Incarcerated Veterans Recognition at Terminal Island
by Matt Davison - VietNow National Magazine Contributing Editor


Regulations prohibit showing the face or name of the incarcerated veteran (in chair), but he was a recipient of three Presidential Unit citations for his service in Korea and vietnam. Presenting the certificate of appreciation are (L-R) Clarence Hatcherson, Vet rep with EDD; Armando Lopez, recently discharged from USMC; and Matt Davison. Photo © VietNow Magazine.

Yes, incarcerated veterans have made mistakes, but they still deserve recognition for their service to our country.

I began conducting Veteran Support Group meetings at the Federal Correctional Facility at Terminal Island, San Pedro, California, about six months ago. Attached to a non-profit community-based organization, my original responsibility was (and still is) to serve our homeless veterans.

Today Incarcerated, Tomorrow Homeless?
It seemed logical to me however, that today’s incarcerated veterans would most likely be tomorrow’s homeless veterans. So I thought it made sense to go into the correctional facilities and lay the groundwork for transitional housing, job training and employment assistance before release.

I began the Vet Support Group meetings by opening up the floor to questions. If I didn’t know the answers, I would research them before the next meeting. In October of 2002, I asked these vets if their service had ever been recognized on Veterans Day. They answered unanimously that it had not. I promised them that this year would be different.

Some Veteran Appreciation
The plan was to create Certificates of Appreciation in recognition of service to this nation. I had a roster of about 15 names, and with the help of our computer lab facilitator, we printed out classy-looking certificates for each vet. The prison volunteer, who helped arrange everything, promised that refreshments would be provided by the prison. Due to scheduling problems, we couldn’t perform the ceremony on November 11th, Veterans Day, but President Bush had mandated the entire week as Veterans Appreciation Week, and so we settled on Thursday, November 14th. Assisting in our program for homeless vets is a recently discharged U.S. Marine Corps vet, part of a work/study program funded by the VA. I asked this young man if he would wear his dress blues and present the certificates. He readily agreed to do so. I felt it symbolic that the young warrior honor his predecessors in this way.

Incarcerated Veterans…Who Are They Really?
So who are these men who have made a mistake in their life journey and are now paying the price? One of them is a World War II U.S. Marine who fought at Iwo Jima. Another is the recipient of three Presidential Unit Citations for his service in Korea and Vietnam. Two are confined to wheelchairs. All served, and all needed to be recognized for their service.

And they were. I would call out a name, and the young Marine intern would present a Certificate of Appreciation. The reactions varied from a strong sense of pride to fighting back the tears. Much to my surprise, assistants of the warden arrived to add their appreciation as well.

Later, the young Marine intern and I were invited into the warden’s office. On his wall, in frames, were two Purple Heart medals from his service in Vietnam. We spoke about the support group program, recognizing incarcerated vets, and he gave us his full support in continuing the program.

Building the Trust
Today, I think about when we began the Veteran Support Group. There was a kind of invisible line between the veterans and me. From that place, we evolved to handshakes at the conclusion of each meeting. Today, there are warm hugs that greet us each visit. But that’s the way it is, working with vets. You have to earn their trust and build relationships.

Bringing Them Home
The recognition at Terminal Island created a lasting bond with these men. They now know that in spite of whatever the mistake that brought them to Terminal Island, their sacrifice and service have not been forgotten and they haven’t been left behind the wire.

I can only hope that every veteran, wherever they are, and whatever they are enduring, is remembered, appreciated, and recognized for their roles in assuring America’s freedom. It doesn’t take a whole lot to say thanks, and welcome home.

Matt Davison serves homeless and incarcerated veterans through a non-profit, community-based organization in southern California, and served with the U.S. Air Force as a radio intercept officer in the Far East.



© 2003 by Matt Davison. Rancho Palos Verdes, CA 90275, USA. All Rights Reserved.
Used with permission from the author.