Inside prison walls, inmate veterans carried flags across the visitation room, posting the colors at the front of the room. They stood for the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, saluting the flag.
“Some people believe that because we’re in prison, we’ve lost our dignity and lost our association with other vets,” said Russell Burch, a founding member of the American Legion Post 405, inside Charlotte Correctional Institution.
The post helps combat that, giving the men a brotherhood and a sense of purpose. One of few American Legion posts made up entirely of incarcerated men, the group was started in 2013 with just five members.
“It was a rag-tag fleet,” Burch said. “As we started getting organized, we started having more inmates join.”
John Dollinger, the American Legion Sponsor for the post, said the group has had its comings and goings, but it keeps getting bigger. Based on a similar program in Martin County, the post now has nearly 65 members.
“Now we have a designation from the Department of Corrections as a veterans facility, so any veteran within the department who wants to can transfer here when they come up for their appraisals once a year,” Dollinger said.
Inmates who participate in the program are held to a high standard. Their dorms must be inspection-ready at any moment, often having visitors with only a few minutes’ notice, from Florida representatives to prison officials from Denmark.
Everyone wants to see the dorm, Dollinger said, which is painted with a mural depicting each war from the American Revolution all the way to conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
All inmates in the group are required to take a PTSD workshop and can choose from other classes such as parenting, anger management, finances, entrepreneurship and more. They learn Spanish and sign language, and spend time doing community service projects.
They make cards for veterans at hospitals and nursing homes, as well as those returning from active duty. They collect can tabs for the Ronald McDonald House Foundation to support dialysis patients and collect used stamps to help Boy Scouts earn their merit badges.
This year, they’ve made more than 100,000 poppies for the American Legion, which allows them to earn money to pay their dues.
“It helps us pay back what we can to society,” Burch said. “We’re in here for taking away from society and this helps us give back.”
Mike Raymond, southwest area commander for the Florida American Legion, was the guest speaker Friday, and he told the inmates though they may have lost many of their freedoms when they entered the prison system, but the fact that they answered the call to serve their country can never be taken away from them.
Joshua Grotberg, who manages much of the education and record-keeping for the post, said the group makes prison life more bearable, helping inmates relate to each other.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “Regular prison life is hard, but this is an environment where you’re with like-minded individuals. It helps when you live with someone and understand the things he’s been through.”