The streets surrounding 66-year-old Carolyn Lawson's East Baltimore home look like they've been through a war. After decades of devastation by drug-related violence and crime, many of the row houses in her Oliver neighborhood are neglected or vacant, boarded-up eyesores with plywood windows.
But on a sunny Sunday morning last April, Lawson's house was a hive of activity. More than a dozen volunteers had turned out to haul decades' worth of accumulated junk out of her overcrowded basement — a necessary first step before the city's weatherization assistance program for low-income residents could make more improvements and repairs.
The service day was organized by a group called The 6th Branch, co-founded by Marine veteran and Loyola University Maryland psychology graduate student Rich Blake. The name is a play on words, Blake explains — after the five branches of the military, community service is a sixth branch.
Blake and his co-founders wanted to channel military veterans' energy and know-how to help revitalize Oliver, which, as the inspiration for the gritty HBO drama "The Wire," is one of the country's most famously beleaguered neighborhoods.
In the year and a half since the project began, The 6th Branch volunteers have cleared trash, planted trees on abandoned lots, worked with artists to paint murals on empty buildings and helped people like Lawson fix up their houses.
Blake says the veterans have benefited as well as the neighborhood. The group's mission — dubbed "Operation Oliver" — has given him and other vets a new sense of purpose in their post-military lives.
"The loss of meaning and identity [after leaving the military] may not be part of a diagnosis, but it can have so much impact on a person's well-being," he says. "I've seen vets come into what we're doing, get that passion and that fire back, and come out from being in the dumps. It's been extremely therapeutic for them."
An operation's start
Blake knows firsthand the importance of finding a new mission after leaving the military. After he left the Marines in 2003, he experienced some PTSD symptoms and felt a nagging sense of purposelessness after the focused mission he'd experienced in Iraq.
Eventually, he found his purpose in psychology. He finished college and, in 2008, earned a scholarship from the Pat Tillman Foundation to attend graduate school at Loyola, with a plan to study PTSD. Blake, an Ohio native, moved to Baltimore — a city he didn't know at all.
About six months after he moved, Blake met Earl Johnson, a fellow veteran who had just moved to Oliver, at a community service day sponsored by the Tillman Foundation.
Johnson and his wife had purchased a house from a builder who was attempting to redevelop parts of the neighborhood. They were lured by the affordable price on a beautiful custom-built home, but soon realized that the neighborhood was in worse shape than they had thought.
"My wife didn't feel safe," Johnson says.
Together, Blake and Johnson decided to work on rebuilding Oliver the way they'd worked to rebuild parts of war-torn Iraq and Afghanistan. "We thought maybe we could take that military mentality and apply it to community service," Blake says.
Blake, Johnson and a few other young veterans began to walk around the neighborhood, introducing themselves to neighbors, making note of where the drug dealers hung out and which empty lots they could improve.
They also began to organize community service events, bringing in local college students, community groups and others. A year later, Operation Oliver has recruited more than 2,000 volunteers. At Carolyn Lawson's house, for example, the veterans were joined by students from the University of Baltimore's School of Health and Human Services, who were there as part of a senior seminar.
"I think that just by virtue of us bringing in the thousands of volunteers we have, it's really changing people's perceptions," Blake says. "Before, people would drive around the area [to avoid it], and now they're coming in for service projects."
The goal is not only to help current residents but also to attract new ones to the neighborhood, Blake says.
"We want every block mostly occupied," he says. "When there are vacant homes, that's when there's no accountability for what's going on there, that's why there's drugs and crimes and garbage."
Though many residents welcomed the veterans' efforts, their reception hasn't been universally positive. Some longtime residents, such as church leaders and others, found the group's approach too brash at first, Johnson says. They were bothered by the fact that the veterans began their projects without consulting longtime community leaders.
That was a beginner's mistake, according to Johnson. "We're working on repairing those relationships," he says. "It's important to have a unified face."
For residents like Lawson, meanwhile, the group has been a godsend.
Lawson raised three children in her rowhouse, and nursed her mother, mother-in-law and husband there until their deaths.
"I want to stay in this home because there are a lot of memories here, sentimental things," she says. And she says she couldn't have done it without the help of The 6th Branch volunteers: "I am very religious, and I really feel that the Lord has sent all this my way."
Soon after the day of service at Lawson's house last spring, Blake left Baltimore for Tacoma, Wash. For his internship year, he decided to rejoin the military — this time as an Army captain — and in September he began working as an intern at Madigan Army Medical Center near Tacoma. He's maintained his interest in PTSD — his dissertation research is on PTSD in the mining and steel industries — and at the military hospital he works with veterans with PTSD and "any other kinds of issues you can think of that returning veterans might have."
He hasn't left Operation Oliver behind entirely. Over 32 days in April and May, he bicycled the 3,200 miles from Baltimore to Tacoma to raise money for the group, netting more than $13,000 in donations. He also remains on the organization's board, though he's left its day-to-day operations in the hands of Johnson and new Executive Director Dave Landymore, a Marine veteran and a student at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.
In November, he returned to Baltimore for five days to take part in another cleanup project and to talk to local elementary school students on Veterans Day. He was heartened, he says, to see the changes in one formerly empty lot, which one year ago was filled with overgrown weeds, broken glass and heroin needles. Today, it's a park, complete with two basketball hoops, a tire swing and a flower garden. On the day he was there, he says, at least 20 kids were there playing basketball.
Disbanding Operation Oliver, Blake says, is not an option.
"When we first started [the group] we decided to commit for 12 months, put all of our resources in, and see what we could do. I think that the consensus now is that we don't want to walk away with an unfinished job."
Video: A Day of Service
Watch Rich Blake and The 6th Branch volunteers help Carolyn Lawson fix up her house.