Retired Army Col. Timothy Williams saw all kinds of action: in Somalia, in the Gulf region, and in Iraq. He enlisted straight out of high school and eventually joined the Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets.
Now that he's left the military, he works at another demanding job, as executive director of the Veterans Multi-Service Center (VMC) on North Fourth Street.
During his time in uniform, Williams oversaw thousands of servicemen and -women, commanding the Third Battalion in Operation Iraqi Freedom and serving with Special Operations Command Central for two years in Iraq. He commanded the 72nd Field Artillery Brigade at Fort Dix and also served as chief of training and commandant of the Stability Academy at Camp Victory, Iraq.
For Williams, 55, the transition to civilian life was unexpectedly rough.
"My entire identity was tied up in wearing a uniform since I was 17," he said. "I turned 18 in basic training. Emotionally, retirement was tough on me. I thought I was ready, because my last job in the military I worked with FEMA. They're civilians, even though they're quasi-government. I've worked on national exercises with other nations, and earned three master's degrees, but I wasn't prepared mentally for what happened to me."
He sympathizes with other retiring vets.
"I'm a Special Forces guy. I thrive on volatile and uncertain environments. So it took me six months to come to grips with never wearing a uniform again."
Williams has seen many friends leave the service and "have nothing to strive for, and get lost. Or some come home with issues which are exacerbated" without daily routines.
"Some committed suicide," he says. "One had a significant physical issue. Another had family problems. It's tough to go from being part of something much larger than yourself and then having no structure around you."
Married and father to four children, Williams lives in Columbus, Burlington County. It was his wife, Lisa, who encouraged him to join a networking group through the Department of Veterans Affairs, which led to a job at the Veterans Multi-Service Center.
"My wife forced me to go to the veterans transition program through the county in Burlington, N.J., and through them I found the VMC job. I hadn't even crafted a resumé," he recalled. He started the job in October 2014.
"Now, I tell every vet I meet to start early on their transition - a year ahead of time - and don't wait to construct your future until the last 30 days" before discharge.
VMC has been helping veterans since 1980, and as a nonprofit serves more than 2,500 veterans each year.
"Our mission is that when a veteran, he or she, walks in the door, we assess their needs and take them to an outcome. Our services are free."
Difficulties? Yes, he faces them, but they're completely different from those involved in planning the invasion of Iraq.
"That was less difficult than figuring out our funding sources," Williams says.
As a nonprofit, VMC must operate on four fiscal years: federal; calendar; agency-specific, depending on the grant; and the center's own.
"The need is very great," he added, as VMC serves veterans throughout the Philadelphia region and beyond.
Williams oversees a staff of 135 people; 11 facilities in three states, including two transitional-housing facilities on the grounds of Coatesville VA Medical Center; a thrift store on Frankford Avenue; and offices in State College and in Millville, which serves South Jersey.
VMC services include access to PA CareerLink; Veterans' Affairs benefits and entitlements; legal service for homeless vets; weekday shuttle service to and from the Philadelphia VA Medical Center; emergency food and clothing; a computer lab; and online job-application assistance.
In addition, VMC will be a partner in a new veterans housing project: the Edison 64 Veterans Community, an adaptive reuse of an existing public-school building into 66 units of affordable housing.
At Edison 64, in North Philadelphia, the VMC will offer services to veterans from a first-floor office.
"Veterans returning from conflicts have a variety of needs that require not only affordable housing but convenient support services," Williams said.
Edison 64's name and location honor 64 former students of Edison High School who died in Vietnam. No other school in the United States lost as many young men in that war. Edison 64 is a partnership among VMC, Orens Bros., and Mosaic Development Partners.
The center's next fund-raiser - "Touch-A-Truck," where kids can play on military vehicles and fire trucks - is scheduled for Oct. 29, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., at the Deptford Mall parking lot near Clements Bridge Road. For more information, visit www.vmcenter.org.