The shadow box sits at one end of the northern Michigan garage under an American flag. In it contains the relics of 22 years of Ron Smith’s life. They include medals and a list of Navy duty stations that started in June 1974 and ended in July 1996. It was 22 years of honorable service to this country that started as a parachute rigger and ended as a survival training instructor and counselor.
Like many veterans, Ron’s commitment to service didn’t stop when he left the military. He attached his name to a long list of projects that help others. That list includes Honor Flight, TC Patriot Game, Veteran to Veteran, Jobs for Vets, and Big Brothers Big Sisters. Ron has no hesitation to roll up his sleeves and do whatever he can to help others.
“He’s a rock, he’s an anchor,” said Reining Liberty Ranch Director, Becki Bigelow. Bigelow has not only seen Smith in action on her board, but she has also seen him help troubled veterans. She recalls one struggling vet who was near the breaking point. She remembers how Smith was able to talk him out of suicide. “I give Ron credit,” said Bigelow. “What value do you put on that one life? He listens with a military ear but acts with his heart.”
Smith is reluctant to take credit for lifesaving action but acknowledges his work as a Navy counselor has helped him with veterans in need. “When I hear them talk, a light goes on in my head,” said Smith. “I want to make sure they are OK. There are signals that are loud and clear. Most of the time I befriend them and if things are not going well, offer to give me a holler.”
Smith's story is not unique but is a common refrain among veterans, especially those in northern Michigan. Their stories are tales of service to the country and each other. Veteran’s Day is just one day of the year when the rest of us get to honor them for their service and recognize the sacrifices they have made. It recognizes that we stand on the shoulders of their greatness and the greatness of others that served before them.
Our region has a reputation for supporting veterans. “This is a community that is very responsive to veterans and active-duty military and their needs,” said John Lefler, President of the Grand Traverse Area Veteran’s Coalition.
For years Traverse City has shown support through the TC Patriot Game, the annual football clash between cross-town rival high school teams. Prior to the game veterans are honored with a ceremony where an estimated 13,000 people cheer on the veterans and active-duty military. Lefler notes it’s incredibly moving when you see tears running down the cheeks of grizzled Vietnam Veterans when they react to the raucous fans. “For a lot of them, that’s the first time they had a reception like that,” said Lefler. “It’s always great to see the people standing up and giving you an ovation — it's always very moving.”
For the most part veterans don’t seek recognition for their service. If they wear a hat that says “Iraq” or “Afghanistan” or “Vietnam” or “Korea” they don’t wear it for a pat on the back. But Lefler says when he wears clothing that identifies him as a veteran, he’s bound to get folks that thank him for his service. He would like to have all veterans recognized for something even greater. “I would like to hear, thank you for our freedom,” said Lefler. “Because that’s the truth of it. If it wasn’t for veterans that served and those that didn’t come home, you would not have the freedom we have today.”
Veteran’s Day becomes a great day to remember that freedom. It’s a great day to take a moment and thank a vet.