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Membership Notes, November/December 2021 -   -  

Changing Lives in the Veterans Wing

While many veterans struggle with a variety of social problems, and some end up in prison, their warrior values can be revived when a challenge becomes an opportunity. The men residing in the Veterans Wing at Missouri’s Moberly Correctional Center—many of whom are members of VVA Incarcerated Chapter 1135—faced such a challenge when a struggling non-veteran was assigned to their unit.

Growing up, Jonathan Box moved frequently around the neighborhoods of Kansas City. At age 14 he entered the juvenile system, and at 17 he was arrested for second-degree murder and armed criminal action. By his 19th birthday he was in a maximum-security prison. While trying to survive in that volatile environment, he was charged with voluntary manslaughter after being attacked by another inmate. He joined a prison gang and, he said, “I became a junkie in prison.”

Nonetheless, some staff members had some hope for Box and wanted to try a different plan of action as a last resort. So this six-foot-tall man, covered with prison tattoos on his face, neck, arms, and most of his body (and a cast on his right arm from his last fight), was assigned to the quietest and most disciplined wing at the prison. Although some greeted him with anger and resentment, others knew him from the prison yard and greeted him. This was their chance to lead by example and expose Box to military values, strength, honor, and professionalism—a foundation he had never known. As for the veterans, they were given another opportunity to serve.

Thirty days later, after living in a military-style environment with stricter rules, standards, and requirements than those observed by the rest of the prison, I asked Box about his experience.

“I felt nervous about the Veterans Wing,” he said. “I was thrown into an element that I knew nothing about.” He had been required to take the mandatory two-week Orientation class, the Core Values class, and the Color Guard course. He had adapted impressively to the military-style leadership positions that govern the unit’s daily operations.

“The structure we live by in the Veterans Wing is no different than the prison yard,” Jonathan Box said. “The gang affiliations have a ranking system adopted from the military. I knew who I was accountable to and who was accountable to me. But the ranking system here is for the positive, not the negative. I understand the ranking structure in the Veterans Wing, and I respect it.”

In his time in the Veterans Wing, Box modified his behavior. He’s now eligible for a long-term drug treatment program. He said his experience with veterans provided an “awakening moment” in which he realized “prison is only temporary” and a good life is possible for him outside.

In the Veterans Wing Jonathan Box said he discovered a different group of people to emulate, to ask for advice, and to seek knowledge from: men who had built a foundation while they were in the military, a foundation that he had missed out on. He said with a smile, “This was the best four weeks I’ve spent in prison.”

Shon Pernice was named Incarcerated Member of the Year at the recently concluded 2021 VVA National Convention in Greensboro, N.C.




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