Rodney Smith is preparing to pack his trusty Toro lawn mower into the back of his vehicle — the one with 320,000 miles on the odometer — and hit the road again.
Smith is scheduled to begin his “Thank you for your service and sacrifice’’ tour on Friday, Sept. 18, in Huntsville, Alabama. During a condensed three-week window, Smith plans to cut the grass of veterans, Gold Star families, Purple Heart recipients, POWs, those missing in action and families of active-duty service members in 48 states. He intends to fly to Alaska and Hawaii to complete his mission, but those dates are undetermined.
“It’s an honor just to hear those stories firsthand and thanking them for their service,’’ Smith said. “A lot of them never heard a ‘thank you’ before. They have, but they need to hear it more.’’
Smith, a 31-year-old social worker, started the Raising Men Lawn Care Service in 2016. The organization, which began including girls in 2018, pairs youth with veterans, the elderly, the disabled and single parents to perform outdoor chores such as cutting grass and raking leaves.
According to weareraisingmen.com, 700 youths in the program have mowed a total of 15,000 lawns. Smith’s 50-state tour is a one-man job, though. He goes it alone but follows a similar pattern. He cuts one or two lawns per state, interviews the homeowner, takes a picture with him or her and asks for a photo of the person in his or her military uniform.
“There have been a lot of World War II veterans that I met,’’ Smith said. “Meeting them, I feel like a little kid because I get to hear the stories firsthand. They were telling me [stories] like it was yesterday.’’
Smith, who never served in the military, recalled meeting a veteran who served as a former medic in Vietnam. The veteran was awarded five Purple Hearts and told Smith about soldiers dying in his arms, the sense of despair and hopelessness returning with each tragic memory. Smith gave a boy whose father was killed in Afghanistan his lawn mower on the spot.
“The feedback that I’m getting is, they did it because they loved their country,’’ Smith said. “They would do it again if they had to.’’
While growing up, Smith hated cutting the grass in much the same way that most children dislike eating broccoli. That changed for the native New Yorker while he was a student at Alabama A&M University. Smith noticed an elderly man struggling to mow his lawn one day. Smith offered to help.
“[God] was preparing me for that moment,’’ Smith said.
Smith developed that chance encounter into the idea behind his foundation. The veterans tour will be his ninth such 50-state odyssey. He did a similar one for veterans last year, but not all of his trips support the military.
Others, for example, have benefited breast-cancer survivors and promoted increasing dialogue between police and the communities they serve.
Smith is excited to get behind the wheel of his 2012 Ford Edge again. He purchased the used vehicle in 2018, when it had only 58,000 miles. All those lonely stretches of road later, Smith still does not mind the drive because of the payoff at each stop.
“They’re everyday heroes,’’ Smith said of veterans. “They [gave] their all for this country. We need to appreciate them and honor them while they’re here.’’
Smith will auction off each lawn mower at the end of the tour and donate the proceeds to charities supporting veterans.