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Veterans and Pennsylvania's Criminal Justice System

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PREFACE

Asked by veterans from the Vietnam Veterans of America inmate Chapter 466 in Graterford state prison to be the official speaker for their Armed Forces Day event on May 18th, the following was given as a speech. Members of VVA Chapter 466 were in attendance, along with a host of friends and supporters of the chapter, some who are quite conservative veterans. Several Graterford staff and security officials were in attendance. Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel was invited and had committed to attend the Armed Forces Day event, but at the last minute he had a conflict and did not show up. Wetzel worked his way up from a corrections officer and was given the top prison job in May 2010 by conservative Republican Governor Tom Corbett. A copy of the speech has been sent to Werzel's office and to other officials in Harriburg. During these years, I have become acquainted with a number of decent, hard-working Graterford officials and staff employees. The following remarks were written with all these individuals and parties in mind.

As a Vietnam veteran and member of Veterans For Peace, I have worked with the VVA chapter and other interested groups for a number of years as an advocate for prison reform in the area of veterans. Of particular interest to me is recognition of the mitigating factor of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Pennsylvania's draconian life-without-parole sentence in which the only way out is a coffin or a commutation. And in the current political climate in Pennsylvania commutations are rare and tend to be given as a governor is leaving office.



Graterford State Prison outside Philadelphia by unknown



It is a great honor to speak here today for Armed Forces Day. I must say, when I was asked to be the speaker today I was a little surprised. While I'm very much an American, I am not a flag-waver.

So I'm not going to give the usual Armed Forces Day speech that praises our military for preserving our freedom here in America. Everyone has heard that one many times before.


Since I'm speaking to a mixed audience of prison inmates (most of them veterans), prison officials and other distinguished guests, I want to talk about the Armed Forces and incarcerated veterans.

Like others in this room, I'm a Vietnam veteran. But that identification really doesn't tell anyone much other than triggering stereotypes.

I joined the Army in 1965 a week out of high school. I had just turned 18. My father had been a PT boat captain in the south Pacific, and my brother was in the Army infantry at the time. I ended up as part of the Army Security Agency, was sent to Vietnam and was assigned, first, to the 25th Division, then to the 4th Division, both headquartered in Pleiku. I was a fairly intelligent kid, but, frankly, very naïve. I was trained in Morse code to work as a radio direction finder.

I was what we called -- and pardon the obscenity -- a REMF, or rear echelon motherf*cker. Still, I ended up working in forward areas in support of large infantry operations. I was at a firebase near the famous Ia Drang valley where a year earlier Commer Glass fought as a young soldier. I was dropped by helicopter on remote mountaintops near the Cambodian border with a half squad of grunts to protect my sorry REMF ass. It was all pretty amazing experience for a young kid just out of high school.

We had three DF teams whose task was to locate North Vietnamese radio operators and, by extension, their units, so my comrades in combat arms -- the artillery, Air Force or infantry -- could attack and neutralize them. Kill them.

All I knew of these radio operators was the sound of them keying Morse code messages in five-letter coded groups. I used a portable direction finder radio to get a bearing on the broadcast -- as did two other teams just like mine in other locations. Someone would plot our bearings on a map and, if we were lucky, we'd achieve a coordinate that we called a "fix," which we passed on to intelligence units.

I was certainly not a hero by any definition of the word. I did my job. I even was awarded an Army Commendation Medal for a 30-day operation in which we hunted down one particularly elusive, roaming NVA brigade radio operator. It led to the destruction of a dug-in brigade headquarters.

How I see my experience in Vietnam can best be characterized by what I tell people when they say to me, "Thanks for your service." I politely tell them, "I would rather not be thanked for my service in the armed forces. I want to be thanked for what I learned from my service in the armed forces."

And here's four things I learned.

One: War is a complicated and messy business that's all wrapped up in politics and history. And as current secretary of Defense and Vietnam vet Chuck Hagel likes to point out, wars are much easier to start than to stop.

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I am a 65-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old kid. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and a video (more...)
 
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