ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – She’s a Department of Defense civilian; an industrial hygienist with the Army Public Health Center and a full-time wife. Somehow, she also finds time to explain benefits and filing procedures to veterans as an Assistant Department Service Officer, or ADSO, with the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
She’s also an American veteran, and that explains a lot.
A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Cindy Smith joined the Army at age 17 after completing accelerated course work in high school. Her career was accelerated as well. She signed up for the Signal Corps and attended basic training at Fort Dix, New Jersey in 1990. After advanced individual training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, Smith was assigned to Karlsruhe, Germany, with the 63rd Signal Battalion. Four days after she arrived in Germany, her boots were on the ground in the Saudi Arabian desert in support of Operations Desert Shield/Storm. After Desert Storm, the 63rd relocated to Fort Gordon, Georgia briefly before heading to another hot spot – Mogadishu, Somalia where she served as a small switchboard operator stationed with a medevac unit.
“That was even more challenging,” Smith said. “But one cool part was patching helicopter pilots to phones so they could call their wives. They would have conversations while they were in the air. It was like a morale boost.”
Smith was awarded a Bronze Star Medal after Somalia but she insists she “didn’t do much.”
One night when the encampment was under fire from RPGs being “lobbed over the fence,” one hit her generator.
“I ran out there to do backup procedures to try to stay on line,” she said, “when a guy comes running up and attacks the fire with a fire extinguisher. We worked on it together. It was kind of funny because he was only wearing boxer shorts and flip flops. They told me later he was the Task Force Commander.”
Smith turned 21 on the plane heading home from Somalia and she didn’t learn about the medal until five years later while stationed at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
It was 1998. Smith left the service but was recalled from 2002 to 2004 to support Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. She changed from signal to Preventive Medicine and earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental management from the University of Maryland University College, and a master in occupational safety and health from Columbia Southern University.
The former staff sergeant also switched to warrant officer in 2008.
Smith started helping veterans as a Veterans Benefits Specialist with the State of Maryland but continued after leaving their employment. She said she “ran into so many friends or fellow veterans who were having problems.”
She said she was surprised at the amount of veterans as well as their survivors, who didn’t understand their benefits, didn’t realize the programs and services they were eligible for, and had no idea how to file claims. And there weren’t a lot of places to go for help.
“Technically, I started doing this in 2005,” she said, noting that she didn’t fully dedicate herself to helping veterans as a volunteer until after another deployment in 2012.
“I wanted to continue what I started,” she said.
Smith became an accredited ADSO with the Veterans of Foreign Wars and started a walk-in service at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5337 in Abingdon. After two years, she extended the service to American Legions Post 135 in Perryville and American Legion Cecil Post 15 in Elkton.
Along with one-on-one counseling sessions, she hosts seminars and workshops; she frequently appears as a subject matter expert at veteran-related gatherings; and she is on the VFW Post 5337 website where customers can set up individuals or group appointments; even home visits for those with limited mobility.
Her days can run long. She might not get home until 11 p.m. The plus: her husband Marc, a former Edgewood Soldier and current Department of State civilian, supports and aids her self-made mission. He is her teammate, she said, in a game that sometimes seems endless.
“No matter how much I do I still find so many veterans or beneficiaries who are unaware of their benefits,” Smith said. “I started this because I believe if you can educate the veteran population then they can help themselves.”
“I’m not getting paid for this,” she added. “What keeps me going is I love when things work out.
It helps to have extensive knowledge of filing laws and procedures.
“It isn’t like the information is lying around. You have to look it up, then advise people of their options and follow through,” she said. “There are so many instances where I’ve helped people receive benefits or back pay that was owed to them that they didn’t even know about. But it’s not like the VA is hiding this information. You just have to know where to go or who to ask for answers.
“A good outcome,” she continued, “is when the veteran feels they got their due. My goal is to get them the max they’re entitled to under the law.”
Smith said she’d like to be thought of as “just a kindly vet; not a miracle worker.”
“My first rule is, ‘Do no harm,” she said. “You have to take responsibility of the evidence that’s required which is different for each situation.”
She said with a library of law books and regulations at her disposal she can informs veterans quickly if what they want is not attainable.
“Some of them don’t want to hear this and they get mad and walk out but I’d rather be honest with them up front and not waste their time, or mine,” she said.
“But I had a great teacher, who taught me ‘A veteran is a veteran,” she added. “He said people make the mistake of trying to get the vet to relate to them when they should be trying to relate to the vet. I saw how he treated people and I promised myself I would always treat people the way I would like to be treated. I deal with some characters, but I treat everyone the same.
“If you had the skill sets to help someone have a better life, wouldn’t you? I just want to be thought of as someone doing good. I think that makes all the difference.”
For more information or to make an appointment, contact Smith at 443-504-3576; visit www.vfw5337.com and click on “Service Officer;” or email email@example.com.