Retired and active-duty soldier, airmen and sailors are the backbone of America that stepped up and served while sacrificing some of their best years. Some survived battles while others had duty taking them away from home and family, service to be proud of.
The Special Military Active Recreational Travelers (S.M.A.R.T.) celebrates veteran’s sacrifices through travel and fellowship by visiting different destinations, caravan style. The only requirement is to be active or retired and honorably discharged veterans from U.S. and Canadian Armed Forces plus own a camper.
Their website states: “A veteran, as defined by federal law, moral code and military service is; “Any person who served for any length of time in any military service branch.” Although not military veterans, we also invite veterans of commissioned service in NOAA and USPHS to join as well.”
S.M.A.R.T. was incorporated in 1983 and currently has 42 chapters with 969 members. Regional or national chapters plan trips to interesting and fun destinations then travel together in caravans with many events between rallies, called musters by this group.
“I helped found the Kansas S.M.A.R.T. program many years ago with several veterans,” said Kansas military veteran, Sherwin Stielow (87). “We had all served and wanted to spend time with others that had shared the same type of experiences. We decided to form a club that was all military vets from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines. At the beginning we only included retired veterans, but today active-duty military are included for free.”
The group found that others shared the same desire to meet and spend time together. Soon the plan to form a traveling club of veterans took shape and old friendships were renewed and new friendships were formed. Members could talk about their combat days or not discuss their hardships, depending on their desire. The organization started to take shape.
“We started planning and soon formed chapters nationwide,” Stielow said. “At one time I was on the Board of Directors and soon we had 6000 members with plans to make it over 10,000. A problem quickly arose and we started losing members. We had built our organization with a lot of old vets and they were getting too old to travel and some died. Every year we lost more and more members.”
S.M.A.R.T. has returned to towns with attractions like Branson, Missouri many times in past years. This Ozark town welcomes veterans with patriotic tributes at live shows, moving memorials and an annual celebration commemorating servicemen and women. They, too, are veteran friendly with discounts and other perks.
“We have actually been invited to march in the Branson Parade many times,” Stielow said.
“One year while we were in the parade, the band was playing and our veterans were marching, when to the east here came a bald eagle at about 200 feet. The beautiful bird soared right over top of us and actually hovered there. Then three more bald eagles flew over. The crowd was watching the eagles more than our parade. That was a moment we will never forget.”
During another Branson parade one of the members was having trouble walking and fell down. Several ran to his aid, but he stood and pushed them away, insisting he could make it. The veteran did finish the parade route and an ambulance was waiting at the end, but he refused it. That determination was exactly what has made the S.M.A.R.T. program work. Sadly, the group is shrinking.
“Today I believe we have around 1000 members nationwide and in Kansas approximately 200 or so at most,” Stielow said. “Kansas is down to one chapter. We only take six trips a year now. We used to take more. But we have smaller events too. The group continues to meet for dinners or game nights. We recently met with veterans I’ve known all my life for dinner and a night of reminiscing.”
The Kansas group is part of a national chapter. Their annual meeting was sadly cancelled due to the Covid epidemic. Many of these members travelled annually until 2020 when the virus hit, but Stielow greatly fears they will drop numbers in coming years due to the virus.
“I’m afraid when this is over, I don’t know what we’ll have left,” he said. “Hopefully everyone will want to get together when this virus is finished.”
Members around the country relieve the value of this organization especially to veterans and are constantly trying to recruit. The national office is constantly taking steps to insure S.M.A.R.T. memberships continue to grow.
“Six of our members serve on a recruiting and retention group,” said Melissa Wade, S.M.A.R.T. executive manager. “They find active military members to recruit and offer them a free membership. We have about 30 active-duty members too date. Companies like Camping World RV and Outdoors helps recruit, providing added coverage across the United States.”
S.M.A.R.T. provides posters, magazines and other information around RV parks to attract new members. Likely most of their recruiting success is through word of mouth. Members, too, have banners on their rigs and are frequently asked about their smart signs. Several actually walk around camp sites searching out potential members.
“We have four big caravans with our national group each year,” Wade said. “This event gives the older members something to look forward too. They have a lot of happy hours and pot lucks to look forward too, then sit around a fire and enjoy each other’s camaraderie. The veterans love spending time with each other.”
What is in the future for Smart? Stielow prays it will keep going.
“Including first responders to our group is still being discussed. We hope to bring in young retirees when the virus is over and we can build our numbers up,” he said. “But that may very well be a struggle. We try our best and are in there to the end, but I hope the end is not in sight.”
For more information about the Kansas S.M.A.R.T. program, contact Sherwin Stielow at: (785)-483-1504. Active military members are free, veteran’s dues are 65.00 and spouse 30.00 annually. For more information about joining the national group, call (800)-354-7681 or email: email@example.com.