This Veterans Day, we’ll be thinking of Michael Giles again this year, as we have every year on this day since 2011. Michael spent six years on tours of duty in Iraq and Kuwait as a U.S. Airman—until he was sentenced to a mandatory 25 years in prison.
The stories of incarcerated veterans hold a special poignancy here at FAMM; many of these prisoners are serving harsh mandatory minimum sentences, like Michael. Every day, we fight to end these kinds of sentences, and there’s something especially sad about people who have bravely fought for our country now serving sentences that don’t fit their particular crimes.
There are huge numbers of incarcerated veterans; roughly one in 12 people in America’s prisons and jails is a vet. Many end up there after turning to drugs, often as a way of dealing with the PTSD and other difficulties in adjusting to life after tours of duty. In Michael Giles’ case, because there was a gun involved, the judge had to impose a mandatory minimum sentence, despite the fact that Michael had no priors and despite the judge’s own serious objections to the sentence. Bruce Harrison, who earned many distinctions for his service in Vietnam, including two Purple Hearts, was sentenced to nearly 50 years for a drug offense. He has been in prison since 1994.
This year, we bring you new stories of incarcerated veterans in their own words.
All too often, trauma or injury veterans suffered during their service can play a role in later crimes and prison sentences. Their comments remind us that judges need discretion at sentencing to consider the wounds of our warriors when they end up on the wrong side of the law.
Bradley, for example, was honorably discharged after suffering a traumatic brain injury in the U.S. Army. He writes, “After my injury, it was very difficult to adjust from a life of constant deployments to a life where I wasn’t allowed to work or even drive a car. After two years of this I had become severely depressed and began to use drugs to self-medicate. Consequently, I went out and got a part-time job seating tables at a restaurant. Unfortunately, the owner of the restaurant was a narcotics dealer who ultimately persuaded me to become involved. Today, I am very ashamed of making that horrible decision.” Bradley is serving more than 25 years in prison for his drug offense.
Casey is a single father of four who served as a Marine in Operation Iraqi Freedom. “The military service had a dramatic impact on my life and the events that led up to my current incarceration. I was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety, as well as a back injury that would limit my ability to work in society. I held many good jobs from the time I ended active service until I became addicted to the medication I was receiving from the VA. … I made some very poor choices in my addiction and ended up forging prescriptions.” Casey is now serving a 100-month federal prison sentence for distributing and possessing oxycodone, an opioid drug.
We also share with you the unsettling perspectives of some of the family members left behind—without a father or mother to grow up with—in the wake of mandatory minimum sentences. There’s Ariel’s story, who was just three when her father, a much-decorated veteran of the Vietnam War, went to prison for life for a drug offense. Her brother, Adam, also shares his story about growing up without his father.
We hope that these stories give you the same troubling but valuable insights that we’ve gained from coming to know these people. Like so many of the prisoners with whom we connect, these veterans show better than any statistic the true cost of one-size-fits-all sentencing.
If you have a loved one who served in the military and is currently incarcerated, we’ve compiled a list of resources that may be useful to them upon their release. On this and every Veterans Day, FAMM remembers and thanks incarcerated veterans for their service to our country.
My father after coming home from Vietnam had/has PTSD and was told by his VA doctor, “Get over it.” At that time they didn’t diagnose PTSD. He was awarded three purple hearts and a bronze star with valor. After his unsuccessful attempts to find help, he found a way to try and deal with it by working. He went to flying school in North Carolina after being released from Fort Bragg Army Base. He bought a plane and leased it to the school to use for other students. This way the school where he learned to fly was also paying for his first plane. He would then use the plane for other jobs like crop-dusting local farms in the Eastover, NC, area. My father was a great business man; because of this he was able to achieve so much. He went on, with the help of his brother and sister, to start K-Land Corporations, his construction business, and a horse farm.
Growing up, I saw dads drive their kids to school, take them to soccer practice, make pancakes on the weekends, build sandcastles with them on the beach, take them fishing and help them build snowmen in the winter. These are the things I missed out on doing with my dad. Each birthday is a reminder of how unfair life has been to the both of us. Every holiday wondering what it would have been like if he was home. When my father was in a prison too far to drive to, friends and family took us down to visit him once a year over summer break between the school year. By the time I was in high school my dad had been to four prisons around the country and was then the closest he had ever been, an hour away. After graduating high school I chose the college that was even closer so I could visit him almost every weekend.
The older I get with him not being home, I have to come to realize he will not walk me down the aisle or be at the hospital when his grandchildren are born. I have to tell myself that I cannot postpone my life, marriage, having children, with the hope of him being home next year or the year after. I hate the feeling of causing him pain by creating more memorable moments that he cannot be a part of. Pictures is all he has until I get to visit him, which is never enough. A collection of pictures over the past 22 years is what he has of his first granddaughter’s birth, my college graduation, and his son’s graduation after completing Air Force basic training. Now I am soon to be married to an Air Force Member and will be traveling every three years to a new base anywhere in the world. My dream is that my dad will be home to travel with me, but I can only hope that I will be stationed close enough to see him often still.
