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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He knows one elderly woman with no heat who boils water in winter so the steam will warm her. Another bails sewage from her basement into her yard with a bucket. "We won't have the impact we should have until we get into these houses," he says.Skip to next paragraph
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That's what volunteers are doing at Lawson's this morning: getting her home ready for weatherization so she can live in it safely. When they arrived, she struggled out to her stoop to say a blessing over them. Now, she sits in the living room with her young grandson, overseeing the parade of boxes emerging from the basement. "I'm looking at memories coming up the steps," she says.
Despite the hard years she spent in Oliver, when dealers ruled the park 20 yards from her door and taxi drivers bringing her home demanded payment upfront so they could drop her off and speed away, this is the place Lawson wants to live the rest of her life. She nursed her mother, mother-in-law, and husband through their final days in this house, and she wants to go the way they did – at home.
"I appreciate everything [the volunteers] have done to help me out," she says, " 'cause I know I couldn't have done it by myself."
Lawson was skeptical of the group at first; she had been on waiting lists for city assistance for a year and despaired that anyone was serious about getting things done. But the veterans charmed her.
"I talk to them like I talk to my sons," she says. "All of them are very friendly and helpful, and I can pick up their sense – you know, you can pick up a sense that a person is truly from the heart."
So Operation Oliver's effort to win over hearts and minds continues. "We're a foreign element, and in that way it's the same as it would be in Iraq or Afghanistan," says volunteer Jeremy Johnson, who is contemplating a move to the neighborhood. The important difference, he says, is that "here we have the ability to understand and adapt and bridge the gap. The people soldiering there [in Afghanistan or Iraq] were never going to stay. Here we can."
As members of Operation Oliver have become more diplomatic – and as their successes and the press they've generated have gotten the attention of the mayor, the police commissioner, and other powerful players across the city – both Oliver residents and leaders are coming to embrace a group that's eager to return the favor.
"I have nothing but praises for them now," says Mr. Russell, the police commander. At a recent meeting, he says, "it was like they are a different creature, and they want to play in the sandbox with everybody else."
Now, other organizations across the country are reading lessons into the group's experience: about volunteerism, about veteran unemployment, about reframing the national dialogue over how service members can contribute.
"It does show what our veterans are capable of outside the workplace – and even inside," says Jason Hansman of the Iraq and Afghanistan Members of America. "For every veteran doing Operation Oliver, there's probably 100 just like them who are unemployed."
IN PICTURES: The Next Mission: Veterans returning home
Operation Oliver volunteers hope the initiative will be duplicated in other "veteran-sponsored communities" across the nation.
"People have grown afraid of the veteran because they can't separate the man with the machine gun from the man with the mission," says Landymore, nursing his tea. "But look what I'm doing now. It's not something special. It's what people who live in the community should be doing anyway.
"Maybe being a veteran makes me a little more of a leader to be able to accomplish it," he says. "But the message I want people to get is: 'This is a mission for you, not just a mission for us.' "