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September/october 2008

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BY MICHAEL KEATING
Sometimes while serving in Iraq, Jason Mouret would be drenched in sweat, fear clinging to him like his clothes. He would calm himself by thinking about the advice he had been given by someone who had seen it all, years ago.

Amid the terror and the tedium and the constant confusion, he heard a voice that gave him insight and suggested alternate courses of action. And when the action started and the battle raged, he had a friend and elder brother-in-arms who whispered, Be brave, Be strong.

This counsel and comfort came from letters from home, from Louisiana. At first, Mouret said, “it was a shock. My commanders looked at me like, ‘What’s up?’” The letters were stamped “inmate correspondence.” They were mailed from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.

Bill Kissinger served at Udupai, Thailand, and at Cam Ranh Bay in 1970-71 with the U.S. Air Force. For the past 19 years, he has been serving time at Angola. He’s a founder and the chair of Camp F VETS and president of VVA Chapter 689.

“I would have liked to have had the support and encouragement of someone besides family members when I served during Vietnam,” Kissinger said. “The process of getting to know someone, who shows that he genuinely cares about the serving soldier and supports him, provides an emotional and spiritual uplifting to both the soldier and the person writing him.”

Kissinger approached Allen Manuel, VVA Region 7 Director and a long-time mentor to veterans incarcerated at Angola. Manuel said the plan was straightforward: Kissinger wanted to write to someone in Iraq in order to “keep him from going wrong.” Kissinger, Manuel said, “didn’t want someone else to get in the same jam” he had gotten into.

Manuel thought it over and then approached Mouret’s father about the idea. He saw no harm in it, so he gave Manuel his son’s address.

“Bill wrote a lot of letters,” Manuel said.

“Bill wrote a lot,” Mouret agreed. His unit was involved in combat and he was thankful for Kissinger’s counsel. “Having someone who had gone through combat was a relief,” he said. “It helped to know that help was there waiting.”

When Mouret was injured, “those were some rough times.” But Kissinger helped, he said, to “keep me straight.” Kissinger talked about the importance of clarity and encouraged the young soldier to steer clear of drugs and alcohol.

“I told him,” Kissinger said, “that when he came home—and that I knew he would come home—he had to make choices, and that many, many people, including myself, were hoping for him to make the right choices. And that we were ready to help him make them and support him.”

Mouret said Kissinger warned him that coming home would be “a tough transition.” Kissinger, he said, also warned him “what roads not to go down when I got home.”

“I wanted to make sure,” Kissinger said, “that another young man, faced with the mental and emotional damage that combat causes, did not make the same mistakes that I made. I watched my friends going crazy when they came home, and I thought, ‘It won’t happen to me.’ I couldn’t see myself clearly through the fog of alcohol and drugs. I didn’t see my life falling apart.”

“I didn’t fit in when I came back,” Mouret said. He felt like a stranger, even to his wife and daughter. But Kissinger had told him that everything would be different and he was right. Kissinger also warned him against the easy comfort of drugs and alcohol.

“He told it exactly,” Mouret said. “He hit the nail on the head.”

Two weeks after he returned from his 14-month tour in Iraq, Mouret and his wife, Jessica, drove from their home in Opelousas, Louisiana, to the Angola Penitentiary to meet with Kissinger and to be the guests of honor at a Camp F VETS “Passing the Torch” banquet.

“This is my brother,” Kissinger told the assembled crowd. “I wanted to give Jason the welcome home that we, as Vietnam veterans, never received.” The Angola veterans also presented their guests with gifts.

“Kissinger had another veteran make a belt buckle out of my combat medal and a Purple Heart,” Mouret said. “A plaque was given to my wife for standing by me and our country.” Allen Manuel received the Distinguished Service Award for his long service to veterans incarcerated programs in Louisiana.

The months have slid by since that Veterans Day banquet at Angola, and Mouret’s life has become preoccupied with the concerns of a young father, husband, and provider. His friendship with Kissinger, however, remains rock solid.

“We still send letters about twice a month,” Mouret said. But the letters no longer offer encouragement in the face of battle. “I’m learning politics, and I’m learning about Veterans of Modern Warfare.

“Bill’s hooked me up with lots of people, and he’s given me enormous knowledge about working within the VA system,” Mouret said. “It’s important for me to pass this knowledge on to others.”

VVA Region 7 Director Allen Manuel can be reached at amanuel@vva.org

 

 

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