HELENA — A plastic coffee mug with worn, pealing stickers displaying the message “Freedom is Not Free” sits on a desk in a classroom at James Crabtree Correctional Center.
Behind the desk is a man dressed in gray, the word “Inmate” stamped across his back.
He's one of nearly 50 men sitting in the room, all dressed similarly, all attending the twice monthly meeting of the prison's veterans club.
Many have been to war and have seen fellow service members die in combat. They're changed forever. Some have been inmates at the prison for most of their lives.
They converse over tea and coffee, talking about war, life at the prison and their families.
They also talk about crocheting.
The club started a flag afghan project in 2007, allowing veteran inmates to crochet flag afghans for other veterans and families of fallen troops.
The project began at the prison when one of the inmate's mothers became ill with cancer. She was crocheting a flag afghan for a family member and couldn't finish it.
Her son, incarcerated veteran Eric Fowler, finished the afghan for her and was inspired to make another for a World War II veteran. The project took off from there.
“I myself am blessed,” said Fowler, whose mother passed away in December 2010. “I was just doing time. Then my mama had this idea to do something.”
Fowler was convicted of burglary in 1996 and sentenced to seven years. In 2001, he was sentenced to 35 years in prison on counts of lewd molestation, first-degree rape and forced oral sodomy.
He has become the leader of the flag afghan project.
So far, the club has crocheted 263 afghans. The inmates also crochet stocking caps and teddy bears for orphanages in the area.
“Every one of these guys is a part of it,” Fowler said of the guys in the room. “Some of these guys actually crochet, others just walk around and give you a pat on the back.”
The project has grown with the club.
When the club was founded in 2006, it had nearly 25 members. It now has nearly 65 members, representing all branches of the military.
Incarcerated veteran Larry Neeley has crocheted 22 blankets since coming to the prison, even though he had never crocheted before incarceration.
The Tulsa native spent six years in the Marine Corps in the 1990s and was charged with first-degree murder in 2008.
Neeley has been incarcerated at James Crabtree for almost four years and has eight more years to serve.
Neeley said he loves being a part of the veterans club and the flag afghan project. The veterans trust each other.
“I don't want to know anybody in prison and I don't plan to know any of them when I get out, except for the ones I don't think are too insane,” Neeley said, referring to his fellow veterans in the room.
He said he will continue his involvement with veterans clubs in the future.
“If I ever go to another prison, I'll probably try to start some type of flag project there,” he said. “Try to branch it out a bit.”
Vietnam War veteran Eddie McCombs was incarcerated in 2007 on charges of conspiracy to commit kidnapping for the purpose of extortion, kidnapping for the purpose of extortion and injury to a minor. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.
He said the club and the afghan project give the veterans a sense of purpose.
“We came to realize there was a place for us,” he said. “They're (the afghans) are the best thing that has happened to most of us here.”
Each flag afghan costs $50 to make.
The inmates fund the project with portions of their $10 to $12 monthly salaries, but some funding comes from outside prison walls.
Joy Reed's sixth-grade class at Timberlake Elementary in Jet began raising money for the project a couple of years ago. A father of one of the girls in the class received a flag afghan and the class decided to help the cause.
To date, the class has given the club nearly $1,600.
“We rely on the goodness and kindness of people to be able to do what we do,” Fowler said. “It's always nice when we receive a little help from out in the world.”
Disabled American Veterans Chapter 66 Jr. Vice Commander Mike McCauley, James Crabtree Correctional Case Manager III Vernon Sanders and Maj. Gen. LaRita Aragon also help the club by locating veterans and families of the fallen and delivering the afghans.
Aragon said she met the veterans club at the prison about three months ago.
“I fell in love with these guys,” she said. “They were all standing at attention and were happy that I was there.”
Aragon was presented with an afghan during her visit.
She said the veterans club and the flag afghan project are the best therapy for the incarcerated veterans.
“We have to keep in mind that most of them are there because of things that happened to them traumatically in the military,” she said. “People have to understand they're dealing with things most of us will never encounter.”
The inmates crochet two different types of flag afghans, ones with white stars and ones with gold stars. The white-starred ones are for veterans and families of fallen troops across the United States. The gold-starred ones are specifically for families of Oklahoma who have had a loved one killed in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2003.
Fowler said there has been one exception.
A gold star afghan was presented in May to Mark and Carol Graham, of North Carolina, at the Woodring Wall of Honor and Veterans Park's Memorial Day ceremony in Enid.
The ceremony honored veterans and fallen Oklahoma heroes.
Maj. Gen. Mark Graham was a speaker at the event. He recently retired from the Army after 34 years of service.
The Grahams lost two sons to different wars.
Their youngest son, Kevin, was an ROTC cadet and attended the University of Kentucky. In 2003, he took his own life after battling depression.
Eight months later, the couple's oldest son, Army 2nd Lt. Jeffrey Graham, was killed serving in Iraq.
Carol Graham said the afghan was a surprise and moved the couple to tears.
“It meant the world to us,” she said. “We were so touched and honored, especially to see other families receive blankets.”
Carol said she covered herself up with the afghan on the flight home to North Carolina. She wasn't going to let it out of sight.
“I was wrapped in love and support,” she said.
She said it's great that the veterans club is focusing on the needs of others who are hurting.
“We felt the love that was poured into every stitch,” Carol said. “We're both grateful and want them (veterans club) to know that.”
McCombs said the club's intent is to not let the current generation of veterans go unnoticed like some of the center's incarcerated veterans were when they returned home from war.
“We can't give the wrong veteran or family a blanket,” McCombs said. “Everyone needs one.”
Fowler said the club's motto is what's most important.
“Though we cannot serve our country, we will serve those who have,” he said.
Every one of these guys is a part of it. Some of these guys actually crochet, others just walk around and give you a pat on the back. ... We rely on the goodness and kindness of people to be able to do what we do. It's always nice when we receive a little help from out in the world.”