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.
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Smaller groups of mostly combat veterans also conduct (unarmed) evening patrols through the neighborhood, help police identify drug targets, attend community meetings, report dumpsites and gas leaks to the city, and work with a local nonprofit called the Veteran Artist Program, whose members have been painting murals and developing plans for a playground and community garden in Oliver.Skip to next paragraph
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Johnson is out on the streets so much, he has become like an unofficial mayor: Neighbors joke that his wife, Zenitha, is Oliver's first lady. More than once, their marriage has nearly been a casualty of his devotion to the neighborhood.
Though Blake and Johnson often act as spokesmen for Operation Oliver, officially the project has no top-down leadership, no fixed location, and no paid staff. The group survives on a shoestring, thanks to grants, private donations, and community fundraisers.
That appealed to Landymore. When he left active duty, besides taking college classes, he volunteered at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, at a homeless shelter, and with a high school mentoring project. Nothing came close to the feeling he'd had in Anbar Province in Iraq. Then an acquaintance mentioned Operation Oliver. The idea of using his military training to make an impact at home spoke to him.
"Although I'm an undergraduate student at UMBC" – The University of Maryland, Baltimore County – "I'm also a platoon sergeant in the Marine Corps, in charge of 45 marines and 12 tactical vehicles…. You've got all these skills," he says. "With both wars coming to a close, it occurred to me there's going to be a lot of former service members back in civilian life, and we better find out what to do with them. Otherwise, we're going to wind up with another generation of Vietnam veterans: underappreciated, underutilized."
He contacted Blake, who invited him to the group's next project, hauling trash and brush out of a vacant lot.
"Right when I showed up, I asked Rich: 'What are my orders?' " Landymore says. "He just said: 'Make this place better.' "
Landymore and his pear-shaped tea mug became a constant, calming presence among the big personalities of Operation Oliver. Within a few months, he was renting a home on Bond Street. In April, when Blake left Baltimore to return to active duty, Landymore took over as executive director of The 6th Branch.
"It's easy to go serve soup one time a week and go home and feel good about yourself," he says. "But if you weren't there [serving], somebody else would. We're here every day. If we weren't here, my street would still be a completely open-air drug market. But it's not."
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This Sunday morning, as grubby volunteers tromp up Lawson's front steps, everyone else outdoors seems to be headed to church. On neighboring blocks, old women in fanciful hats pick their way down crumbling sidewalks. In Oliver, the saying goes, there's a church on every corner. Though the churches are major power brokers in the neighborhood, members are mostly former residents who revisit the area on Sundays and have been praying for decades that it would turn around.
Members of Operation Oliver didn't come to pray. Initially, they saw the churches as part of what was holding the neighborhood back, by being too passive, and said so.
Marshall Prentice, who has led Oliver's Zion Baptist Church for a quarter century, disagrees. Over the years, his 1,100-member congregation has run a food pantry; paid neighbors' overdue rent and electric bills; provided havens for teens, people living with HIV, and victims of domestic abuse; participated in community health fairs and neighborhood prayer walks; cultivated strong relationships with local police; and lobbied to improve the lives of residents across the city.