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Veterans' new fight: reviving inner-city America

How some veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are helping turn around a drug-infested neighborhood of Baltimore – and themselves.

(Page 2 of 6)

Experts say that's a common complaint from returning veterans. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, 2.7 million American service members have become civilians again. It's a huge adjustment, not just for those with traumatic injuries or memories, but for all who face the question: How do I build a meaningful life back home?

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"People feel like they need to matter to something bigger than themselves, bigger than a task and marching orders," says Meredith Kleykamp, a researcher at the University of Maryland in College Park who studies veteran unemployment. "Veterans had that [in the military], and they didn't have to go out and find it – it was given to them."

As they return to civilian life, she says, it falls to them to choose their own missions – often for the first time.

Jobs are hard for veterans to find these days. In April, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports, 9.2 percent of veterans who had served since 9/11 were unemployed, compared with 7.6 percent of nonveterans. A recent 4,000-member survey by the nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America found even higher rates, including 35.7 percent unemployment among 20-to-24-year-old veterans of the two wars.

Many factors contribute, from poor transition training, to the difficulty of translating military experiences and skills into civilian language and jobs, to some employers' nervousness about veterans' stability. New initiatives like the "VOW to Hire Heroes Act" President Obama signed in November, and his proposed Veterans Job Corps, may help.

But beyond the challenge of finding a job is the challenge of finding civilian work, paid or not, that is as compelling as members' service overseas. Nationwide, a few nonprofits – including Team Rubicon, an international disaster-response corps, and The Mission Continues, a volunteer-support organization – are trying to harness veterans' continuing desire to do mission-driven work. But for now, they're the exception.

As Blake was looking for a way to make an impact back home, he visited his local Veterans of Foreign Wars post. There, he met other young vets who were similarly adrift, and together they founded a nonprofit called The 6th Branch – envisioning a community service organization to join the other five branches of the military.

The group tackled various volunteer projects, trying to settle on a cause, but nothing stuck. Eventually, Blake reenlisted. The 6th Branch seemed ready to disband.

* * *

Meantime, newlyweds Earl and Zenitha Johnson had just bought a home on a quiet, leafy Baltimore street called Eden. They didn't know much about the area, but what they had heard wasn't great: Parts of the gritty HBO drama "The Wire" had been filmed there because of all the vacant buildings and ambient drug dealing.

A century ago, Oliver was known for its stately brick row houses with carved cornices and white marble stoops. Today, a third of these stand vacant, and more are falling to ruin around their inhabitants. Liquor stores outnumber all other kinds of businesses, and the number of residents who remember Oliver as a proud, vibrant community grows smaller every year.


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