Thursday, Nov 20, 2014

Hill: Dog Tag Heroes of St. Pete dedicated to veterans

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No doubt Kismet played a major role in our meeting.

I saw a story in a local neighborhood publication about an organization I had never heard of dedicated to serving veterans.

Given I’m fond of veterans’ organizations, particularly those started and run by local folks, I set out to track down some of the people in the story for a column.

An email I sent to one board member went unanswered, as did a telephone call to the person who turned out to be the former president.

The website was “under repair,” often shorthand for “nearly shut down.”

While leafing through the publication, I noticed a story that I knew was a year old. But I know how accidents like that happen so I didn’t think anything of it.

A day or so later, Kathy Smith called and said that she is the creator of the group, Dog Tag Heroes, and someone had told her to call me. We met at her north St. Petersburg home later in the week.

She is a delightful woman with an absolute passion to memorialize her deceased husband, Dennis Smith, a Vietnam veteran who died at 56 in 2006 from the lingering effects of Agent Orange exposure in Vietnam.

During Dennis’ lengthy illness, Kathy struggled along without help. Dennis had only been in the service for a few years, so was not eligible for a pension. His appeals for disability were denied. So the family made do.

“It was rough,” says Kathy.

The couple has two children, a daughter who now lives out of state, and a son, Dennis Jr., who lives with his mom.

Once the Veteran’s Administration declared Dennis’ death service-related, Kathy was eligible for widow’s benefits. That came about the time she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, which she is still battling.

Nonetheless, she wanted to start an organization to assist veterans who were either not eligible for VA assistance or preferred not to deal with the VA.

Dog Tag Heroes was begun as a vision – and it is still a vision even though it is now about 4 years old.

As Kathy’s health failed, she turned the group over to others. It was that iteration of the organization that I read about – in the publication that was, in fact, a year old. That’s where Kismet stepped in.

When that group was unable to make a go of it, Kathy took Dog Tag Heroes back and it is now under renovation.

Her dreams are still intact, her goals perhaps unrealistic, but she is working with a group in Cape Coral, Invest in America’s Veterans Foundation, which has developed a military museum and library. It even has a bus outfitted with memorabilia that brings history to local educational institutions.

Kathy realizes the Cape Coral group is light years ahead of her efforts, but she refuses to give up.

She wants a place for one-stop shopping, where a veteran could display personal memorabilia, get help with education, training, finding a job, paying rent. Help with substance abuse. You name it.

She also would like a rejuvenated board of directors – veterans, preferably, committed to helping other vets.

Plus, she would like other non-profits helping vets to coordinate services.

She has raised money in the past by collecting in front of shops, holding car washes, staffing a semi-thrift shop in a flea market. With that money she has paid the rent of veterans down on their luck and helped them to furnish rentals.

She is no longer able to raise money as she has done in the past, given her health. So she says she wants to start a thrift store to raise money.

Does she have a storefront? No. Fixtures? No. A truck to pick up donated good? No. The money to underwrite a start-up? No.

But she has faith in the goodness of people when it comes to supporting veterans and enormous determination.

“I live for veterans,” she says. “This is my calling. It helps me with my grief [over losing her husband of 26 years]. I want to make a difference in their lives.”

For information about Dog Tag Heroes, email Kathy at katindesert@gmail.com.

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