On a street corner in Chicago, an older woman stood and watched as three buses passed her by. She kept letting kids board the bus ahead of her — saying they caused nothing but trouble — so she continued to wait.
This is the scene that Eli Williamson, who founded Leave No Veteran Behind after his service in Iraq and Afghanistan, describes in his Got Your 6 Storytellers talk. In it, he has the audience reflect on what it is like for members of the military to return from war and see how so many of us avoid members of our own community.
“The military is designed to engage our nation’s existential threats. And we build teams around these existential threats. We take perfectly good strangers and make them close if not closer than family,” he says.
Williamson returned to civilian life worried that he would not be able to build those kinds of relationships back home. But five years into his work with Leave No Veteran Behind, which uses employment training, transitional jobs and educational debt relief to empower veterans to strengthen their own communities, it is mission accomplished.
One such transitional job had to do with addressing youth violence in the same city where Williamson grew up. Leave No Veteran Behind challenged the idea that metal detectors and armed personnel can keep our kids safe with communal resilience strategies that emphasize safety as opposed to security.
“We did this by leveraging some of our skills that we learned in Iraq and Afghanistan and we would go out into a very specific neighborhood and provide presence patrols, without the guns,” he says.
These patrols, conducted around Chicago Public Schools, facilitated safe passage for kids before and after school, leading to a significant decrease in violence.
After meeting the older woman waiting for the bus, Williamson told his team to treat the kids who had plowed right past her as they would treat any officer, saying “hello sir” and “hello ma’am.”
“Many of these kids would just look at us in a very quizzical way. Because many of them had never been called sir or ma’am a day in their life,” he recalls. “But over that course of a year, something really strange began to happen.”
Watch the video to learn how veterans, who have been trained to know what is and is not a threat, have a unique ability to draw members of their community closer together rather than further apart.