“This is a true story, read on”
by Ken Smith
Once upon a time, I ran the largest shelter for Homeless Veterans in the USA, located in Boston Massachusetts. Here is a story that I remember with a smile:
Nowadays we all have cable TV hooked up, but back in the early 1990s cable TV was a treat, and not many people in the Financial District of downtown Boston had cable TV.
The mayor of Boston at the time was a fan of the veterans shelter in his public appearances but not a happy camper when we were arguing about funding in private. Real estate developers were still stinging about losing out on getting the old VA hospital in downtown Boston, valued at $40 million, given to a charity I had started and these developers could give the mayor more money than the charity could give goodwill.
I met with the mayor a few months before the annual Army-Navy game and asked, “Can you help us get cable TV hooked up at the shelter? The cable company is telling us that we can’t have it installed and it will be two more years before they can service our building. What’s odd is that some other buildings around us have cable TV but the cable company insists we’re not going to get cable for two years.”
The mayor said he would try to help, but the end result was no cable TV.
Then our in-house building maintenance engineer, (I called him RR&L), it stood for Ronnie-Ricky & Louie, as this guy could do almost anything, and anyway, he came up with an idea to get cable TV that I had to think about.
“You know,” he said, “we have experts here in the shelter (he was talking about current homeless veterans that lived in the building) that could splice into the main cable trunk in the street outside. Nobody would know and we could do this simply.”
“How?” I asked.
“Well, when the cable guys, who happened to be veterans, were working in the street last month setting up other buildings, we saw where the main junction box was placed and it’s at the same height as the basement of our building. I could have a crew drill a crawl way tunnel to the main cable junction box, we could then splice in and nobody would know.”
I don’t know what came over me , whether it was the thrill of doing something wrong or the idea that I was pissed that we couldn’t get cable for the Army-Navy game and even the mayor couldn’t get us cable but I told him to do it.
RR&L said he’d need some special drills and some tools but he knew where to get them and said he could rent them and this would take a week, two at the most.
So, the next day, as I sat in my office on the 9th floor of this old VA hospital, our comptroller asked me if I approved a tool rental for $425 for the engineering department.
I said yes.
Now, I seldom went to the basement of the building anyways, and during the week and a half while this drilling and tunneling was going on I never went to see what was happening.
I thought that what I don’t see, I don’t know.
Each day melded into the next and most of my days started off by reviewing reports of operations from the night before. Hundreds of homeless veterans needed special handling, meals, medical care, and all kinds of things. This review of overnight activities usually took me an hour or two and while I was in the middle of this exercise I get a call from the front desk duty officer who said, “You better come down here right away. The FBI wants to talk to you.”
I said the FBI, you sure?
This guy who was on duty working at the front desk was a retired cop, all business and said, yup, and he’s asking for you by name.
Now, I didn’t know what the hell was up, but I figured the FBI, Jesus.
I went downstairs and sure enough, here was the classic FBI guy. Dark suit, white shirt, sunglasses. He might as well have had federal agent written across his forehead.
“Can I help you?” I said.
“Are you Ken Smith?”
“Yes I am.”
“Can we speak in private?”
On the first floor of the shelter near our front entranceway was our three-bed sick bay, and nobody was in this room at the moment so I asked him to follow me.
We went into this small office and the FBI guy closed the door and said, “What are you doing?”
At first I thought, “What am I doing? What the hell are you doing?”
What came out of my mouth was, “What am I doing? What do you mean by that?”
This FBI guy then took off his sunglasses and I could tell he was pissed.
He said, “What are you doing?”
I wasn’t really afraid of him and actually got a little pissed myself and I said, “Look, I don’t have a goddamn clue as to what you’re talking about. Show me your badge.”
He not only had a badge, he had a friggin gun.
“Now, this is your last chance Smith,” he said. “What are you doing in the basement?”
“Holy crap, I swear,” I said, “I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about, but you and I can go to the basement right now.”
He said, “Lead the way.”
As we walked to the stairwell to get to the basement my mind was racing. What the hell was this guy’s problem?
As we went into the basement area I heard the drills and I thought to myself, “Holy crap, someone turned us in.”
As we came around the corner in the basement, for the first time I saw what the FBI guy saw. It looked like something out of a diamond mine in South Africa.
Three homeless vets had the biggest goddamn drill I have ever seen in my life, the bit had to be 10-12 feet long. Dust was everywhere, and they each had on hard hats , goggles and dust masks. They looked like coal miners.
Two vets were on the drill and one guy was putting stuff into a wheelbarrow.
The FBI guy looked at me and said, “What’s this all about?”
Now, I knew better than to bullshit the FBI so I told the truth.
“We’re drilling for cable TV.”
“What?” he said.
“We’re drilling for cable TV I said again. There’s a cable TV junction box right in the middle of the street outside our basement. Nobody who is doing this work right now, none of these guys you see who are doing this work are guilty of anything. I am.”
