A Vet's View Bars and Stripes
“Forward... March!” My detail steps off in unison and we march to our designated positions, performing sharp turns and obliques perfectly in sync. I carry my Marine Corps Colors with pride and even feel my eyes water just a bit as I present to the National Anthem playing in the background. Marines do not cry, but our eyes do get shiny at certain moments. For me, this is one of those moments. My heart is filled with patriotism for my country, Esprit De Corps for my Marine Corps, and love for my brothers.
I am not on a parade ground or part of a big ceremony wearing my dress blues or even Class A uniform. I am in a Texas Prison wearing offender whites. The country I fought for and defended, even offered up my life for, has decided that in the interest of public safety, I am better off living in a cage. Does this make me hate my country or regret my service? No, it doesn’t. I am a proud American and would make the decision to serve it all over again if I could, flying bullets, explosions, chemical exposures and all. The whole bit. My name is Juan Lobo Gonzales and I am and always will be a proud U.S. Marine.
I am not alone in the way I feel. In the Estelle Unit in Huntsville, Texas, I have a tight knit group of brothers who feel the exact same way. Marines, sailors, soldiers, airmen, and even a couple of Coasties too. In this environment full of gangs and racial hate groups, our veterans group stands out. We have Vietnam as well as Gulf vets standing together as brothers here. Young and old connected by the oath we all took to defend our nation and even giving our lives for it if needed. We all have pride in what we were and are a part of.
Veterans groups in prison are not new. There are more of us in here than most would think. VIG’s (Veterans Incarcerated Groups) are in many units across this state. They are all different but each serve to meet the needs of vets. Some offer such classes as anger management, substance abuse programs, and a chance to fellowship with each other. This system does not do anything specifically for us, so we do for ourselves, sometimes with help from outside veteran volunteers. No one is able to help vets better than vets. We take care of each other in here, writing and reading letters for those who can’t, filling out paperwork, and guiding those who are blind and deaf.
Our group in the Estelle Unit is sponsored by the Armatus program and used to have weekly meetings prior to Covid. We have an honor guard which carry and post each service branch’s flag, as well as the U.S. and Texas flags for each meeting and special functions such as unit program graduations and ceremonies. My group also posts the Missing in Action and the Vietnam Veterans flags. It is a very moving moment when everyone stands at the position of attention and salutes as the colors pass and are posted. All else that gives us pride has been taken from us, but not this. We earned this.
The civilian world does not understand, much less condone, the warrior mindset. Many veterans have issues unique to us. Things like guilt that we made it through combat while many of our brothers did not. The anguish sometimes overcomes vets and so many deal with it in different ways. Instead of help, our country has historically ignored these problems. Instead of finding a solution, they find a bunk for us in a cell. Many of my brothers are serving time for issues directly related to their having served in the military.
I am not making excuses for veterans who have broken the laws of this country. I am just saying that maybe there is a better way to treat those who served. Maybe things like therapy, counseling, proper medications, or just plain understanding and support. There are many kinds of pain that vets suffer that many might not understand. Feeling alone in this place is just one of them. We feel abandoned and forgotten. People who we have sacrificed for to keep safe and free, now feel they are not safe unless we are not free. Many sacrificed all only to be sacrificed themselves.
Yes, many vets make mistakes, just like regular people. Big and little mistakes. Sometimes it just seems that the punishment seems harsher for those of us who served. My own judge said that since I have been trained, I am a threat to society and should be locked away as long as she can possibly make it. She stacked my sentence when others get to serve theirs concurrently, effectively doubling my time incarcerated. I am good enough to fight, get hurt, or die for the country’s freedom, but not good enough to live free in it.
I look forward to my veterans group. Since covid, we have been on one form of lockdown or another with no volunteers allowed into the units. All of our meetings are canceled indefinitely, but I still occasionally see one of my brothers going down the hall, or in the medical section of the unit. Most of the time, we have no time for words but we still salute each other and flash the “thumbs up” with a questioning look. “You good?” “I’m good.” “Carry on brother.” Just knowing they are okay is enough to keep me going for a while. We may not be able to get together, but we still stand together. We were vets before we were convicts. We are still vets. We are just mostly forgotten in here now. I love my country, it’s just that lately, it feels like my country no longer loves me back.