I am still thinking about James "Sneaky" White, whom I've known for 37 years. When I met him at California's Tehachapi State Prison in 1978, he had just started serving his sentence. I was there running a veterans' group for inmates. A decorated combat Marine who served in Vietnam, Sneaky came up to me afterward saying he wanted to start a vet group of his own, which he did. As the system transferred him to other prisons he'd leave the vet group he'd founded and start another chapter in his new location.
As I write this, I'm in contact with three former inmates, all vets, who were mentored by James White while they were serving their sentences. Each will tell you that his story is not unusual: White has mentored many, many vets in the prison system over almost forty years.. I sometimes wonder just how many lives he's changed.
One of them is Steve Duby, our newest counselor on our LifeLine for Vets hotline. Steve says that White asked him if he was a veteran. This is more important than it might seem. Not all veterans self-identify as vets. We've learned from Kristine Hesse, the NVF's Women's Veteran Outreach Co-ordinator, that women vets rarely self-identify, which makes them fairly invisible. White's tactic of simply asking an inmate instead of waiting for the information to be offered, acts as a shortcut. Vets are identified at the beginning, and then they're invited in.
White has greatly expanded opportunities for inmates. Steve Duby worked with White at Ironwood Prison, setting up education programs that conferred AA degrees. White's a believer in education. As I mentioned in my previous blog, he set up a program of food sales (think pizza) to inmates that has generated over $350,000 for scholarships and community charities since its inception. His group's contribution runs about $30,000 per year. You remember that this is all done inside the prison, right? Imagine what it took to think this up, then convince prison authorities to let it happen.
A lot of old Vietnam vets like me know Sneaky's story. "Frenchy" is one. He met Jim White in the 60's before Vietnam. They were both Marines stationed at New River. Both were in Vietnam, though at difference times. Years later, Jim sent a letter to a veterans organization of which Frenchy was a member. Are you the same Jim White? Yes, he was. Since then, Frenchy has campaigned for clemency for Jim White through the terms of several governors. At one time he was aide to a Congressional Representative from Massachusetts who, on learning White's story, also agreed that White did not deserve the sentence he received. And that was before the successes White's had from inside the prison system.
There's been a long series of people trying to get White released based on what he's accomplished. Yet James "Sneaky" White (who got his nickname as a helicopter pilot in country in Vietnam) is still incarcerated. He's done so much good for so many inside the prison system and in the surrounding communities. Seems like he's earned a chance to spend what time is left with his wife. Those of us who know him, who are familiar with his story, hope that will happen. And soon.
Combat veterans returning from war still end up in the criminal justice system. The two recent, long-running wars have contributed their share of inmates serving sentences. But now there are veterans courts who take a vet's combat experience into consideration. There are many more programs to support returning vets. That wasn't the case almost forty years ago. PTSD hadn't even been accepted then. Maybe it's time to mete out a new kind of justice. Frenchy said to me, "The reason we stay on it is because we're wired to serve. We can't accept bad justice."
If you know a vet who needs help, here's our LifeLine for vets hotline: 888.777.4443. Vets talking to vets. Like Frenchy says, we're wired to serve.
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