When Matt Miclette and nine other young men and women had dinner together in Center City on Veterans Day in 2016, they had more than military service in common. They were earning degrees, building careers, starting families — and feeling a need to do more.
From conversations around the table that evening at the Fogo de Chão Brazilian Steakhouse emerged an organization that taps into the talent, spirit, and ambitions of a new generation of American veterans. It’s called Action Tank (actiontank.us) for good reason.
“Our first service project was cleaning a park in South Philly,” said Miclette, 33, an Army veteran, registered nurse, and executive director of Action Tank. “It started with us getting on the ground and doing an act of service.”
Said Darrell Wisseman, 32, a Glenside resident who served in the Marine Corps and is an Arcadia University graduate student: “Action Tank is the antithesis of a think tank, because we’re not sitting in an ivory tower. We’re out on the streets doing good for the community.”
The 20 young veterans from across the Philadelphia region who make up Action Tank plant trees, harvest potatoes, and distribute food. They volunteer at the Hub of Hope for people experiencing homelessness, and with Prevention Point, the organization that seeks to minimize harm among people with substance use disorder. Action Tank is allied with two dozen organizations on the front lines citywide, from Moms Demand Action to the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
“Our role is to support nonprofits that already are doing great work,” said Miclette, who lives in Point Breeze.
“We don’t come in trying to be the experts,” said Air Force veteran Emily Balog, a graduate student and assistant professor at Rutgers University in Camden.
“We offer our partner organizations high-level planning and thinking, and boots on the ground,” said Balog, 37, of Stratford, N.J. “No strings attached.”
Action Tank members credit the Tillman Foundation and its mission of selfless service as an inspiration. The foundation offers leadership development and scholarship programs for veterans and their spouses and honors the legacy of Pat Tillman, the professional football player who put his NFL career on hold and joined the Army after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Tillman died, at 27, after being shot by friendly fire while serving in combat in Afghanistan in 2004. Miclette, Balog, founding member Chris Diaz, and member Daris McInnis are all Tillman scholarship recipients playing key roles in Action Tank.
“We were supposed to meet in Arizona for a national Tillman Foundation service project and remembrance on Sept. 11, but it had to be canceled because of the delta variant,” Balog said. “Tillman is providing local scholars with funding to do a project, and we really want to do something to support Afghan refugees. So we’re reaching out to see how we can do that.”
Diaz, an Army vet who set up the seminal dinner in 2016 (”there was such an energy at that table”), served as Action Tank’s first executive director. He said the group offers a contrast to a too-common public perception of veterans as either heroic or tragic.
“We just want to leverage our skills to build up the community,” Diaz, a 39-year-old Northwest Philly resident, said.
Those skills include the same sort of research, data analysis, policy, administrative, and management expertise involved in establishing, and sustaining, Action Tank itself.
“We decide what [issue] we want to focus on each year, learn about it, create partnerships, and share knowledge,” said Miclette. “The first problem area we focused on was the opioid crisis, but as we expand our portfolio, we don’t leave [existing commitments] behind.”
In addition to the opioid crisis, Action Tank also works on food insecurity, gun violence, and restoring Philadelphia’s tree canopy.
“I was extremely impressed by the amount of research they have done,” said Erica Smith Fichman, community forestry manager for the city Department of Parks and Recreation. “I see their volunteers all over the place. It’s awesome.”
Onika Washington-Johnson, who manages volunteers for the Share Food Program of Philadelphia, said she has been struck by Action Tank’s “overall sense of commitment” to fighting hunger.
“They do a lot of work at our urban farm,” she said. “They bring a can-do spirit.”
A 35-year-old city resident and Army vet, McInnis joined Action Tank last February. He liked what he was hearing about the group’s commitment to service — and wanted to work on community projects alongside fellow veterans.
“Action Tank is an opportunity to do something tangible,” said McInnis, who teaches literacy classes at West Chester University and also is pursuing a Ph.D. in education at Penn.
“I’m particularly draw to Action Tank’s [way of] thinking about gun violence, and I’m a big proponent of having community organizations take the lead in addressing issues around gun violence,” he said.
A documentary by South Jersey filmmaker Tim Yingling called Feeding Philly focuses on Action Tank’s contribution to the battle against food insecurity in the city. During the film’s first public screening Aug. 20 in the courtyard of the Betsy Ross House in Old City, members of the group talked about what it means to be able to continue their service.
Action Tank “is exactly what I was looking for,” said James Morris, 28, who served in the Marine Corps, lives in Old City, and is a project manager at an investment firm.
“There are a lot of different veterans organizations, and many of them focus toward helping other vets, which is a great mission,” he said. “In Action Tank, veterans can use the skills we learned in the military and apply them here at home.”
During an earlier interview, Navy veteran Mark Torres said his first Action Tank activity — helping provide meals at the Hub of Hope — affirmed his decision to join.
“We had a mission. We were in sync and we got into a really good rhythm,” said Torres, 36, who lives in Glenside and works as a project manager. “It was a simple mission, serving and cleaning up, but we all just fell into our roles. I realized I had been missing that sense of belonging and connection since leaving the military.”
Said Miclette: “Action Tank is focused on community, and improving the city. But it also creates a sense of purpose and a sense of connectedness. It brings veterans together.”