Veterans Embracing Truth (left to right, standing) B. Mentzer, J. King, McCarter (Kinking Horse), C. Coley and (kneeling) left R. Fontes and R. Tarazon. Photos by Chris Lynch
Blue Star Mothers of the South Bay help imprisoned military veterans give back to their Brothers in Arms
by Christopher J. Lynch
The order is called out: one pizza, two sandwiches, one red-velvet cake. The customer is handed his food, thanked for his support, and walks out nonchalantly without paying. No money is exchanged, no debit card is swiped, and no one in the cavernous dining hall is concerned. The customer is CDCR # P5987631 and he’s not going anywhere. He’s doing 12 to 15 years in California State Prison, Los Angeles County, Lancaster for armed robbery.
The a 262 acre, level-four, maximum security facility is responsible for the housing, clothing, and the feeding of over 1,000 inmates.
A sign in the dining hall where the fundraisers are held.
This isn’t any ordinary chow call, and these aren’t ordinary prisoners serving up for their fellow inmates. They’re members of V.E.T.S. for “Veterans Embracing Truth,” one of several L.T.A.G. or “Leisure Time Activity Groups” that exist in the facility.
“These are groups that exist within the prison with the purpose of focusing on the positive and in many cases, giving back to a society, which they can no longer be a part of,” says Richard Martinez, the group’s sponsor explain.
This group gives back to our troops overseas. Made up mostly of veterans, many of whom have served in combat, V.E.T.S.’s mission is to provide not only a support group to fellow veteran within the gray walls, but to do what they can for the men and women still serving in the Armed Forces. Their vehicle of choice for these external efforts: food fundraisers. Their charity of choice is the South Bay Chapter of the Blue Star Mothers of America. The Redondo Beach-based group uses the money raised from the prison to send care packages overseas. The care packages contain everything from toiletries, snacks to reading materials. They recently even sent a microwave.
Dawn Anzack-Ayers, whose nephew Cpl. Joseph J. Anzack was killed in action in Iraq in 2007, recalls how thrilled she was to learn that the South Bay Blue Star Moms had been selected as the charity of choice by the V.E.T.S. group.
“It is just so heartwarming to know that they are performing this random act of kindness for people that they don’t even know. And what makes it even more special is to know that these are men who have served, they are men who have walked in our son’s and daughter’s shoes.”
Every branch of the military is represented in the V.E.T.S. group. Collectively, they have served in every military action since 1965. Viet Nam vets are represented, as well as those who saw action in Bosnia, Panama, Honduras, Iraq and Afghanistan. The group is made up of combat engineers, special-forces, recon units, cooks, and flight line technicians. Regardless, their branch or MOS, every man is treated with an equal amount of dignity and respect.
Richard, a former Army recruiter and the chairman of the “A” yard V.E.T.S. group, explains that they work to keep the group a democracy.
“We try to vote on everything, and after we learned about the Blue Star Moms and what they do, it was an easy choice.”
The tipping point for many was the fact that the Blue Stars supported families back home, as well as the troops overseas.
“It’s great that they not only send stuff overseas, but that they take care of the people back home,” said Matt, a former Marine.
The fundraisers, which occur four times per year, bear little resemblance to a church bake sale. The inmates purchasing the food, can handle no money, and must put in their orders two weeks in advance. The money is drawn out of the inmates’ trust accounts, which friends and family contribute to. The day of the sale, six huge carts of food are offloaded and set up in the prison yard cafeteria, a no-nonsense building with a guard tower and signs on the wall reminding offenders “No warning shots will be fired.”
The customers are called in one at a time, ID’ed and checked off of a list before they can receive their food. All food items, such as Costco sized tubs of pretzels and nuts, must be removed from their containers and transferred into plastic bags before being handed off to the inmates. Even food packaging can be fashioned into weapons.
It’s labor intensive, and it’s a clunky way of doing business, but it works and raises needed money for the group’s charity.
A recent sale netted over $600 for the South Bay Blue Star Mothers.
Not that the members of V.E.T.S mind the work it entails. Many understand the thrill of receiving a care package while serving.
Chris, an Army veteran who saw lots of combat in Afghanistan, relates it to the feeling of receiving a package while incarcerated.
“It’s like being a kid at Christmas,” he said.
Ken, a Marine who served during peacetime, and never received a package during his hitch, still waxes poetic about the experience.
“To me, loading up a box that I knew was going over there, would be tantamount to Grandma cooking Sunday dinner, with all that love going into that box.”
In many cases, the inmates wish they could do more to help, up to and including, the ultimate sacrifice.
“We close out every meeting by reading the names of each individual soldier who has passed. I wish so much that I could take the place of that 18 year old kid, so I could save his life,” Richard said.
Kicking-Horse, an Army vet and a Native American whose grandfather was a code-talker in WWII, nods his head in agreement.
“Many of us would be more than happy to give our lives, anything just to save one of those brave men or women,” he said.
The South Bay Chapter of the Blue Star Mothers of America holds monthly meetings at The American Legion Hall, 412 Camino Real, Redondo Beach. for more information, visit bluestarsouthbayla.org/
Christopher J. Lynch is the author of “One Eyed Jack,” a hard-boiled crime novel that takes place in the South Bay. ChristopherJLynch.com. B