Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Remembering Veterans - In and Out of Prison

This Veterans Day, we celebrated the men and women who served in our country’s armed forces. We hope everyone took a minute to silently (or publicly) thank our American veterans.

A very sad reality is that many veterans now live behind bars as federal and state prisoners. They fought for our freedom and yet they are no longer able to enjoy it themselves. I don’t think veterans are exempt from the law, but I also know that for many veterans the seeds of their later misconduct were sewn during their military service. Some developed drug addictions and others suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, to name just two.

One of those veterans is Ernie Montgomery. Ernie fought in Vietnam. After returning home, he could not find anything to match the adrenaline high he got from “the rush of war.” The closest experience he could get was barroom fights, a bad habit that landed him in jail a few times. Ernie’s downfall, however, came when he took part in a large marijuana conspiracy.

Thanks to our harsh, mandatory sentencing laws, Ernie was sentenced in 1992 to 31 years in federal prison. He was 44 years old. Luckily, FAMM won some marijuana reforms in 1995 and Ernie’s sentence was reduced, but he still served 20 years in prison. He was released in May 2011.

Once again, he had to learn to adjust to regular life. Ernie said that he was fine once his wife taught him how to pump gas! When Ernie went to prison there were no self-serve gas pumps or debit cards. Ernie said he was also greatly helped by a booklet titled “Planning For Your Release: A Guide for Incarcerated Veterans,” published by the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans. My colleague Andrea Strong sent the booklet to Ernie while he was nearing the end of his prison term. He was able to set up an appointment to meet with the Veterans Administration (VA) upon his release.

What he learned was that he was eligible for medical benefits as soon as he left prison. He also was able to apply for disability compensation due to his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam and other issues. He has not yet started to receive any compensation because the claims for disability are backlogged now due to the number of returning vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, but he is getting close.

Ernie told me that he wants other veterans to get the same help he did. That’s why I am writing to recommend that those in prison who are veterans and nearing the end of their sentences obtain a copy of “Planning For Your Release: A Guide for Incarcerated Veterans.” You can request a copy by sending a letter to:

National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
333 1/2 Pennsylvania Ave., SE
Washington, DC 20003-1148

Alternatively, you can call toll-free at 1-800-VET-HELP. The booklet is available online at http://www.nchv.org/.

Julie Stewart 
Founder and President, FAMM