It was past midnight in
Ironically, it didn’t happen in combat but while the Chicago South Sider was on the phone, doing battle with a bank over his college loans.
“I’m on the other side of the world, worrying about (bombs) and where my unit would be moving next, and some loan officer is harassing my mother over
His high school pal,
But the disappointment and anger were followed by action. Once back home in
Brown and Williamson, both 29, have found office space on
Leave No Veteran Behind uses private donations to pay off a veteran’s outstanding loans. In exchange, the soldier commits to 100 hours of community service, which helps provide purpose for someone who might have difficulty re-entering civilian life.
The GI Bill pays for the education of those who have served honorably, but it does not pick up the tab retroactively, and funding has not kept pace with skyrocketing tuition costs, requiring many cash-strapped GIs to sink further into debt to cover the difference.
That was the situation Williamson and Brown found themselves in. Graduates of
Then came 9/11.
During the last semester of Brown’s senior year, in
“I was totally stunned,” he said. “I’m on a college campus and then, 30 days later, I’m in the sandbox … in a whole other reality.”
Williamson shipped out the following year, first to
At one time, the soldier was so desperate he played guitar on streets, working for tips.
“I didn’t want to go to my parents,” said Williamson, who is now married with a baby and owes about
But when the men heard similar stories from other veterans, they felt they had to tackle the problem head on. Since March, they have raised almost
One of the first recipients was
“When I first got the call, I couldn’t believe it. … I thought it was a scam,” said the Marine, unemployed and expecting his first child. “With the economy the way it is, any bill is a worry.”
Profiles of enrollees can be found on the group’s Web site, leavenoveteranbehind.org. But the founders stress that their purpose is not to be one more charity soliciting donations but to offer something in return, Williamson said: “We want people to know that if you make an investment, they are not just benefiting a veteran but the community at large.”
That aspect spurred the
“We were impressed with the mission and leadership of the organization,” said
That is why the two men — ties crisply knotted, shoes polished to a high gloss — were shivering on a slushy corner of
The intersection is a detour from the high-powered careers and six-figure salaries on their original road map, said Brown, who previously worked as a district manager for Aldi groceries before starting the nonprofit.
“All the perks didn’t equate to moral wealth,” he explained. “A life with no purpose is no life at all.”
(c) 2010, Chicago Tribune. McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.