Manitowoc, Wis. (WFRV) – Like many other veterans from the early 2000s, Two Rivers’ Ashley Smits felt a passion to serve her country after the events of 9/11.

Luckily, her brother Jason was already serving and offered her some guidance.

“My brother was in the Army, and I always kind of knew that I wanted to join the military, especially after 9/11,” Smits recalled. “He persuaded me to join the Air Force after he had lived that Army life, he knew the Air Force was a little bit better of a lifestyle,” she said.

Smits was stationed as an IT specialist first in Germany for three years, where she became a single mom to her daughter.

After that she spent time in Texas, and served her deployment stateside in Tampa, managing classified communications in the Middle East, something she can’t talk too much about.

After eight years, Smits decided it was time to focus on being a mom, but she came away with quite a bit.

“I always tried to prove myself, that I didn’t try to let being a single parent or even just a parent in general, affect my job, and I just always tried to prove that I could do everything that everyone else could,” Smits said.

“(I came away with) a lot of structure and discipline, training, friendships, camaraderie and I think just satisfaction to give back to my country,” she said.

Also like many, Smits’ transition back to civilian life was tricky.

“You know you do everything with these people, and then you get out and it’s kind of like you’re back and people don’t really understand you,” she recalled.

Smits decided to create her own space where she felt understood, a place where other veterans in her community of Manitowoc could feel at home; The Manitowoc County Veterans Facebook group.

“I reached out to the County Veterans Service Officer with my idea of wanting to start something for the younger generation, and he said, ‘Yeah, just run with it.’ And so, I created a Facebook group and added the three people I knew in the county who were veterans and went from there,” Smits said.

That group grew from 3 people, to now more than 500. It hosts regular events, but also provides resources for veterans.

For Smits, an idea that started with a few clicks, holds much deeper meaning behind it.

“I think everybody has a ‘why.’ When I joined the military, I had my ‘why,’ I joined because of 9/11 and I wanted to serve and be proud of my country, and so why was I doing this to help veterans?” she said.

“And the only answer I can come up with is because I care. I think really, it’s because I knew my struggles and I wanted to help others with their struggles,” said Smits.