Armed Forces Day, Graterford State Prison

Veterans and Pennsylvania's Criminal Justice System


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 Wetzel’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.

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.

Graterford Prison outside of PhiladelphiaGraterford Prison outside of Philadelphia

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 motherfucker. 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.

Two: Individual suffering, honor and bravery exist in even a misguided, unnecessary war, and it’s a grave mistake for anyone to discount or dismiss this kind of recognition.

Three: It’s just as much a mistake to focus exclusively on individual honor and bravery and to ignore the larger, often unpleasant history of a war and what it means on that level.

And four: War messes people up in sometimes permanent ways. And civilians who send people to war need to recognize this.

With these lessons in mind, it seems to me we have two fundamental ways we look at wars like Vietnam or Iraq and those sent to fight in them — one that emphasizes individual Honor and Bravery and one that emphasizes collective History and Morality.

These postures tend sometimes to be hostile to each other. What I mean is, the Honor/Bravery side tends to associate with pro-war politics and the History/Morality side with anti-war politics — although that may be a little too simplistic.

Parenthetically, let me say, when it comes to Vietnam, I’m afraid many of us will still be arguing over what that war means when we’re in our dotage — like old, cranky men whacking each other with their canes as they fade away into death.

So what does this mean for incarcerated veterans?

I don’t have a lot of experience in prisons. But I taught creative writing in a Philadelphia prison for 12 years. And I’ve been interested in incarcerated veteran issues for some time now. I’m currently working with a concerned group of veterans called the Pennsylvania Veterans Justice Project that hopes to educate and lobby for legislative change in Harrisburg.

I’ve written about Philadelphia Veterans Court as an example of how things are already changing. Yesterday, I attended Montgomery County Veterans Court in Norristown. I’ve written about specific incarcerated veterans and have regularly attended VVA Chapter 466 events like this one for some years now.

It seems to me that there are two distinctly different sensitivities the criminal justice system assumes toward veterans who run afoul of its laws. These two approaches seem very much in synch with the two approaches to war I just mentioned — the individual Honor view and the collective History view.

Roughly speaking, the former view rewards a defendant for having served his country — while the latter view tries to understand how a veteran’s crime is related to his service and, thus, whether some degree of mitigation in sentencing is in order.

Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel and veterans from VVA Chap. 466. Commer Glass is at center with cav hat.Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel and veterans from VVA Chap. 466. Commer Glass is at center with cav hat.

Consider a hypothetical combat veteran who has committed a crime. In the current climate, following a decade of foreign wars, many returning veterans suffer from some degree of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or physical injury. How does a criminal justice system sensitive to veterans’ problems relate to such a veteran? I’m suggesting it does so in one of the two distinct ways I mentioned.

In the Honor/Reward approach, military service to one’s country is deemed so important that our courts, in essence, reward the veteran by offering him or her more than a quick trial or plea-bargain and a bus with barred windows to a prison cell. Instead, the defendant is offered an array of social options that comport with the notion of Restorative Justice. This is the current voluntary Veterans Court model. It’s a fantastic model.

The other approach, however — the History/Moral understanding approach — is often more difficult for the criminal justice system and officialdom to get its head and heart around. I would go so far as to suggest you could also call this the Corruption/Mitigation approach, since the way we ask very young soldiers to fight our modern wars can affect them in ways that are not always to the good and that arguably can amount to a form of corruption.

Consider our hypothetical combat veteran. I’m going to place this vet in my war, Vietnam. But he — or she — could also be from Iraq or Afghanistan.

This hypothetical veteran joins the military as an 18-year-old. He has no police record and is a pretty normal kid with a high school degree. Maybe he played football and undertook the usual adolescent hi-jinks. Maybe he experimented with alcohol or even smoked a little weed. Still, more than anything, what he wants is to be an integral, respected part of his society — to count for something. So he joins the military.

Let me cut to the chase. This kid is sent to Vietnam as a young infantryman. Soon enough, he’s in the bush and engaged in a horrific and bloody struggle for survival with an alien, foreign enemy who sees him — this kid from small town America — as part of a sinister invasion force intent on his oppression.

Our hypothetical young soldier really has no idea why these strange little men want to kill him. But there is no question that’s what they want to do and what they are definitely trying their best to do. He sees friends die in mud and agony. He sees civilians and children cut down and burned up. He kills his share of the enemy, either at some remove or, maybe, up close and very personal. Maybe he accidentally kills civilians. He does this for a year and survives. Then he’s flown back home to what we liked to call “the world.”

But, somehow, it’s not the same.

Something inside this hypothetical young man has changed. There’s a fear he never had before, an intense state of hyper-vigilance. Maybe there’s flashbacks — sudden viscerally re-lived moments of some horrific ten-seconds of combat that were never fully integrated into the memory banks.

Anything might trigger such an episode. A violent reaction under these conditions is an understandable — one might even say trained — reaction. Suddenly a crime has been committed.

Again, this is hypothetical. Every criminal case is unique and must to be treated as such.

My point is this: What responsibility does the society that sent this young man to Vietnam bear for what it asked him to do and how that experience may have affected him? There is no need to declare whether a war itself was good or bad to understand that bad things can and do come of war.

In the abstract, one can argue that Life itself is a corrupting influence on all innocent human beings. None of us get out of life alive. And I dare say none of us get out of it morally unsullied.

Thus, there is the notion of mitigation in sentencing. All lawyers understand this. The point is actually, realistically to incorporate it into the criminal justice system — and if necessary to apply it retroactively, if it was not applied when it should have been applied in the past.

The system is saying, we’re not letting you totally off the hook, but we have learned enough to understand we share some of the culpability for the crime in question. Our war messed you up and we are recognizing that fact.

Recognizing Honor and Bravery in war should never be dismissed or diminished. But, likewise, the horrors of war and its corrupting influence and the pain and suffering it causes should also not be denied or diminished. Society needs to step up and assume some responsibility.

So, to wrap this up, my experience over the past 40 years has been to oppose our wars as essentially unnecessary. Again, good Americans will probably be arguing these matters until we’re old and feeble.

What I would like to see in official circles is less cover-one’s-ass partisan thinking in this area and more sensitivity to the unpleasant moral realities of life — and a recognition that war is really less about glory than it is about causing pain and suffering.

Finally, it seems to me, a society can be fair and just and politically conservative. But it cannot be fair or just if it precludes redemption and forgiveness.

Thank you.

Introduction given before the speech:

John Grant was raised in a conservative family in South Florida. He served in Vietnam, then attended Florida State University, majoring in creative writing. During the 1980s, he made a number of trips to Central America as a documentary photographer and showed his work in the Philadelphia area. He returned to Vietnam in 2002 to film an 80-minute documentary called “Second Time Around” about a wounded veteran living and working in Saigon. It was shown at the Maine International Film Festival. In late 2003 and 2004, he made two trips to Iraq, the latter trip as a cameraman for a documentary film. He has published op-eds in The Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News. He now writes for the on-line publication This Can’t Be Happening.

For a previous TCBH story on Graterford’s VVA chapter go to “Forgotten Casualties of the Vietnam War”