Three years ago, Sheriff Tom Allman approached county veterans with an idea: creating a celebration for incarcerated veterans. Though initially met with some trepidation, the idea took root and is now part of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 1900's yearly Veterans Day activities.
"We usually have between 12 to 15 veteran inmates in custody. The Ukiah VFW Post does the cooking and socializing. The Willits American Legion Post is very instrumental to this event by raising the necessary money for food," says Allman, who emphasizes that no tax dollars are used to cover event expenses.
Derek Shawk, senior vice-commander of VFW Post 1900, is a Marine who served in the Persian Gulf from 1988 until 1992. The Ukiah native got involved with the VFW three years ago at the prompting of his wife, who is not a veteran but volunteers at their monthly pancake breakfasts.
Today Shawk is head cook for the breakfasts, so it was natural for him to prepare food for the picnic. "The event is unexpected for the veteran inmates. They're very appreciative and humbled by the experience," notes Shawk.
The picnic lasts about two hours, beginning with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by a barbecue, dessert and socializing. Several years ago, a Ukiah vet made a comment to the sheriff: "Just because someone has done something bad, doesn't mean they haven't done something good in their life," Allman quotes.
Shawk notes that last year, some of the corrections officers who are veterans attended the picnic. "It was a chance for the inmates and officers to see themselves as veterans."
He feels post traumatic stress disorder is one of the root causes of many of the problems plaguing today's veterans. "While you're in a combat zone you don't have time to think. You're not going to leave your buddies behind by telling a counselor you're under stress. It's when they come home and everything's calm that people start to have problems," Shawk notes. "That's what the word post' means, in PTSD."
What was called "shell-shock" during World War I has undergone several re-brandings. During the Second World War, it became "combat fatigue" and today is known as PTSD. Shawk feels vets have always suffered with post-combat, anxiety-related conditions.
Today's soldiers, according to Shawk, spend months in grueling, unrelieved combat situations, making it very difficult to manage stress. Once home, problems with addiction, homelessness, anger and violence can ensue unless vets receive early counseling. The National Coalition for Homeless Veterans estimated that nearly 200,000 veterans were homeless in 2006.
"Many veterans try to assimilate, but they are not the same person they were before they enlisted, and they never will be," he explains...
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