Coast Guard rallies behind wounded Detroit colleague

Angie Jackson
Grand Rapids Press

Utica — Coast Guard members across the nation have rallied behind a Detroit-based petty officer who was severely wounded in an attack while on vacation.

When word got out that Storekeeper 2nd Class Petty Officer Jennifer Smith was stabbed in a robbery while visiting Belize in December, members of her unit at Air Station Detroit began brainstorming ways to help.

Smith was transferred to a Coast Guard facility in Virginia after the attack, where she has received medical care and is closer to family. She and her husband, James, are now faced with having to sell their Utica home, which Chief Petty Officer Robert Holden said the couple bought less than a year ago as a “fixer upper.”

Holden, president of the Chief Petty Officers Association, Greater Detroit chapter, and other members are renovating the house to minimize the financial loss with the sale.

“We tried to find a way to alleviate the pain. Because of her injuries, we knew she probably wouldn’t be coming back here to Detroit,” Holden said.

The Coast Guard raised $10,000 in donations directly for renovations, Holden said. Money and gift cards to home improvement stores came from units as far as Alaska and Puerto Rico.

Since early January, dozens of Coast Guard members and volunteers have been busy putting the funds to use with home projects that include new flooring, painting and plumbing work and installing new cabinets and countertops. They’re now working on the finishing touches.

Two Coast Guard members from Cleveland even took leave to help renovate the Macomb County home.

“It’s very much a family group, and people started coming out of the woodwork from all over,” Holden said. “We’ve gotten a lot of support from everybody. It kind of reiterates why I joined the Coast Guard.”

Smith, who is in her mid-20s, was in Belize with a friend when she was attacked, Holden said. The San Pedro Sun reported she was stabbed twice while walking on the beach back to her hotel at night. A man approached her for money, then stabbed her in the back near her spinal cord and the back of the head, the newspaper reported.

A description on a GoFundMe page that has raised more than $15,000 for Smith said the attack left her paralyzed on the left side of her body from the abdomen down.

Holden said her injuries will require long-term care. Her future home will require a handicap-accessible ramp. “She’s the sweetest girl you’d ever meet,” Holden said. “It’s one of those things I think I’ll always wonder, ‘Why her?’ ”

Local business owners learned of Smith’s story and donated granite and cabinets, which freed up funds for smaller projects around the home. Other companies donated services, such as boiler repairs and plumbing.

The Chief Petty Officers Association, Greater Detroit chapter has posted frequent updates on the group’s Facebook page that show the home’s transformation from demolition stage to nearly complete with polished floors and fresh coats of paint.

“Whatever they make off of this house can go toward their next home,” Holden said.

Holden said Smith and her husband have expressed their appreciation.

“I’m so excited to be out (of the hospital), but I miss my house so much. I am however extremely grateful for all the work my unit is doing in the house. I really hope it sells fast!” Smith wrote in an update on the GoFundMe page.

The Chief Petty Officers Association is a nonprofit made up of active and retired petty officers who help enlisted members when hardships arise. This has been the Detroit chapter’s biggest project yet, Holden said.

“I’ve had my rescues, those kinds of things you look back on,” he said of his 22 years of service with the Coast Guard. “I really think this is probably the most rewarding, being so hands-on with this.”