May 28, 2015
James O’Connor (third from right) alongside members of Pittsburgh 1st Service Platoon.
Pittsburgh 1st Service Platoon Leader James O’Connor is a finalist of Pittsburgh Champions award in the”First Responders and Military” category. James recently sat down with our team to talk about the platoon and the experience of returning home to Pittsburgh.
James, tell us a little about the mission of Pittsburgh 1st Service Platoon. Why the focus on community development and Hazelwood?
Our service platoon focuses on community revitalization in Hazelwood, a local neighborhood of Pittsburgh. We pinpoint the most “at-risk” home owners in the area by improving their living situation through no-cost home repairs so that home owners can live safely. Our goal is to engage Hazelwood residents and work together with them to preserve equity when property values increase after the new development of the neighboring ALMONO site is built. We are on a joint mission with the Heinz Endowments to prevent the current community from being displaced. Most are lifelong residents in Hazelwood and should be a part of the community during its upswing.
Before the steel mills closed in the 1970s, Hazelwood was one of the most affluent areas in Pittsburgh. To put that in perspective, an abandoned home we recently repaired had a 4-car garage.
What’s the experience like for a veteran coming home or moving to Pittsburgh?
If you asked me this question 10 years ago I would have said do not go to Pittsburgh once you get out of the military – stay away. But, in the past year that I’ve been back I can say it is quickly becoming the number one place for transitioning veterans in the country. This feeling is backed by Forbes Magazine voting Pittsburgh the #1 The Best Places For Veterans 2014 and USAA’s #1 ranking of the best places for veterans to live in 2014.
Why is that? First, Pittsburgh is among the most affordable cities in the nation. When your city isn’t struggling with debt and it is free from almost all natural disasters you can focus on supporting the needs of its citizens. The Greater Pittsburgh Area has one of the highest veteran populations in the country and we have created strong veteran networks here to support returning veterans. If you come to Pittsburgh you will be viewed as a leader and asked to continue to serve your community.
The non-profit support network for veterans to get them reengaged in their community is also second-to-none. Pittsburgh is the first city in the country to create a community leadership course. The program works to connect veterans with their community, to serve on non-profit boards, and put their military skills to use in a civilian context.
What’s next for Pittsburgh 1st Service Platoon?
The platoon will continue working in Hazelwood, as our mission is not complete. We are also working with the Pittsburgh Penguins to change the way they engage and support veterans. We have monthly meetings scheduled to create a plan that we hope other service platoons can duplicate. We eventually will create a second platoon that will possibly work on a larger plan to have every municipality in the region in an annual “Mission Continues Day of Service” where transitioning veterans would come out in their blue shirts, self-identify, and work with their neighbors on a small service project. Last, the platoon s working closely with the mayor’s office to create awareness.
How can interested veterans or community partners get involved?
We are currently working on a “request for proposal” that we will send out to all non-profits in Pittsburgh with the scope of work that the platoon is interested in and we are asking partners to send us their ideas. We will then host a leadership summit at Google Pittsburgh and select the one we are most passionate about.