Atlanta vet leads “platoon” in West End cleanup

In just a few days, more than 100 military veterans from across the country will fan out across Atlanta’s West End to give the area a badly needed face-lift.

They will plant community gardens, construct an outdoor learning center, install a basketball court and improve parks, green spaces and access to them for residents along Atlanta Beltline’s westside trail.

The mass deployment, billed as Operation Westside Surge, is another in a long line of efforts organized by The Mission Continues, a national non-profit that encourages and aids volunteerism by veterans to help ease their transition back into civilian life.

ExploreLeading an effort of this scale will be a first for Marine Corps veteran Stewart Williams, The Mission Continues’ city impact manager.

Williams always knew he’d somehow serve his community this way because that’s what his father, a Vietnam veteran, did.

Stewart D. Williams Sr. was killed near the end of the Vietnam War in 1970, when Stewart Williams was just 3 years old.

“I grew up hearing stories about him and thinking about how I could continue his legacy of service to our country,” Williams said recently.

And so after graduating from high school, he headed to Hampton University, where he joined the active ready reserve of the U.S. Marine Corps during his freshman year.

“I figured it would be a great way to connect with my dad,” Williams said.

He graduated from Hampton in 1989 with a criminal justice degree and was in graduate school there when his unit was activated to serve in Desert Storm.

No fan of war, his mother encouraged him to seek “sole survivor of a deceased veteran” status to get an exemption, but Williams wouldn’t hear of it.

“I looked at my mother and said, ‘Absolutely not’,” he recalled. “I raised my hand. I’m going to serve my country.”

For the next three years, Williams, a member of the Norfolk Amphibious Battalion before being reassigned to the 3rd Battalion Fifth Marine division, drove an amphibious vehicle in Iraq. When the war officially ended in 1991, his unit remained and was charged with seeking out and eliminating the elite division of the Iraqi Republican Guard who, due to the lack of a communications system, weren’t aware the war was over.

After the surrender of Saddam Hussein, Williams headed back to Kuwait but was diverted to a humanitarian effort in Bangladesh to help with relief efforts. He finally made it home in summer 1992, went back into the reserve and completed graduate studies at Hampton. In 1994, Williams married his best friend, Rhonda Williams.

He would get a second master’s degree at New York University before spending the next decade or so building his resume as a leader in the non-profit sector, including stints at the YWCA and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

“I kind of knew having worked with both the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the YMCA for some years while in college that I wanted to work in the non-profit sector, doing what I could to make a difference in this world, helping other people,” he said. “That experience ingrained in me why the work was really important.”

By 2000, when his first child was born, both he and his wife had grown tired of frigid New York winters and longed to get closer to Atlanta where Rhonda’s mother lived. Another decade would pass before he’d finally get a transfer to Atlanta.

Williams had been here just five years when he got a call from The Mission Continues. In its search for a city impact manager in Atlanta, the nonprofit found William’s profile on LinkedIn.

“I’m a vet, but I’d never thought of myself serving other veterans,” Williams said.

But he could see the possibilities. He knew their struggles because he knew the impact war has on the psyche, what it was like to feel like a stranger in your own home, to not be able to connect with people the way you once did. He knew, too, that everybody’s struggle was different and that war was a difficult thing to overcome.

Realizing the need, Williams applied.

“Again, I thought, this is life changing work,” he said.

That was 14 months ago and that life-changing work is allowing Williams to help fellow veterans transition back into society a little bit easier, to restore their sense of purpose.

Operation Westside Surge, which gets underway June 10, is one more step in that direction. It’s also a way for the rest of us to recognize the tremendous potential veterans have and to consider how leveraging their skills improves not just their lives but the communities in which they work.

Volunteers embed for six months with local nonprofits as “fellows” or serve as part of a team of veteran volunteers in “platoons” to tackle wide-ranging civic projects. Mentoring children. Refurbishing schools. Tracking down homeless veterans in need of housing and mental health counseling. Building sustainable networks lost after war.

ExploreRELATED: Mixed success aiding homeless vets

The best part is, these aren’t just fly-by night operations, Williams said. These are long-term revitalization efforts in some of the most disadvantaged areas in the community.

“It’s rewarding work,” he said.

And not just because it continues a legacy of service for Williams. It’s healing for all those who have served.