In war and peace, the U.S. Army assigns soldiers “battle buddies,” partners to watch each other's backs, keep each other out of trouble and boost morale when things get tough.
But veterans often need battle buddies when they get back home too, said Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, secretary of Oklahoma's military and veterans affairs.
“They came back from battle medicated — self-medicated with drugs and alcohol — and either they drank too much and got behind the wheel of a vehicle, or they got in a fight or they just made bad decisions,” Aragon said.
There are 1,480 identified veterans in Oklahoma's medium- and maximum-security prisons, according to the latest numbers from the Corrections Department.
“If we believe that these things are a result of their combat, their active duty, then we have to say ‘what can we do for them?'” she said.
The answer to that question came as a Battle Buddies program that is still in its infancy in Oklahoma.
Volunteer veterans will be paired with incarcerated, recently paroled or recently released veterans to provide support.
Volunteers like Ronald Pandos, a Vietnam War veteran who served in the 1st Calvary Division in 1968 and 1969, will be assigned to inmates as they are up for parole or about to be released after finishing their sentence.
“There's a lot of veterans that have a lot of wounds from deployment,” Pandos said. “It's easier for a combat veteran to relate to a combat veteran. It just makes it easier for people to talk.”
Pandos said the program, which already has lined up about 50 volunteers, gave its first presentation to veterans at the James Crabtree Correctional Center in Helena last week. They explained to the veterans what the program would and would not do.
“We're not going to be a taxi service,” he said.
Instead the volunteers will be tasked with several things.
The volunteers will help the recently released veterans navigate the bureaucratic process of receiving benefits for medical, physical and mental health.
They will help them find a job in the community and create a support network of friends and family for them.
Finally, Battle Buddies will help the incarcerated veterans find a “family of faith,” a place that will be an underpinning of support.
Part of the driving force behind Aragon's efforts to help incarcerated veterans, came from a program at Crabtree in which veterans are knitting American flags for the families of fallen soldiers.
“I was so touched by that,” she said. Aragon presented the knitting prisoners with $200 for supplies when she was at Crabtree with the Battle Buddies program on Wednesday.
Promise of support
Aragon said the promise of support after release might make more veterans appealing for parole.
“They put themselves in the way of bodily harm and then we look at them and many of their lives are ruined,” Aragon said.