This is one of six documentaries on American changemakers produced by NationSwell in partnership with NBCUniversal. Watch them all and vote for your favorite here.
When Eli Williamson returned from two deployments to the Middle East, his hometown of Chicago felt at times like a foreign battleground, the memory of desert roads more familiar than Windy City central thoroughfares. As he relearned the city, Williamson noticed a strange similarity between veterans like himself and the young people growing up in tough parts of Chicago. Too many had witnessed violence, and they had little support to cope with the trauma.
Applying the timeworn principle of leaving no soldier, sailor, airman or marine behind, Williamson co-founded Leave No Veteran Behind (LNVB), a national nonprofit focused on securing education and employment for our warriors. Williamson formed the organization based on "just real stupid" and "crazy" idealism: "You know what?" he says. "I can make a difference." Since work began in 2008, with a measly operating budget of $4,674 to help pay off student loans, LNVB has eliminated around $150,000 of school debt and provided 750 transitional jobs, Williamson says.
"Coming out of the military, every individual is going to have his or her challenges," says Williamson, who served as a psychological operations specialist and an Arabic linguist in Iraq in 2004 and in Afghanistan in 2007. "We've seen veterans with substance abuse issues, homelessness issues." Additionally, at least one in five veterans suffer from PTSD, and almost 50,000 are homeless and 573,000 are unemployed.
Williamson started the group with his childhood friend Roy Sartin. They first met in high school, when they joined choir and band together. "I think we've been arguing like old women every since," Williamson says. Both joined the U.S. Army Reserves while at Iowa's Luther College and were mobilized to active duty during their senior year after the Twin Towers fell. Williamson finished his education at the Special Warfare Training Center at Fort Bragg in North Carolina, while Sartin put his learning on hold.
Upon return, both struggled with crippling interest rates on their student loans. Sartin received a call from the loan company saying that he needed to make a $20,000 payment. "Although I had the funds, it was just enough to get myself back together. So, for me, the transition wasn't as tough, but I was one of the lucky ones." Williamson got a bill for $2,200 only 22 days before the balance was due. Desperate, he took to the streets playing music to cover the costs.
After talking with other vets, the two realized that many didn't qualify for the military's debt repayment programs. That's when they started going out to financial sources for "retroactive scholarships" for our country's defenders. And they sought employment opportunities for former military members to help cover the rest.
Jobs and debt relief for our nation's warriors are the main focus of LNVB, but the group oversees several initiatives, including S.T.E.A.M. Corps, which pairs vets with science, technology, engineering, arts, and math experience with at-risk youth. More than 200 students have graduated from S.T.E.A.M., but Williamson, director of veteran affairs at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, points to a more intangible benefit of his non-profit's work: the ability for veterans "to articulate a larger vision of themselves ... is our advocacy mission," he says.
"Veterans can paint a vision for where our country needs to be, and the only reason we can do that is because you realize that you are part of something larger than yourself," Williamson adds. "That's a fundamental value that veterans can share, as they leave military, with the communities that they come back to." For those who've just returned home from Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, in other words, service is just beginning.