Veterans Day has always been the time to celebrate America’s fallen soldiers and honor those who are still with us for their sacrifices, dedication and service of defending this country’s freedoms. But there are another group of fallen heroes, not by death but by incarceration.
These veterans, no matter their situation, love their country, salute the flag and honor the branches that they have served in. Yet many of these former soldiers have found themselves plagued in their own country, not just by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, but also by Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other trauma within the prison setting.
Jim “Sneaky” White was one of these prisoners. But after serving more than 40 years, he was paroled and today he continues to work for incarcerated veterans. White is currently the Prison Outreach Coordinator for the National Veterans Foundation (NVF), a national veterans crisis management, information and referral service organization.
“The Lifeline for America’s Veterans” is the organization’s slogan. They assist with suicide and crisis intervention, mental health services, PTSD counseling and substance abuse as well as homelessness services, and more.
White and E. “Geronimo” Pratt started the first incarcerated veterans group within the CDCR in 1986 when it was still called the CDC, California Department of Corrections.
“While we were both at San Quentin after they transferred us to different prisons, we started the veterans’ groups at each prison,” White said. He spent 20 years at Ironwood, a state prison where his group raised over $350,000 for local charities.
“True, this was in an era when we could have food sales, and Domino’s Pizza was very good to our group at Ironwood,” he added.
White was also instrumental in starting the college program at Ironwood. After overcoming a Life Without the Possibility of Parole (LWOP) sentence, White paroled and went immediately to work with NVF in his outreach position.
“Since I have been out, we [NVF] have expanded into eight states as well as several federal institutions,” said White. “Along with being in contact with 11 California institutions, my caseload, presently, is over 125 veterans.”
Before the COVID-19 crisis, people from NVF were able to visit several California prisons and give presentations about the services that they are able to provide. They also help with parole readiness, especially in the Los Angeles area.
“During our visit we make a half-hour, or so, presentation of our services and what we can help with and what we cannot help with, like legal services and attorneys,” White said. “Then we meet specifically with those that have questions and requests. We bring some NVF paperwork with us which includes some forms that the veterans may fill out in their request for any services we offer,” he added.
NVF provides some SF 180 forms from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) for the veterans to get their DD 214 which certifies discharge from active duty. NVF has CDs about their organization that the veterans group’s sponsors can show, along with three books given to the group. Captain for Dark Mornings by Shad Meshad, the president and founder of NFV, Defending the Vietnam Combat Veteran and The Attorney’s Guide to Defending Veterans in Criminal Court are the books provided.
The last two books help members with any legal process they may go through, including meeting with the parole board, according to White. White served as a scout pilot for two tours of duty and as a Cobra pilot in Laos for two tours before he was incarcerated.
“I am a 100 percent disabled combat veteran,” said White. “I am a multi-tour combat veteran with 19 months as a marine sergeant in Vietnam, as well as being in the Dominican Republic civil war in 1965. I then inter-service transferred into the Army as a chief warrant officer.”
He brings both of these experiences with him to the NVF organization. “My position here at NVF is to coordinate not only the communication with prisoners throughout the United States but to offer insight in the specific needs of the incarcerated veteran as well as their issues,” he said.
White also helps with the organization’s fundraising and other special projects. He uses some of the same skills he brought to the Ironwood Veterans Group.
The NVF hosted an online concert and prepared and provided care packages to the unhoused population in the Los Angeles area during this deadly pandemic. They also scheduled a special Veterans Day reading of war letters by celebrities, which is viewable on both their website and Facebook page, according to White.
NVF supports all veterans. When someone calls, their goal is to make sure that there is a live voice on the other end of the line for those in need, in real time.
“Since the virus and lockdown, I have spent my time in the office answering phones and doing paperwork from incarcerated veterans throughout America,” he said. “I have my PTSD dog Rosie who I trained at the [California Men’s Facility] and she paroled with me.”
White thanked San Quentin News for providing him and others with the newspaper while they serve time.
“I first started reading the San Quentin News when a friend of mine, Joe Morse, was Editor-in-Chief in the ’80s. A big thank you for not only your present staff but for all your prior employees. You have put out this much needed paper.”
White said, “One of the units I was with in NAM used this motto and I believe it fits [San Quentin News] well: ‘Deeds above words.’ ”
National Veterans Foundation,
Prison Outreach & Information Services
5777 West Century Boulevard Suite 350
Los Angeles, CA 90045