I love and care for my father, I feel, like any other daughter does, but I know even though he has not been in my life as much as other fathers, he is the one I can thank for helping me achieve so much in my life. He believes in me and my pursuit of education and helping my community. For years we have been reaching out to help the veterans that many have forgot—the homeless, struggling and imprisoned veterans—with a nonprofit organization. With my father in prison like other veterans, they can only do so much without help.
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As a veteran, my dad suffered from PTSD upon returning from war and wasn’t provided with any resources to aid him in his suffering. He needed some jail time for his crime, but what he needed most was rehabilitation and a society that wanted to see him get better. People struggle to understand the reality of what our current sentencing laws translate into when someone is caught up in them. Those laws left my sisters and me without a father, and gave a nonviolent man a life sentence.
Even though I was left without my father at such a young age, I am so grateful for the amazing support system of friends and family he created for me. The harsh reality, though, is that not all children forced into a situation like mine are as fortunate. If I had any advice for children with an incarcerated parent, it would be to stay in as constant communication with one another as possible. You really need each other to get through everything. I visit my dad every couple of months to update him on everything going on in my life, but I wish I could have more time with him. If my dad were released tomorrow, I would drop my whole life just to live with him—really just live life together. I don’t have any resentment toward my dad; he’s one of the most amazing people anyone could ever come into contact with. He’s getting old, though, and time is running out to catch up on all of the life he’s missed. He was also recently denied clemency from Obama, which is extremely disappointing. But still, he remains hopeful.
What I want to know from Congress is: What good is it for my dad to stay incarcerated? His life sentence isn’t making anyone any safer. Any evaluation of my dad’s case would produce only two results: his sentence did not fit his crime, and he is more than ready to be a positive and productive member of society.
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US Air Force, 1998-2000
Honorable Medical Discharge
“I most enjoyed the camaraderie and the fact of serving my country. I was medically discharged and was later declared 100% service-connected disabled with adjustment and bipolar disorder from a brain injury that resulted directly from my service. I became addicted to drugs shortly after my discharge.”
US Army, 1967-1969
“Thanks for caring about veterans. I served in the US Army, 1st Bat. 3rd Infantry, “The Old Guard” in the Honor Guard Company. Some of the highlights of my service included carrying the presidential flag in President [Dwight] Eisenhower’s funeral and working at President [Richard] Nixon’s inauguration both at the Capitol swearing-in ceremony and at the inaugural ball. It didn’t seem like it at the time, but it was two of the best years of my life.”
US Army, 1998-2004
Honorable Medical Discharge
“I enjoyed the camaraderie with my brothers, but I was medically retired 100% after sustaining a traumatic brain injury (TBI) overseas. After my injury, it was very difficult to adjust from a life of constant deployments to a life where I wasn’t allowed to work or even drive a car. After two years of this I had become severely depressed and began to use drugs to self-medicate. Consequently, I went out and got a part-time job seating tables at a restaurant. Unfortunately, the owner of the restaurant was a narcotics dealer who ultimately persuaded me to become involved. Today, I am very ashamed of making that horrible decision.”
US Marine Corps, 1987-1991
“Thanks for caring about veterans. I enjoyed serving my country in the U.S. and overseas. I suffer from PTSD and skin conditions from my service during the Gulf War. I was sentenced in the federal court in the Eastern District of Louisiana on Veteran’s Day 2011. The entire building was empty except for the courtroom.”
US Marine Corps, 2001-2005
“There are many things I enjoyed about my service, but most of all I liked the camaraderie. We were a band of brothers/sisters from different walks of life who would go to bat for each other, right or wrong. I was diagnosed with severe PTSD and anxiety, as well as back injury that would limit my ability to work in society. I became addicted to the medication I was receiving from the VA, and when they attempted to intervene I was already too far gone to understand what it was they were offering. I appreciate that you all think about us veterans who are inside of these places across the country. God Bless.”
US Marine Corps, 1999-2015
Other than Honorable Discharge
“What I enjoyed most was the fact that I was serving my country, and the pride of knowing that my service was meant to protect. I suffer from PTSD. During my service I injured my back in or around 2009. I began taking pain killers until 2014. I was taking close to 5 different medications for my back. Some of the medications include Oxycodone, Methocarbamol, and Tylenol 3 Codeine. I don’t know if I would’ve considered myself an addict, but it sure felt good not to be able to feel the pain and continue a normal life. Thanks for all your support during these hard and difficult times.”
US Navy, 1998-2003
“I most enjoyed the camaraderie of all my shipmates, regardless of ethnic origin, belief system, or gender. We all knew we had to band together to get any job done and protect our country.”
