Let us Lead

I am confident that many entities, Baltimore City being one of them, could benefit tremendously from engaging their local veterans, learning from their experiences, and utilizing their leadership. The underutilization of veteran leadership is especially true for Iraq and Afghanistan-era vets. Thanking us for our service and advocating on our behalf are well-intended gestures which veterans often appreciate. Yet if that is the only way we are being engaged, it truly devalues our unique skills and experiences and it is a disservice to a city that continues to face enormous challenges. It is no less than insulting to be expected to simply collect our veterans benefits and retreat to our barstools to tell war stories. We were the ones asked to invade foreign nations, to topple dictatorships, and to try to put it all back together. Remember? So why not involve us in the revitalization of Baltimore?

I have lived in Akron, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Ft. Lauderdale, and traveled plenty in the military. When I arrived in Baltimore in 2008 to study clinical psychology at Loyola University, I immediately fell in love with this city. There is so much potential for growth and for greatness. Everyone I know who lives in Baltimore, seems to love Baltimore. Everyone I know who doesn’t live here, seems scared of Baltimore. The physical appearance of many parts of the city and the diminished well-being of too many residents is an ongoing problem that is hindering revitalization. But what is most frustrating to me is to hear residents of Baltimore pointing a disproportionate amount of blame at the mayor as if there is a toggle switch in the mayor’s office able to immediately uproot blight and poverty. As soon as I hear such complaints, which I often do, I immediately ask the person what their excuse is for not doing something themselves. I believe those not joining or leading the fight against problems are in no such position to complain about them. I don’t care how much they pay in taxes.

Take the initiative and move with a sense of urgency. Those are two of the fundamental principles of United States Marines, and a big part of why the Marines tackle enormous challenges aggressively and swiftly. Their incredible ability to move from a planning phase to an action phase so rapidly is a big reason for their success. Another reason is their resourcefulness. Especially before the surge in defense spending as Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom progressed, the Marines were often left with outdated and sometimes unserviceable equipment. For example, we invaded hundreds of miles of Iraqi desert using Amphibious Assault Vehicles that were designed for beach raids. We wore chemical suits and gear with woodland camouflage making us stick out, not blend in. There was not enough body armor or night vision goggles for everyone, and we ran out of food and water on multiple occasions. But we did not complain. We kept moving, and adapted.

We had no such luxury of deflecting blame to our platoon commander. There were no explanations in the Marines, only excuses. Recently Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake introduced ambitious proposals to bring 10,000 families to Baltimore over the next 10 years and to make the Inner Harbor swimmable by 2020. When I heard these proposals, it motivated me. These are the type of aggressive and challenging missions that many vets thrive in. Yet, others around us were laughing and outright saying it could not be done. But, it can be done. It can be done if people rally behind it and if they do something about it. In many ways, Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s job is tougher than a Marine division commander in combat. When a division commander is tasked with a highly challenging mission, he has thousands of Marines behind him ready to sacrifice it all and to do so passionately. The mayor serves hundreds of thousands of people who are mostly out for themselves and not all that willing to get behind a city initiative in an active fashion.

Since October, I have been part of a multi-organizational initiative called Operation Oliver.  More than 1,500 volunteers have come to east Baltimore’s Oliver neighborhood for beautification projects that have resulted in the removal more than 56 tons of garbage, the painting of two murals, and the planting many trees and gardens. Garbage is a big deal. Nobody wants to buy a house next to a pungent dumpsite and kids shouldn’t have to walk through or play in filth. But we are not just picking up trash. We are changing perception, which is more crucial. Oliver is not a war zone. It is OK to go there. It is OK to live there. In fact, many of Oliver’s newly renovated row homes are nicer than any home I’ve ever stayed in. And I haven’t even mentioned that we’ve given residents access to jobs, that we’re working with the neighborhood youth, and that we’ve already moved new residents in.

We have done all this rapidly with little planning and few resources.  We have even had volunteers come from as far as New York City, Philadelphia, and North Carolina just to pick up trash for a few hours. They did so, I assume, because they wanted to be a part of something bigger than themselves. They wanted to be a part of something aggressive. My good friend Earl Johnson can relate to that feeling. He is the former Army Ranger and Oliver resident who enlisted our help last summer. He saw progress being made in Oliver, but he was frustrated with the slow pace of revitalization. He was tired of the talk and ready for action.

We would like to set an example that community entities and the city can learn from. That is, if you move from planning to action rapidly, set unprecedented goals, and be aggressive, then you can garner the support of many. I cannot understand the model of setting up monthly meetings to talk about problems and to build blueprints for success that are obsolete by the time they are printed. We do not have time for that, and the inefficiency of such a model is a threat to momentum and to morale. One of my Platoon Sergeants used to say “The enemy is not going to wait for you to take your time.” Likewise, poverty, blight, and crime are not going to pause for us to prepare a master plan. They are moving faster than we are. It is time to be rapid and resourceful. And it is time that people take action instead of complaining.

We are taking the initiative to support the mayor’s plan to bring families here and we are moving with a sense of urgency to help the people here who need it. We are looking for people to join us in our efforts to set an unprecedented example for a city to follow, and to support our mayor whose challenges far outweigh her resources.

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