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Behind Md. prison walls, veterans participate in history preservation project

November 10, 2008|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN -- For 25 years, a veteran wouldn't talk about his experience in Vietnam. But then he opened up to a fellow veteran during an interview for the Veterans History Project, which archives veterans' experience at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

The man, more than 6 feet tall and an inmate incarcerated at Maryland Correctional Institution south of Hagerstown, cried as he told his story, according to his fellow inmates.

John E. Barba, a Navy veteran who served in the United States from 1970 to 1974, can tell who among his fellow inmates has served in the military, he said. Veterans have that poise, they're "squared away, have a plan when they get up in the morning," he said.

Barba is co-chairman of the prison's Veterans History Project committee.

Ronald McClary was drafted in the Vietnam era and enlisted in the Marines. He was a grunt who spent 13 1/2 months in Vietnam.

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"I lost a lot of buddies over there," he said.

Barba passed him a brown paper towel to wipe his eyes as McClary told one of his stories.

He was with his squad and they heard rounds of gunfire. The first two struck his buddies, and McClary hit the ground.

"You can't tell me today my name wasn't on that third round," he said.

When he arrived in Vietnam, McClary was told he was a replacement for a man whose head had been shot off a few days before. McClary helped pack that man's belongings.

As McClary talks, he looks primarily at Barba and Lt. Douglas Flanigan, a correctional officer who served in the Army for 15 years.

All three agree that veterans can talk to other veterans about their experiences, but civilians don't understand.

That's why inmates who are veterans are trained to interview their fellow inmates. No MCI correctional officers have been trained to do interviews yet, but Barba hopes to get Flanigan trained in the interview process so he can start recording the histories of his fellow officers.

Some of the videos the veterans have made are now on file at the Library of Congress, the first such interviews submitted by a prison group.

Collecting the veterans' histories will help researchers, some of whom are concerned about how many veterans are incarcerated, Barba said.

"These guys set the best example," Flanigan said. "If you need something done, with these guys it's like having soldiers again," he said. Flanigan called the interviews "cleansing" for veterans.

Mary Stevanus, the MCI librarian spearheading the Veterans History Project, said 34 interviews have been completed at MCI since July 2007. When inmates view inmates, veterans talk to veterans, a comfortable environment is created, allowing them to speak freely, she said.

Stevanus has helped the inmates create a "how-to" booklet for other incarcerated veterans' groups throughout Maryland, and perhaps the country, to use in putting together their own histories.

MCI inmates have recorded the histories of veterans from World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Cold War era and the Persian Gulf, according to Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services spokesman Mark Vernarelli. The veterans served in the Army, Navy, Army Reserve, Army National Guard, Marines and Coast Guard.

Flanigan helped start the MCI-H Veterans group to which McClary and Barba belong. In addition to their work with the Veterans History Project, the inmate group raises money for charities, provides inmates with self-help such as anger management classes and helps transition incarcerated veterans back into society after they have served their time. Anyone interested in joining the group must have been discharged under honorable conditions or honorably discharged, Flanigan said.

Barba, who has served almost 30 years of a life sentence for murder, would like to see incarcerated veterans receive medical treatment from Veterans Affairs.

"We're not looking for special treatment, we're just looking for adequate treatment," he said.

The men also wish today's veterans were treated better.

"They need respect. A lot of the ones coming back aren't given the respect they need," Barba said.

McClary, now serving a 12-year sentence for second-degree murder, faces a mandatory parole date in 2011. The veterans group will help him and others like him - the men estimate there are 70 to 80 veterans at MCI - get benefits. Each of the institutions south of Hagerstown have veterans groups, but only the MCI group participates in the Veterans History Project.

Maryland has about 420 incarcerated veterans, prison officials said.

"We were veterans before we were incarcerated," McClary said.

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