On the chilly Monday morning observed as Memorial Day, seven flags flew over San Quentin State Prison’s Lower Yard, one flag for each branch of the U.S. armed services and two for Vietnam veterans.
As aging veterans doing time paid tribute to the fallen soldiers of wars fought throughout American history, other inmates attended to the American Indians’ sacred grounds, played sports or just lingered around the track.
On a makeshift stage decorated with the American flag and POW-MIA flags, the names, ages, military branches and hometowns of soldiers who were killed in action were read aloud. After each acknowledgment, inmate-veteran Al Garner tolled a bell.
“It is a great honor to work with these veterans inside here,” said Mary Donovan, chief sponsor of one of San Quentin’s veterans groups, before she went onstage to read off names.
On this Memorial Day, 1,145 names were honored. In the past three years, 3,285 names have been read during Veterans Day and Memorial Day observances. All the fallen service members of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) from 2003 to 2012 have been read. Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) is an ongoing war that continues to yield casualties. To date, San Quentin inmates have read over 1,400 names of Killed In Action (KIA) from OEF.
At noon, 35 inmate-veterans assembled in formation on the Lower Yard for presentation of the colors by Craig Johnson, Norfleet Stewart, David Tarvin and Tedrick Sims. As the inmate-veterans saluted the American flag, Larry “Popeye” Fasion performed taps.
“Even though we’re behind bars, we’re still veterans,” said Johnson, 58, a Vietnam veteran who served in the Navy. “All have given some, but some have given all. It is these men and women we’re honoring today.”
One of the oldest veterans at San Quentin is Lawson J. Beavers, who was born on March 25, 1935. “I served two tours in the Far East and in Korea,” Beavers said. Imprisoned 17 years, he has been at San Quentin for six years.
Inmates performed “Now I Have Arrived,” an original song by inmate Richie Morris, with Morris playing a guitar decorated with the American flag, Dwight Krizman playing drums on a five-gallon bucket and Isaiah Daniels playing bass.
“I think of it not so much as a melancholy day. It’s in honor of those who survived, too,” Morris said before their performance.
Toward the end of the day, a prisoner named Isaiah Thompson-Bonilla, vice president of Veterans Healing Veterans, divulged some astonishing numbers connected to the OIF and OEF war campaigns. “In 14 years since the start of the Iraqi War, and including the Afghanistan War, less than 1 percent of Americans have served in the armed forces. That is just under 2 million people.
“We all came home with scars, not only on the outside, but on the inside”
Of that number, approximately 500,000 were engaged in intensive combat operations. Seven- thousand Americans have been killed in action during that time. The tragedy is that 73,000 plus men and women returning from the combat zone have committed suicide, as a result of not being able to manage their PTSDs,” Thompson-Bonilla said. During September 2009, 18 veterans a day were committing suicide. That number has increased to 22 a day at present, or approximately 8,030 suicides a year.
Thompson-Bonilla, who was a sergeant first class, served in combat in eight countries, from Bosnia to Africa to the Mediterranean. “We all came home with scars, not only on the outside, but on the inside,” he said.
He also expressed the need to recognize these men and women as well. “These men and women returned home from the war, but the war lived on inside their heads, and because they were unable to find or utilize the help that is available, suicide became the solution to their dilemma. Today, we remember those who committed suicide due to their experiences in war – they too have paid the ultimate sacrifice,” Thompson concluded.
Members of the Hawaiian Spiritual Dance Group — Davante Spires, Reggie “My Tribe” Hola, Damon Cooke, Pangthong and Donald Ray Walker Jr. — closed the tribute with a prayer summoning fallen warriors of the past to pay respect “to elders and fallen soldiers.”
(Walker was in the Navy from 2002-2007. He served two tours in Persian Gulf on board the USS Nimitz, CVN-68.)
During the day, special tribute was paid to the recent suicide of veterans group Vice-Chairman Jesse Hernandez. A memorial service was held for Hernandez on May 29 at the prison’s Protestant Chapel.
If an incarcerated veteran wants to learn more about VHV or if they or their family may qualify for additional benefits, please contact:
Mary Donovan, Executive Director of VHV
PO BOX 432
San Quentin, CA 94964
The VHV website is veteranshealingveterans.org