As Matt Smith got closer to retirement from the Iowa Army National Guard, a job posting in an email caught his eye. Hope For The Warriors was seeking a military and veteran outreach manager. Smith had heard of the organization through the fundraisers local chains Casey’s General Store and Hy-Vee held for it each year.
Marine spouses Shannon Maxwell and Robin Kelleher founded Hope For The Warriors in 2006 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. They had organized a run to bring the community together. When it went well, Kelleher said, they asked “What else can we do?”
The organization now offers transition assistance, health and wellness support, and sports and recreation opportunities.
Smith, who climbed the ranks to sergeant major over 20 years, mostly worked as active duty operational support in the Guard, deploying to Sinai, Egypt, once and Afghanistan twice. He had also been a U.S. Department of State security contractor at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, and a pipeline security manager.
He wanted to continue working with the military community, so when he heard that Lee Bonar, Hope For The Warriors’ director of military relations and a retired Marine Corps sergeant major, was going to attend the Enlisted Association of the National Guard of Iowa’s 2019 meeting, he reached out.
“We met for breakfast, and as it is when you get two sergeants major together in the morning, it went swimmingly,” Smith said.
A month later he became Hope For The Warriors’ military and veteran outreach manager, but said he knows most soldiers will have a more difficult time finding work after separating, noting that the reserve components’ transition programs aren’t as robust as those offered to active-duty.
“Transitioning for service members is one of those issues that you know we’re going to be dealing with, and have been dealing with, from now until the end of time,” he said.
Hope For The Warriors’ program Warrior’s Compass can fill that gap, Smith said. It sets transitioning service members up with a mentor, helps them with their resume, offers online training and can introduce them to employers looking to hire veterans.
“Let’s say you’re an infantry squad leader. You don’t realize the training you have. You have leadership training, and project management training,” Smith said.
Dungeons & Dragons and ‘getting dirty’
Smith leaned into his self-professed nerdiness to offer veterans community during COVID-19 related shutdowns: virtual Dungeons & Dragons.
“It’s like being in the field without getting dirty,” Smith said. “We get to tell stories and interact without the stress and pressure of leadership.”
Sgt. 1st Class Nikolaus Refsland, who worked with Smith to establish the group, said when it was initially brought up, he thought it sounded like it might be OK. It turned out to be the highlight of his week.
“One thing that motivated many who served was a desire for adventure. And when the adventure ends, it can put you in a dark place if you do not have people who understand you,” Refsland said. “This program allows for veterans to adventure again in a way that does not add to disability claims.”
Refsland, an Iowa National Guard tactical trainer, said he now has a group who has his back; who will reach out if he seems to be struggling.
“I’m grateful to have an impact,” said Smith, who tries to organize events for every interest, including veterans nights at stock car racetracks, 5K races, trunk-or-treats and homecoming ceremonies for Iowa National Guard troops.
Kelleher said Smith has been one of Hope for the Warriors’ “best hires.”
“If you were to ask someone on our staff what Matt’s role is, one might say he’s on the development team, another will say no, he’s military relations,” Kelleher said. “He’s on the communications team. He has all those different capabilities.”