Smith grew up in North Carolina, where she was exposed to the effects of war and trauma through her father, Danny E. Smiley. Smiley was a Bronze Star Veteran who served two tours in Vietnam as an Airborne Infantry Sergeant with the U.S. Army. Upon returning home, he struggled with PTSD. He sought help at the Veterans Affairs (VA) but failed to find the help he needed with his struggles. Smiley would later tell his daughter, “I left a part of my humanity in the jungle.”
As an adult, Smith decided to join the U.S. Air Force and had a more positive and uplifting experience with the military. She said, “It just gave me a great foundation. The Air Force just instilled all the traits that I needed for a successful life to be part of the greatest nation on earth, and to have served for it is such an honor.” Smith served four and a half years in the USAF as a security specialist, where she met her husband, a fellow airman. After leaving the military, Smith turned her focus to raising her children. Tragedy struck in 2005 when Smiley passed away at age 57 because of PTSD. Smith will never forget one of their last conversations where he said, “Gretchen, I’m done. I’m tired; they’ve won. I need to go home.” Though emotional and devastating, her father’s death was a catalyst to Smith’s most important mission yet: supporting Veterans in need.
In 2017, Smith began a Twitter account to share videos about Smiley and the challenges he faced as a Veteran. She received comments from other Veterans saying how much they related to her father’s story. That was when Smith knew she had to do something. She had never managed a charity before, much less set out to start one, but a lack of background would not stop her from acting. “I wanted to turn that tragedy into something good,” she said. “I wanted to create a legacy for my dad, and so Code of Vets was born.” Using the power of social media, Smith rallied people from around the country to donate to individual Veterans in crisis. Along with many generous strangers, Smith was there to lend a hand if someone needed assistance for housing, grocery bills, or medical expenses.
In 2019, Code of Vets became a non-profit organization. Smith, and her small team, work on a volunteer basis, and only $.02 of every $1 donated goes towards operational costs. This model ensures that 98% of the aid reaches the Veterans in need. To date, Code of Vets has served over 3,000 honorably discharged Veterans. In addition to providing temporary financial relief, Code of Vets has helped with claim benefits, rides to doctors and VA appointments, and case management. “We are giving out funds, but there is a purpose, there is a plan in place,” Smith said. “That’s the real purpose of Code of Vets, to make a real difference in their life, in their moment of need when they have no hope, when they’re in a situation where they don’t see a way out.”
Smith lives in Murfreesboro, TN, with her husband, Joe. Running Code of Vets is a full-time job, but one Smith would not exchange for anything. “Not only is this a mission for us, but it’s a ministry, it’s a passion. It’s a personal journey of healing for my heart.”
The NFM Salute is an initiative in which one military member or Veteran is chosen each month to be honored as the “Salute of the Month.” Salutes are chosen from nominations on the NFM Salute website, www.nfmsalute.com. The “Salute of the Month” is featured on the website with a biography and information about his or her service. NFM Lending will donate to a non-profit in the Salute’s name. NFM Lending is proud to donate $2,500 to Code of Vets on behalf of Smith. NFM looks forward to the opportunity to continue to honor military service members and Veterans through the NFM Salute initiative.