 48 hours, I’ve got whatever the funding it is that I need, and I’m able to turn around and give it to that veteran. It’s truly a God thing.”
She said Code of Vets raised more than $26,000 for veterans from Nov. 9 through to the end of 2018. On top of that are the Amazon wish lists that have been fulfilled—which she hasn’t added up.
“We paid for wood for an older Vietnam veteran up in Maine … to keep his little cabin warm this year because he’s getting older and he has a torn rotator cuff and wasn’t able to chop and split his wood,” Smith said.
She said a 46-year-old veteran had had his teeth pulled by the VA when he was 42, but hadn’t replaced them. The Code of Vets community raised the $3,000 needed for dentures within 48 hours.
“Once he got his teeth, I posted before-and-after pictures. People absolutely—the ones who donated—were like, ‘Oh my goodness, Gretchen, this is a life changer.’ ” Smith said.
“When the man was driving home and he had his teeth, he was bawling. He was talking to me on the phone. He said, ‘You’ve given me a new lease on life.’
“He was a hermit. He’d isolated himself from the world, didn’t have a job, didn’t go to church. Because he was ashamed. He was also having some ill health issues because of chewing. And so now he’s got this whole new life, you know, I’m just so proud of him. He’s going to church, he’s starting to make some connections outside of his apartment and he just, he sent me a picture of him smiling and … there are no words.”
As the Code of Vets community grows, so do the heartwarming stories. Robert Lewis, a 72-year-old Vietnam veteran from the 101st Airborne, was picked up by an ambulance in California after a nasty fall recently. The EMT on the scene was a Code of Vets veteran, and once he discovered that Lewis was homeless, he asked Smith to help.
“So I started talking about him and live streaming,” Smith said. “A Marine veteran saw it out there in Anaheim, California, and his son is Kappa Sigma at University of California–Irvine.”
The Kappa Sigma fraternity has since set up a GoFundMe for Lewis to get him into an apartment for several months while he waits for the VA to find housing.
“We are not going to let him return to the streets where he will likely die,” the fraternity wrote on the fundraising page. “We will help this man, and many other men and women who have given our country so much. We owe it to these people; and Robert is just the start.”
Smith said Lewis has been on the VA housing list for nine months and he’s been homeless the whole time.
“How does that happen? How do our veterans end up sleeping under bridges, in their cars, and on the streets? I’m just so sick of it. I’m so tired of it and I don’t see any solution. But you know what? My solution is, one veteran at a time,” Smith said.
“I do know we’ve only helped 23 financially, but we’ve helped so many others in different ways,” she said.
“I’m so proud of what we’re doing. It’s just so amazing to see the generosity of the veteran community and American citizens who love and honor their military community. This is just a quick way for them to give back and to feel like they’re part of something.”
As for what’s next for Code of Vets, Smith said it has already outgrown her, which is a good problem to have.
“I have no idea how big it’s going to get. I would love for it to be nationwide, but again, would that be grassroots? So, I don’t know,” she said. “For me, it’s a labor of love. It truly is a passion that I feel like God has called me to do this. And my dad’s spirit is really guiding me.”
She said veterans have direct-messaged her on Twitter and told her: “Gretchen, please keep doing what you’re doing. I have PTSD, I’m struggling. You haven’t really personally helped me, but just watching what you do gives me hope, and you’ve given me a reason to get up off my butt to go get the help I need.”