“Every day is Veterans Day for us,” explained Rob Walker, program director at Leave No Veteran Behind. Walker served in the U.S. Navy before getting his law degree. Now, he serves his fellow vets — including his fellow Jews — by helping them integrate back in to civilian society.
LNVB was founded by Army vets Roy Sartin and Eli Williamson, both Chicago natives, who were themselves readjusting upon returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. As they struggled to pay off college debt and find jobs, they realized that they were not alone, and founded LNVB in 2009 to change the game for others.
Today, LNVB still focuses on these issues. One of its major programs is its Retroactive Scholarships. These are payments made to help ease vets’ tuition-loan payments. So far, the organization has provided $150,000 in debt relief.
In return, veterans perform community service, such as patrolling for the Safe Passage program that helps kids get to school safely. Walker staffed a Safe Passage route himself, to get a feel for the job. He found himself thanked by the children, their parents, and even police officers.
Staffing Safe Passage routes still gives the vets a five-hour block each day to work at a more formal job, and LNVB also helps them land these jobs. They work with the vets and employers to find a good employment fit. And some vets also continue their higher education as well, during the day or on evenings and weekends.
Another way the organization helps vets is by helping them continue to serve their communities. Vets help disadvantaged kids learn employable skills by helping them rehab old bikes and make their own solar cell-phone chargers. And they help whole neighborhoods by turning vacant lots into community gardens, especially welcome in “food deserts,” areas with a lack of ready access to fresh, healthy foods.
Walker, who served as a mechanic on a nuclear submarine, also participated in the bike rebuilds. He is joined by another vet, also last-named Walker; while they are not related, their fellow bike mechanics have taken to calling them “The Walker Brothers” in reference to the pancake house. The bikes, aside from being cleaned up and made safe to ride again, are outfitted with tech that recharges riders’ cell phones as they cruise along. Even Mayor Emanuel has ridden one.
A non-profit, LNVB is supported by donors, philanthropists, and corporate sponsors. They serve vets of all ages — at the moment, most have served in Iraq and Afghanistan — and from all branches of service. They are referred to LNVB by the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, by their school guidance counselors and by other vets. They’ve also been on the news. LNVB has worked with 400 vets so far; 100 are in the program now.
Walker is proud to serve his fellow vets and help ensure that they transition back into civilian life smoothly. He points out that the work the veterans do — renovating old bikes and helping vacant lots bloom — shows the veterans that they, too, still have lots of miles left in them, and lots of growing they can still do.