Vets reach out from behind bars
Three dozen San Quentin inmates worked shoulder to shoulder with nine suburban moms on the ground floor of a 150-year-old brick building that looms over the prison’s infamous Lower Yard.
The Vietnam Veterans Group of San Quentin and volunteers for the military family support group Operation Mom were packing 430 small, cardboard boxes with items that can mean a great deal to a homesick soldier stationed in Iraq — a new toothbrush, a small tube of deodorant, a half-dozen tea bags, a fresh pair of socks.
Near the end of the makeshift assembly line that wound through a warren of small rooms, Purple Heart recipient Jeffrey Languese, 55, who is doing time for second-degree murder, placed a short stack of handwritten notes from the incarcerated veterans in each box. Like the other items in the care packages, the notes assured the troops that people back home support them and are thinking of them — even from behind the yellowed walls of California’s oldest prison.
“Remember, we will not forget you. Everyone at home supports and loves you. You are heroes,” one note read.
“Wish I was there, glad you’re not here,” read another.
It is efforts like the care-package project that have earned the veterans group the respect and trust of prison officials, veterans’ organizations and their fellow inmates. Since 1990, the group has raised more than $30,000, which it has contributed to organizations such as the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the Marin Abused Women’s Shelter and the Save the Children Walk-A-Thon.
In addition, each year the veterans organize the S.Q. Christmas Toy Program and raise money from their scant prison wages and food sales for their prized project, the VVGSQ college scholarships for children of veterans.
Operation Mom was formed by two Antioch mothers after the Sept. 11 attacks to support the families and friends of military personnel and to provide a number of direct support services to troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. They organize letter-writing campaigns, send cards and magazines and collect coupons the troops can use at military commissaries.
However, the joint care package project with the VVGSQ was the first time Operation Mom volunteers had worked with incarcerated felons, and it was certainly the first time the suburban women had been on a prison yard. Castro Valley Chapter Vice President Louise Tamayo said she was initially a bit wary.
“When they suggested the project, I was worried about risking the reputation of Operation Mom, and after all, San Quentin Prison is not exactly on the same side of the street I was brought up on,” she said. “But the guys did a fantastic job. They really understand how important it is for the troops to receive something from home.”
Korean War veteran Ed Payton, 69, the group’s eldest member, said being able to make a gesture of support to the troops has a special meaning for the incarcerated veterans.
“We don’t know them, but it’s a very profound feeling to be able to offer help,” Payton said. “Some of those young men and women won’t come back, and their mothers and family won’t get to share their lives with them.”
VVGSQ committee member Eric Haskin, 60, said the Vietnam War was so unpopular that returning troops often felt they were not appreciated. He said it’s important those serving in Iraq don’t have the same experience.
“Now I’m able to help give something I didn’t get when I was in Vietnam. The troops need to know we care,” he said. “And it helps us raise our heads.”
The only requirement for membership in the VVGSQ is an honorable discharge from military service. Their membership includes veterans from the Korean War up to Operation Desert Storm. The majority of the 35 members are doing hard time for serious crimes such as first- and second-degree murder and assault.
But despite the nature of their crimes, prison officials said VVGSQ members are typically model inmates and very rarely face disciplinary actions.
In fact, Department of Corrections Director Jeanne Woodford, who was warden at San Quentin in 2001, entrusted the VVGSQ with collecting donations for family members of victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The veterans raised more than $8,000 from other inmates and prison staff. Woodford, who is the only non-military veteran member of the VVGSQ, said she put her faith in them because of their record of good work.
“They developed high standards of behavior for themselves and hold their members to those high standards,” Woodford said.
The veterans’ group has also had success in overcoming one of the toughest problems in American prisons. According to Associate Warden Susan Cherry, there is very little racial strife with the VVGSQ, which was founded by a racially mixed group of eight veterans that included former Black Panther Geronimo Pratt.
“This particular group works well together, and they have accomplished good things together,” Cherry said. “It’s a brotherhood, a shared experience independent of incarceration.”
