Breaking the Bonds
INSTITUTION CHAPTER 616
BY JIM DOYLE
Bill Homer is a man built like a
fireplug. Not too tall, broad-shouldered, and with ham-sized
hands. He serves as Staff Adviser to VVA Chapter 616, housed
inside the walls of the Mansfield Correctional Institution in
Mansfield, Ohio. He is a U.S. Navy veteran.
Homer believes very deeply that “if you treat these guys like
out-of-control children, they will act like out-of-control
children.” He is respected by the inmate-members of the chapter
because he treats them with respect. Respect and basic human
dignity are important components of what Bill Homer does as an
employee of the facility and as a veteran who advises and sponsors
“Some of the guys in this institution belong here,” he said. “Some
made errors in judgment, and that’s why they’re here. They are
putting their time to good use, and I’m damn proud of that, one
veteran to another.”
In January, Chapter 616 donated 250
pounds of canned goods to the Joseph House, a homeless veterans
shelter. Fellow Staff Adviser Don Berry joined Bill Homer in the
presentation of a POW/MIA flag to Keith Maupin, father of POW Matt
That POW/MIA flag was the first to
fly over the Mansfield Correctional Institution. In a ceremony in
September 2004 under the direction of Joseph A. Jennings III,
executive director of VVA’s Buckeye State Council, the flag was
raised above the front gate of the institution.
A year ago, VVA Veterans
Incarcerated Committee chair John Koprowski, who retired from the
Marine Corps and then spent 25 years working for the Florida
Department of Corrections, visited the members of Chapter 616. He
came for very specific reasons—not the least of which was to set
the record straight about what VVA can and can’t do with respect
to Veterans Incarcerated. He was also there to praise the work
ethic developed by these veterans.
“Health care as it relates to
Veterans Incarcerated is a tough one,” he said. “We have no way of
keeping track of the resources available in each state. Some
provide a certain level of care to veterans, others do not, and we
[VVA] are not in a position to demand anything from state
governments or institutions.”
One of the main concerns of those preparing to be released is what
kinds of support systems are available in their communities.
Koprowski explained that if there is a VVA chapter in their
community, they should contact that chapter and get involved.
Some sixty men scheduled to be
released in the near future are service-connected disabled and
fear that obtaining meaningful employment is their greatest
challenge. Many have gained skills and certifications in various
fields, ranging from heating, ventilation, and air conditioning,
to the manufacture of automobile motor mounts in the prison
Chris Sissom, who was a machinist’s
mate in the U.S. Navy from 1990-93, used the skills he learned in
the Navy to finish courses offered by Ashland University and
receive his certification in HVAC. “I’d like to open a small
business when I get out and do air conditioning service and
repair,” he said.
Christopher Ferrel is best known to
VVA members as the man who used his airbrush skills—developed in
prison—to paint the huge banner that served as a backdrop during
VVA’s 11th National Convention in St. Louis. Ferrel has been in
Mansfield since he was 16 and looks forward to his parole hearing
The self-taught artist, whose work
adorns the quarters used by the chapter and Associates for
meetings and work parties, is sought out by schools and churches
to produce banners.
Chapter President John Johnson was
assigned to the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, from
1969-72. He has spent his time studying real estate and is a
non-certified real estate agent waiting for the day he is released
to take the state test to qualify for his license.
“If there is something you want
done,” he declared, “You have to do it yourself.”
The range of questions and issues brought up with Koprowski
included job training before and after release, and federal and
state laws and regulations dealing with obtaining training,
medical services, VA benefits, and discharge upgrades. “If you
left the military with a less-than-honorable discharge, the
chances aren’t very good that you’ll be able to upgrade that bad
paper,” Koprowski told the group.
William Morris is a
third-generation veteran, having followed his grandfather and
father into uniform. Morris spent ten years in the Navy and ten in
the Air Force. “I gave as a civilian and that hasn’t changed,”
said Morris whose father is a member of VVA Chapter 900. “I want
to keep giving to my community.”
“The military taught us to help
people,” said Samuel Burson, echoing the mantra of nearly all the
Veterans, staff advisers, VVA
national officials, and a collection of state VVA officials and
others who made a commitment to reach out to Veterans Incarcerated
drank coffee and soda and ate cookies baked at the institution.
Chapter 616’s record is one many
free chapters would envy.
Chapter 616 was honored as Chapter
of the Year by the Ohio State Council for its tremendous record of
community service in 2004.
The chapter presented a $500 check
to Richland County to promote breast-cancer awareness. The chapter
also donated $1,000 to the Richland County Red Cross to help
provide care packages for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.
In an effort to help understand
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and its effects on the individual,
family, and community, the chapter spent time working with
psychology students at Ohio State University-Mansfield. Eight
students attended a recent meeting of the Midwestern Psychological
Association in Chicago where their work with inmates in the
chapter brought a better understanding of the effects of treatment
and an understanding of PTSD and how it affects veterans.
At the conclusion of the meeting
one of the members said, “If you treat me like a man, I’ll act
like a man.” Buckeye State Council Veterans Incarcerated Staff
Adviser of the Year Bill Homer smiled. “I’m so proud of these
guys,” he said. “They really have made a difference.”