A former Air Force nurse and National Guard wife is spreading warmth, help and encouragement across the nation, one steaming mug of tea at a time.
Veteran Rhonda Smith is the founder and owner of The Skirted Soldier, a small business specializing in hand-blended, loose teas. On one hand, it’s a natural progression for Smith, a lifelong country girl who spent childhood summers selling her grandpa’s corn on the side of the road. On the other, it’s a career she never saw coming; before Skirted Soldier, she wasn’t even a committed tea drinker.
“As I got older, tea was a special dessert or a special treat,” she said. “I really didn’t understand the complexity or the science of tea until I was stationed in Germany.”
While there, she lived on a farm for a year and a half. The hours milking cows, collecting eggs and gardening reinforced the idea of wanting to live a simple, healthy life once she left the military in 2001. The reality of post-military life, however, was not as idyllic as Smith hoped.
“When I discharged from active duty, I felt kind of lost and out of place,” Smith said. “I loved being back home and raising my son near my family, but I had a real disconnect from my fellow female veterans and the military environment in general.”
Thus was the dream born: to start her own business that supported and empowered forgotten female veterans. Smith eventually settled on the idea of tea, spurred on by the closing of her mother’s favorite tea shop. Her budget for launching the new business was $1,000.
And the name? Smith knew she wanted something that immediately announced its connection to female military members. “I had played around with several versions with ‘soldier’ in the name, and once skirted came up in a conversation, it stuck.”
The Skirted Soldier helps battle buddies
The Skirted Soldier officially began in March 2018 from Smith’s four-acre “farmette” in Blue Knob, Pennsylvania. The ingredients are sourced from member cooperatives and community-supported agriculture groups. And one-tenth of Skirted Soldier’s proceeds head straight to female veteran organizations. To date, Smith has donated more than $5,000, including grants to female vets involved in some sort of agribusiness.
In only three and a half years, the company’s reach has grown to 25 states and more than 50 Pennsylvania locations, in addition to online sales. Customers can choose from flavors like maple pecan fudge, blue angel blueberry, payload peach and sailor’s sunrise. Smith’s son, daughter and husband, former National Guard Master Sgt. Dan Kennedy, help out as needed, but Smith is technically Skirted Solder’s only employee.
Oh, and she also works full-time at a nearby nonprofit, sometimes logging 10- to 12-hour days on Skirted Soldier alone.
“On days when I am wore out, I just think about the importance that grant at the end of the year will be to provide another female veteran with the ability to scale [or] expand their operation,” Smith said. “Preparing the orders and making the tea has become a therapy of sorts for me.”
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Smith is happy to lend her expertise as a member of the governor’s council concerning female veterans in Pennsylvania, as well as other local agricultural boards.
“Rhonda Smith, as both a veteran and military spouse, represents the very best qualities of a servant-leader, mom and entrepreneur,” said Mimi Thomas-Brooker, project director for the Pennsylvania Veteran Farming Network. “Rhonda’s generosity… to lift up her fellow women veterans is remarkable, and I am so honored to call her a friend and colleague.”
Smith doesn’t need the praise. The idea of a female veteran gaining both comfort and courage from her tea is more than enough.
“Having the ability to help out a fellow battle buddy with even a small part means a great deal to me,” she said.