The VVGSQ also avoids political tension by not taking official positions on the war in Iraq.
“We support the troops who have pledged their lives,” said J.B Wells, 62. “We put politics aside and focus on the troops who deserve our support no matter how we may feel about the war.”
Of all the programs the veterans are involved in, the one that has a special meaning for them is their scholarship program. Each year, the VVGSQ presents two college scholarships, one for $1,500 and another for $750, to children of veterans.
There are 198 high schools from six school districts that participate in the scholarship program. To apply, candidates have to prove their eligibility and write a short essay answering the question “What effect has my parents’ military service had on my life?”
A VVGSQ committee reads through the hundreds of letters they receive each year and chooses several finalists from which two are selected by a group vote.
VVGSQ Chairman J. “Wolf” Stipe, 53, said the essays should be well- written, but it’s more important that they are evocative. Stipe, a father of four, took out his wallet and produced two carefully folded essays written by scholarship winners.
“Personally, what I look for is an essay that makes me cry, and these did that,” he said. “The war had a dramatic effect on a lot of our children, and these essays remind me of the effect it had on mine.”
In her essay, 2002 scholarship winner Chelsea Regan describes her father’s inability to bond with his children because of trauma he suffered in Vietnam.
“My father resembles the men that think about their terrifying experience until there is no more left to relive, and even then they rewind what they have just thought about,” she wrote. “I feel that by my father being a Vietnam veteran, I have absolutely no idea about what kind of person my father is, and that saddens me to no end.”
Supervisor of Correctional Educational Programs Jean Bracy said the annual scholarship award ceremony, which takes place at San Quentin, is always an emotional event.
“Each year there’s not a dry eye in the house,” she said. “Everybody cries: prison staff, the parents and especially the veterans.”
According to a recent study sponsored by the California Department of Corrections, about 10 percent of the state’s 165,000 inmates are military veterans. The VVGSQ says most of them are not career criminals but rather good people who fell into bad situations as a result of drug and alcohol abuse.
The members of the VVGSQ say they spend a lot of time reflecting on their crimes and how their experiences in the military may have contributed to their depression, addictions and criminal behavior. However, they quickly make it clear that their military experiences are not an excuse for their crimes.
Vietnam War veteran J.B. Wells, 62, said soldiers who served in Vietnam were poorly prepared for civilian life.
“Vets who were not debriefed when they returned from Vietnam often found a lack of support due to the widespread anti-war movement,” he said. “Some had a tendency to isolate themselves in pockets around the country, and that’s what led to problems with drugs and alcohol. Alcohol seems to be the string that ties us together.”
Jeffrey Languese fits into that pattern. During a short break from his place on the care-package assembly line, he talked about his service in Vietnam, receiving the Purple Heart and his descent into drug abuse when he returned home.
In May 1969, Languese was on a four-man patrol in the “Highland Region” near the borders of Cambodia and Laos. All four members of his patrol were wounded when a B-40 rocket exploded in front of them. A piece of shrapnel struck him in the head and another mangled his left forearm.
While he spoke about the incident, he removed his light blue veteran’s cap to reveal a jagged-edge, silver dollar-sized scar beneath which a metal plate reinforces the top of his skull.
He said the transition to civilian life after Vietnam was rough.
“After Vietnam, I just couldn’t slow up,” he said. “I felt like I was left behind. All my friends had moved on with their lives.”
Languese had difficulty finding and keeping a job. After a few years, he finally landed a good position with the Postal Service . But by that time he was also struggling with drug addiction. By 1986, he was entangled in circumstances that ended abruptly with a homicide and his subsequent conviction for second-degree murder.
Since his incarceration at San Quentin, he has worked his way through an 8,000-hour machinists program and credits the VVGSQ for developing his sense of self-worth. Like many of the VVGSQ members, Languese said the veterans group has given him the opportunity to contribute to society and, in a small way, make amends for his crime.
“What I did was almost inexcusable,” he said. “I’ve learned a good trade and worked hard to get things right in my life … we all have.”