He calmly said, “You’re drilling for cable, like cable for friggin cable TV?”
“Yep I answered. The Army-Navy game is in two weeks and we don’t have TV reception here in this building and we asked everyone including the mayor and nobody could help us out, so this was our plan. All we want to do is put in a little splice to the cable box so the vets can watch the Army-Navy game. I know it looks bad, but we can stop it right now and I don’t want anyone held accountable but me.”
With that, the FBI guy took a small radio out from behind his back and said something about standing down.
When I asked what he was going to do, he said, “Look, I’m a veteran too, I know how valuable this homeless veterans shelter really is, but you have to understand, this is the financial district of downtown Boston and right across the street from where you have been drilling for the past week to get cable TV is a big bank. Every sensor alarm they own is ringing right now and they thought, well, they were convinced that you homeless vets were planning on robbing them by drilling into their safe deposit vaults.”
“Jesus,” I said. “Go figure.”
Less than a week later the cable company came and hooked us up to cable TV and gave us the account for free. We rented a large projection TV and all the vets watched the Army-Navy football game in our mess hall. An anonymous donor sent in 40 large pizza’s and five cases of cola for the game, compliments of the FBI, I’m sure.
For more than twenty-five years Ken Smith has been a leading advocate for veterans. A combat Vietnam veteran, Ken served during 1971-72 as a paramedic and an infantry squad leader with Delta Company, 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry, in the 196th Light Infantry Brigade, Americal Division. After his discharge, Ken continued his work as a paramedic in New England. On the streets of Boston he encountered growing numbers of homeless Vietnam veterans, and he became determined to both assist them and draw attention to their plight.
In 1989, Ken founded the New England Shelter for Homeless Veterans, located in a former VA hospital at 17 Court Street in downtown Boston. One of the first facilities designed for homeless veterans and now a national model, the shelter has served over 35,000 of America’s veterans who, for whatever reason, find themselves living on the streets.
In 1992 Ken was awarded Point of Light #142 by President George H. W. Bush, and later that same year received the AMVETS Silver Helmet Award, considered the “Oscar” for American veterans. As one of America’s foremost veterans service organizations, AMVETS (or American Veterans) has a proud history of assisting veterans and sponsoring numerous programs that serve our country and its citizens. Ken was awarded this honor along with Peter Coors, with whom he still maintains a personal friendship.
Over the years Ken has appeared on many national media programs including Good Morning America, Prime Time Live, ABC News, CBS News, Larry King Live, CNN, 60 Minutes, and The Geraldo Show. He has been quoted in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The Miami Herald, and numerous international newspapers, magazines, and websites. In 1992, Ken had the distinction of addressing both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions as a keynote speaker on the subject of veterans.
Ken recently left his last assignment with the Military Order of the Purple Heart Service Foundation, where he was the chief technology architect of the Veteran’s Vocational Technical Institute, Purple Heart Car Donation program, Purple Heart Call Center, Purple Heart Radio, Purple Heart Tech Support, Purple Heart Services, and over thirty new Purple Heart websites. Ken Smith provided the vision and has overseen the implementation of innovative, virtual, work-at-home training programs for veterans with combat disabilities. Ken has designed, upgraded, and supervised the integration and installation of Purple Heart Service Foundations computer and telephony systems, upgrading features from legacy POTS phones to SIP-trunked communications systems including establishing new VPN networks for teams of remote virtual employees.
An adventure sports enthusiast, Ken enjoys extreme skiing, competitive sailing, flying, and travel. He has traveled extensively worldwide, delivering his positive message to the veterans of other countries that a paraplegic veteran of the United States suffers the same as a paraplegic veteran of India; that an amputee veteran of Nepal suffers as much as an amputee veteran of France. Ken’s mentor was Harold Russell, the two-time Academy Award winner who starred in the 1946 film Best Years of Our Lives. A World War II veteran, on D-Day, June 6th, 1944, Harold lost both of his hands. This ghastly misfortune did not stop him, and he went on to become the chairman of the President’s Committee for People with Disabilities. For over fifty years he served US presidents from Truman to Clinton. Ken was humbled and grateful when Harold agreed to serve as the best man at Ken’s wedding.
Ken has been instrumental in the planning stages for the Veterans Workshop, a new nationwide veterans’ advocacy group building a new “Veterans Hotline, and the development of special programs for those who have lost their sight or their hearing, or who have suffered spinal cord injury, as a result of their military experience. The Veterans Workshop provides a forum where new technology and advancements in the fields of prosthetic and orthotic solutions, many designed by Ken, are shared along with virtual training and employment programs.
A 1970 graduate of De La Salle Academy in Newport, Rhode Island, for the past twenty-five years Ken has continued his education with extensive college courses in computer technology and related social service fields. He resides in his native state of Rhode Island with his wife and children.