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.
“We talked to the parole board, to wardens, some of the people who were guards, and they all say the same thing; in the vast majority of cases, veterans are the people they turn to for structure in running prisons …
“They accept responsibility that they messed up. The purpose of incarceration is for rehabilitation. It is not because we are angry or upset at people, and the vast majority of these people have been rehabilitated to the point that they literally help run prisons.”
Gov. Mary Fallin, who must approve parole for violent offenders that come to her from the Pardon and Parole Board, said she supports the program. A change in law approved by voters in November removes Fallin from the parole process for nonviolent offenders.
“We honor those who serve, and we certainly want to help veterans,” Fallin said.
Although no numbers were available, Fallin's office has several incarcerated veterans in line for parole, Aragon said.
Terry Jenks, director of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, said a program like Battle Buddies could help in the early release of a criminal.
“That's not the dispositive issue. They're going to look at the crime they've committed and the time they've served, but if somebody gets out and they have a place to go, a place to stay, family and friends and support, that can help,” he said.
In September, Oklahoma County launched a “vet court” to help keep veterans out of jail.
The program was launched by the Oklahoma County public defender and the district attorney.
The program has been extremely popular, and in June more than 70 veterans had been approved to go through the Oklahoma County Veterans Diversion Program, rather than the traditional judicial system.
While that program catches veterans on the front end of the system to prevent incarceration, the Battle Buddies program hopes to catch them on the back end of the system and prevent a relapse or second offense.
Bob Mann, administrator of mental health operations for the Department of Corrections, said core volunteers were trying to get out to facilities before Christmas.
“We want to make sure the guys know this is the real deal,” he said.
The veterans at Crabtree have a saying or prayer, Mann said, that those who have lived their lives to protect freedom know more than most what it is to lose that freedom.
“There's folks from all sorts of different wars, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the question is what can be done to help them when they discharge,” Mann said.
While the department has identified roughly 1,500 of the 25,000 inmates in Oklahoma corrections facilities as veterans, Mann said that is under representing the population of veterans in prisons.
Some simply don't report their service during the intake process.
Others aren't aware that they qualify as veterans because they assume a discharge disqualifies them.
“We're going to do a better job of really getting the word out in our facilities that if you ever served in the military, you are eligible for services,” Mann said.