US Army, 1992-1998
“[I most enjoyed] protecting and defending my country and the citizens of this great nation. I suffer from PTSD, and I was protecting my life and property from a bear. I shot the bear and was arrested for being a felon in possession of a gun.”
US Air Force, 2002-2004
“I went to the internet and did some research on PTSD. I tried some treatments the internet suggested, and none of it worked. I stumbled upon an article and saw that MDMA (ecstasy) was a good treatment for PTSD; it worked. This is what landed me in prison. In conclusion, I was just getting this for my own personal consumption. Maybe I needed help, not prison time. Now I will be viewed as a criminal forever, where I was once doing anything to fight for our country.”
US Army, 1977-1981
“Thank you for all your efforts. I did not see combat, instead I was beaten severely by six men with tire irons and ax handles while stationed at Fort Bragg. I was honorably discharged in 1981, a very broken man. I wandered from job to job, from marriage to marriage, jail to jail, homeless, hungry, cold, addicted, and destitute, until one day in 1996. A psychologist told me I had PTSD from the military and that my addiction to drugs and alcohol was secondary to my PTSD. When I am released I will have spent over 25 years in prison because of PTSD-related addiction.”
US Army, 2003-2005
“I am a U.S. Army Iraq War veteran. I loved my time in the service, and leaving the military was the biggest mistake I have ever made in my life. If I was asked to spend the next six months in prison or the rest of my life in the military, I would choose the service. The Army gave me purpose and discipline that I never had before. It was a perfect fit for me. It is where I belong.”
US Army, 1994-1996 Active; 1996-2001 Inactive
“I loved to serve my country. Wearing that uniform was the proudest moment of my life. I am now disabled, and I have PTSD and panic disorder. I was part of Desert Shield and support for Kosovo during the mid-1990’s.”
US Marine Corps, 1987-1998
“The thing that has impacted me most about my service is the lasting sense of brotherhood I enjoyed with my fellow Marines and the education I received. The Marines built me to believe I can accomplish anything. I have PTSD as a result of my military service. I served two combat tours in Bosnia-Herzegovinian with NATO forces in the middle 1990’s. I self-medicated with alcohol during and after my service, and a lot the bad decisions I made were influenced by my substance abuse.”
US Marine Corps, 1990-1994
“I enjoyed the camaraderie, the discipline, the structure, the knowledge that I was protecting my beloved homeland. I developed emotional problems, became distant towards family and friends, had unnecessary flashes of anger over the tiniest of things. I felt like I had come home to a strange land of strangers. I became addicted to alcohol before exiting the service and continued to drink unto drunkenness, often drinking until all the alcohol was gone or [I was] too drunk to drink anymore. This continued on after the service and has ruined my marriage and the family I had. I would like to state that many of us veterans feel deserted or left behind.”
US Army/Army National Guard, 1965-1979
“I was a helicopter pilot and enjoyed the thrills of flying and accomplishing missions of all types, especially in combat. I flew 297 missions in Vietnam in 1966. I flew gun ships carrying 48 rockets as a first responder for our troops when they got into trouble. This tour gave me a great feeling of accomplishment for all the lives the Lord allowed me to save. This was our mission, saving the lives of our American soldiers. I am 73 years old and I am serving my sixth year of a 10-year sentence.”
US Army, 1988-1992
“I am a two-time combat vet of the United States Army, Invasion of Panama (Operation Just Cause) and the first Iraq Invasion (Operation Desert Storm), 82nd Airborne Division.”
US Army, 1966-1972; US Army Reserve, 1972-1976
“I served from November 30, 1966 – November 29, 1972, total six years. Then I served in the US Army Reserve Ready from January 1972 – May 1976.”
US Army, 1986-2010
“I served as a Commissioned Officer in the US Army, 1986-2010 for 24 years. I volunteered and returned to active duty twice after 2006 to support the War on Terror.”
US Army, 1988-1994; Pennsylvania Army National Guard, 1995-2015
“I served in the Army for six years, with Operation Desert Shield/Storm. Pennsylvania Army National Guard for the next 20 years, Balkans and Iraq deployments, as well as Egypt and Lithuania for additional military exercises. I enjoyed serving the American people.”
US Army, 1967-1970
“I am a decorated hero of the Vietnam War. When I returned home as a wounded veteran, I was the recipient of three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star with Valor, and an Army Commendation Medal with Valor. I joined the Army during the Vietnam War, right out of high school, patriotic, for God and country. I was awarded a life sentence for a first-time, non-violent drug offense.”
“Planning For Your Release: A Guide for Incarcerated Veterans,” from the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans (NCHV)
If you aren’t able to download this resource, you can request a copy of it by sending a letter to:
National Coalition for Homeless Veterans
333 1/2 Pennsylvania Ave., SE
Washington, DC 20003-1148
You can also call toll-free at 1-800-VET-HELP.
NCHV has a comprehensive list of resources for returning veterans, including information about state assistance and healthcare.