Tom Smart, Deseret News
Utah State Prison inmate Alan Williams, right, talks with Veterans Affairs worker Lynn Jorgensen about his plans once released.<BR>

BLUFFDALE — Even though Vietnam-era veteran Marvin K. Wheeler went to prison in 2000 for several felonies involving sex acts with underage males, he never had to worry about losing his benefits through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

The VA, in fact, is actively involved in trying to help vets leaving prison make a smooth transition into the community. And on the other end, state corrections officials work to help veterans still behind prison walls receive needed treatment and counseling from the VA prior to their release.

Sixty-four-year-old Wheeler, drafted into the Air Force in 1966 and medically discharged two years later, is listed on the Utah sex offender registry. When he is paroled next month, he'll get several surgeries for his feet, legs and back; he'll get help with finding temporary housing until he can get on his feet again; and he'll have access to other kinds of help through the VA in Salt Lake City.

Alan Williams can't recall exactly how many DUIs he's had — eight or 10, he thinks. He racked up three DUIs in 10 years, which was his ticket to prison two years ago. He'll be let out Sept. 30.

Williams, 50, joined the Navy Reserve in 1974 and became active in 1975, remaining in the Navy working on the flight deck of the USS Tripoli, based in San Diego. An incident that involved messing around with explosives stamped him with a discharge labeled "general, under honorable (conditions)."

"I was devastated," he said. "I planned on making a career in the Navy."

Terry Schow, Utah VA executive director, said vet benefits earned by most who served between 1968 and 1975 are set in stone, regardless of what they did after their service.

"I'm kind of a purist when it comes to benefits," Schow said. "Either you're entitled to them or you're not."

What really bothers Schow is that veterans from the Korean War and World War II have been denied VA medical benefits based only on their earning too much income. Williams and Wheeler, who gets monthly retirement checks from the U.S. Postal Service, will both receive VA medical benefits after prison.

Referring to what Wheeler did, however, Schow said, "My personal opinion is, it does not reflect well on the fact that he has been a previous member of the Armed Forces."

Wheeler disagrees.

"I don't think I've dishonored anyone," he said during an interview inside the prison.

Wheeler described himself as a good provider while he was married. (He's now divorced.) In the Air Force, he was a dietitian and medic, but because of problems associated with his flat feet, he was discharged. "I didn't want to be discharged from the Air Force," he said. Because of medical problems, Wheeler retired after 28 years with the Postal Service.

After Williams' discharge, he drove trucks, learned how to weld, got married, raised a family and then, about the time he was getting a divorce, started drinking. Today he blames peer pressure for leading him down a self-destructive path that led to his first DUI in the mid-1980s. In prison he has received help kicking alcohol.

Williams, like Wheeler, has tapped into help that the VA offers inmates who are veterans and are about to be released.

The VA's Lynn Jorgensen has been helping both men and visited them recently to firm up a few details of what the VA will be doing for them. VA social worker Amy Earle tagged along and filled in on some questions.

Jorgensen explained to Williams that the VA is helping him "so you can be successful." Williams, a fitter/welder by trade, told Jorgensen, "I'm employable."

After prison, Williams will get help with a neck injury through the VA, transportation assistance and a place to sleep at the Valor House on the VA campus in Salt Lake City until he can find a place of his own or he's able to move to St. George. And he'll still need counseling for his alcohol abuse.

Earle reassured Williams that one of 61 beds will be waiting for him at the Valor House when he gets out, and that if the only marks on his criminal record are the DUIs, then he'll slip right in to the housing. She portrayed the atmosphere at the housing site as positive and uplifting.

Williams said the VA has given him hope that he will succeed after prison.

"I want to — I want to real bad," he said.

Some of the treatment veterans receive is comparable to what a civilian inmate would get through the state as they transition out of prison. But Tom Patterson, Department of Corrections executive director, is happy to let the VA inside prison walls to take the baton on getting vets readjusted. The VA is even presenting the prison with an award later this year for its cooperation with veterans.

"We're simply fulfilling our obligation (to inmates)." Patterson said. "If anybody should be getting credit, it should be the VA."

Inmates are asked during initial processing if they're military veterans. About 8 percent to 12 percent of any jail or prison population is made up of veterans.

Prison officials forward a vet's information to the VA, which digs a little to see if the inmate's story checks out. If it does, then about six months before the individual is scheduled to be released, the VA will make contact and begin assessing what that person's needs are.

That's where Jorgensen and Earle come in, making sure vets have enough clothes to get by on, access to medical attention and transportation and adequate housing.

They tried to get Wheeler into the Valor House, which is actually run by the Salt Lake City Housing Authority. But because of the nature of his crime, Wheeler was denied a bed, which vets can use for up to two years for just over $300 a month.

Wheeler, who uses a wheelchair to get around, said he'll be content with a halfway house until he can get established, save some money from his Postal Service retirement and VA benefits and then find an apartment. Neither Williams nor Wheeler said they have any family support.

"They have every right to be where they're at," Wheeler said about his five grown children. "I brought this on myself."

Wheeler, who used to play Santa Claus at Christmas for the Post Office in American Fork, wants to lose weight, finish the degree he started at Brigham Young University, rejoin The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and volunteer helping others, possibly at the VA.

"I don't want to hurt anyone ever again," Wheeler said. He no longer beats himself up over his crimes and has learned to forgive himself.

If while in the military Wheeler had committed the same crimes — attempted forcible sodomy with three minors — he would have been kicked out of the Air Force and probably stripped of his benefits, Schow said. Schow hopes the VA will have helped Wheeler become a more productive member of society.

Jorgensen's outlook for Wheeler was positive as they parted ways inside the prison.

"You're a good man," he told Wheeler. "I've appreciated knowing you."

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