Steven Smith scrolled through his emails one day a few months ago, and came across one that simply moved him.
Smith, a United States Navy Veteran, is among the seven veterans claims analysts working directly with incarcerated veterans in California’s 35 state prisons through CalVet’s Justice Involved Veterans Initiative. The analysts help veterans—many imprisoned for crimes they committed in no small part due to the PTSD and other disabilities developed during their time in the military—secure their earned veterans benefits.
One former incarcerated veteran, Corey Kiefer, expressed his heartfelt thanks to Smith for helping him begin to rebuild a life that had gone south in an instant. Kiefer joined the Army at 18 in 2012. He spent most of his two-year hitch working as a mortician at Dover Air Force Base, where the remains of America’s fallen military personnel arrive. The duty, he said, affected him in ways he didn’t understand at the time. But, he said, his PTSD came into focus after he was involved in a fatal auto accident in 2016, later convicted of vehicular manslaughter. Kiefer spent more than two years in state prisons, where he met Smith before gaining early release in April 2020 due to COVID-19 precautions.
Kiefer’s email, in its entirety, eloquently speaks volumes about Smith and CalVet’s program for incarcerated veterans:
Good evening sir,
I am writing this e-mail today to thank you for all that you’ve done for myself and my family. Since we met in prison, of course in different circumstances, I spoke to you about receiving the help and guidance I needed to help navigate the tsunami that the VA is. That was the first time during my few years in the system that somebody spoke to me with respect and attentiveness. Through the entire process, you stayed dedicated and I was shocked that here was somebody, who has not given up on me for once (other than my wife.)
Upon my release of prison, we were finally able to proceed with my disability case and you led me to a decision that was a long time coming, one that was previously unfathomable. Because of you, I was able to get back on my feet and actually catapulted me ahead to where I was able to purchase a home for my wife and three boys. I was able to pay off previous debts that accrued while in prison, you helped make up for the heartache and struggle that my wife endured during those years of incarceration. Your assistance got me the mental help that I desperately needed, which in turn has made me a better father, husband and man. It truly changed my life and the lives of my family.
Steven, God bless you for what you’ve done for my family and I. We are here because of you.
The note Smith received is by no means rare. Grateful veterans send them all the time — mostly in the form of hand-written letters through the U.S. Mail — and to all of the analysts. Some are accompanied by beautiful handcrafted artistry. A brief sampling of what these analysts receive daily includes two received by Sandra Matrecitos, an analyst in CalVet’s Los Angeles District Office:
“We are showing you our appreciation for our consent (constant) effort in helping us with our Veteran’s needs. For the men of A yard Lancaster CA it represents Duty, Honor, Pride even though we are incarcerated. We love this country. Thank you for your service, thank you for your time.”
Incarcerated veteran, Lancaster prison
“I want to thank you for your help in getting me the VA “PTSD” psychological exam I recently received … I had put up against a bureaucratic wall that I’d been struggling with for almost five years, and you came through for me. I may yet get another (Parole? Disability rating?) denial, but at least I had the chance to plead my case.”
Incarcerated veteran, Chino prison
This excerpted one came to Mary Donovan, an analyst based in the Oakland District office:
… At one point the VA claimed – during a COVID outbreak at the prison I’m housed, mind you – that I ‘didn’t show up for my appointment.’ I contacted Mary and she immediately filed the necessary paperwork to correct the VA’s mistake. While I was thankful for her professionalism and expertise, what truly made her efforts impressive was the fact that I’m certainly not the only veteran she is helping. And yet, I felt as if I was the only claim she was working on.
Mary’s laser focus and positive attitude are exactly what I needed to feel like someone actually cared about my claim. …
Incarcerated veteran, Vacaville prison
Letters like these – and there are scores upon scores of them – can be short and simple. Or, like the one Kiefer wrote to Steven Smith, very detailed and with heartfelt appreciation.
Each one means that while these veterans are responsible for the actions that sent them to prison, their service to their country beforehand is neither negated nor forgotten.
For a closer look into CalVet’s Justice Involved Veterans Initiative watch our video about the project at bit.ly/3q6AStZ.