Operation Oliver: Translating the Military Experience into Domestic Leadership

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By Rich Blake


There is a neighborhood in Baltimore City called Oliver. Once a thriving neighborhood decades ago, Oliver fell victim to the drug trade of the 80’s and people fled. Streets once buzzing with doctor’s offices and other businesses turned to empty, crumbling shells – ghosts of a happier past. And who could forget the Dawson family? A family of seven passed after their home was firebombed by a drug dealer upset because the police were being called. HBO’s crime drama The Wire nearly solidified the neighborhood’s dire reputation and grim outlook for turnaround. That is, until former Army Ranger Earl Johnson moved to the neighborhood.

Sure there were people trying to invest in the neighborhood and improve it, but the wheels were turning slowly. If there is one thing that civilian entities can learn from veterans it is a sense of urgency. Take for example my time as an infantryman in the Marines. If we were told to destroy an enemy position, we did not ask to form a committee to discuss the details or for some extra time to write a clever proposal. We did not have the luxury of time. The enemy was not going to wait for us to develop a master plan. An analogy can be made to neighborhood revitalization. As people have meetings to discuss the problems of trash, vacant homes, poverty, and crime, they are losing valuable time and valuable ground. Sooner or later, action needs to be taken – pencils need to be put down, and shovels need to be picked up.

Early in 2011, The Pat Tillman Foundation had reached out to me and another Tillman Military Scholar Dennis Robinson to help plan and execute a day of service coinciding with their annual summit. Dennis and I founded The 6th Branch a year earlier and we had some manpower to contribute. So, on a July day during a code red heat advisory the Tillman Legacy Summit’s day of service resulted in the removal of five tons of garbage, large scale landscaping, and the painting of a mural. More than 200 volunteers contributed.  That night, The 6th Branch and Earl’s foundation Come Home Baltimore announced a long term partnership coined “Operation Oliver.” Come Home Baltimore turns shells into green homes in Oliver. Operation Oliver was a challenge to ourselves to see if we had what it took to bring a community back from the brink.

We knew there would be some sacrifices and some challenges, but who better to handle that than military veterans. And it could not be more appropriate that Pat Tillman’s legacy inspired these sacrifices and challenges and served as the catalyst. In fact, throughout Operation Oliver I have thought about Pat Tillman a lot. I’ve thought about the potential of this country if we each had a fraction of the guts and humility he had. I’ve tried, however impossible, to be a bit more like him. We took this challenge knowing that we would certainly fail if we did not fully commit or if we failed to move urgently. But we did commit. We did move urgently.

More than 1400 volunteers have been mobilized in Oliver from various student, veteran, and nonprofit groups. More than 54 tons of garbage has been removed from streets and alleyways. Two large murals have been painted. More than 50 trees and shrubs have been planted. Forests of weeds have been knocked back. One resident has been enrolled in a job retraining program and dozens have been given day labor opportunities. Boys were given the opportunity to participate in service learning and to attend special events. Weekly community walk-arounds have been conducted making more than 100 reports to the city. Sixteen homes have been sold, and a Marine now rents a place not far from Earl’s. And we’re just getting started.

Since that day in July, Earl and I have become great friends along with the rest of The 6th Branch and others that have committed immensely to making Operation Oliver a success. So many people doubted us, but they were far outnumbered by the people that believed in us. And they believed in us, I think, because they knew we had seen worse days in the military. Imagine if we could challenge all veterans like this. I assume that many veterans, like me, felt a severe sense of loss when they exited the service. We lose more than a paycheck. We lose our mission. We lose part of our identity. We lose our camaraderie. To go from leading Marines to being offered a minimum wage job is a blow to a vet’s pride to say the least.

So I propose a crazy idea. I propose that veterans be guided towards opportunities to make a difference in the areas of greatest need in our country, much like they were asked to do abroad. I’m not talking typical volunteerism at the local soup kitchen. Although potentially rewarding, it is not the best utilization of someone whose skills and experiences go beyond that. Veterans are capable, motivated, and ready to accept such challenges, but they sometimes don’t know where to look. Take them there.


-Rich Blake is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War. He is co-founder and director of The 6th Branch, a Baltimore based nonprofit that utilizes the skills of military veterans to execute aggressive community service initiatives. He is currently completing his doctoral degree in clinical psychology and preparing to return to active military service.-









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