"Earl Johnson's boots crunch broken glass from liquor bottles as he walks down an alley in East Baltimore's Oliver neighborhood. He is just blocks from the site of the firebombing of a family who called the police on area drug dealers and were killed for it and just yards from some of the most memorable scenes of urban decay in "The Wire."
At his side are Rich Blake, 32, a Marine Corps veteran, and Jeremy Johnson, 34, a Navy veteran, who like Earl — who is no relation — are on a different kind of mission.
They've come to this neighborhood once synonymous with the worst of Baltimore to help it become something better. They call this mission "Operation Oliver."
As the men walk, they pick up empty Seagram's gin and Bacardi rum bottles. They point to progress — refurbished homes, a painted playground — and to vacant houses and trash-filled alleys that still need work.
"A lot of the conditions from places we're deployed to, Iraq and Afghanistan, are not that much different from the conditions here in Oliver," says Blake, executive director of The 6th Branch, one of several nonprofits involved in Operation Oliver.
"The impoverished conditions, the vacant homes, the crime — in some cases, Oliver is in worse shape than some of the neighborhoods we've been deployed to," Blake says. "We're not afraid to dig in and make a difference in a community that's got a bad reputation in the city. The discipline, the go-get-'em, let's-do-this-now, aggressive attitude, it really lends itself to community service in a way traditional organizations haven't been able to do."
Operation Oliver, which began in July, is a one-year commitment to the neighborhood, the veterans say. It involves cleaning up alleys, but also rehabbing homes, helping residents find jobs, painting murals, organizing volunteers and notifying police about illegal dumping sites and drug dealing. To say the idea has caught on would be an understatement. Word of the yearlong, intensive service project has spread throughout Maryland — and nationally.
Some veterans, such as Earl Johnson, a former Army Ranger who served in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, have moved into the neighborhood. Others such as Jeremy Johnson and Blake live elsewhere but visit Oliver frequently. Nearly 1,000 volunteers have joined the effort, including more than 100 veterans."