Inmate-Run Program Helps Vets Behind Bars Navigate VA Maze For the past decade, a Veteran Service Office operating inside a prison has aided 1,000 incarcerated veterans in receiving more than $15 million in benefits for themselves and their dependents.

Inmate-Run Program Helps Vets Behind Bars Navigate VA Maze

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Yesterday we talked about veterans serving time in prison who are still entitled to some of the benefits they earned while in the military. In fact, not all veterans doing time claim what's owed to them. Paperwork is one obstacle. And this morning, we meet two people who are trying to help - also, inmates at a prison here in California. Krista Almanzan of member station KAZU in Monterey has their story.

KRISTA ALMANZAN, BYLINE: Jerry Lytle never collected the benefits he earned from service in the Army, and once behind bars, he didn't realize he still could.

JERRY LYTLE: In 2004, I met up with another veteran who was getting benefits and he said, you know, you should get your benefits. You're entitled to them.

ALMANZAN: He's serving 32 to life for murder. Even so, he's still entitled to VA disability benefits because he suffers from PTSD and his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam. But he's not eligible for what he would have gotten on the outside. At most, Lytle can get just over $100 a month. If he wasn't incarcerated, his monthly payment would be more than $1,000. Still, when he filed for disability, he says he got the runaround.

LYTLE: I think because I was in prison, I couldn't deal directly with them. I was dealing with them through the mail, the only process I had. I really believed that they were just trying to discourage me to give up.

ALMANZAN: He didn't give up, but it wasn't persistence that finally worked, it was a transfer to this prison - the Soledad Correctional Training Facility in California's Salinas Valley, which is home to a unique, inmate-run program.

ED MUNIS: Veterans' office inmate Munis.

ALMANZAN: Inmate Ed Munis helps runs this veterans' service office. Here, incarcerated vets can get help filing and fighting for VA benefits, including disability, education and burial benefits for those who die in prison. Munis gets up to show me the office. It's a large cinderblock room with windows looking out on the prison's main corridor. A black POW/MIA flag hangs on the back wall next to filing cabinets and a bookcase filled with thick federal codebooks. Munis says that this all started because of fellow Vietnam veteran Michael Doc Pieper. He's the other inmate who runs this office.

MUNIS: I got here in 2003 and right away he found out a little bit about my background and pestered me for a couple of years 'til we got going.

ALMANZAN: It's a complicated background, to say the least. Munis is a serving 25 to life for his wife's murder. But before that, he was a lobbyist in Sacramento, working on veterans' issues. With the warden's approval, they started this office about 10 years ago. Now they're not only helping veterans in this prison, they are also working with some incarcerated vets by mail at every prison in California and in 23 other states where word of their work has spread in newsletters. Munis says most vets didn't know they could still get benefits.

MUNIS: There's an awful lot of people that are in the VA, as well as general public, that are not too excited about helping out convicted felons - people that are incarcerated. So that's been a struggle. So far, we've prevailed.

ALMANZAN: On the two computers in their office, they've kept detailed records of their work. Their numbers show over the past decade they've help about 1,000 incarcerated veterans get more than $15 million in benefits for themselves and their dependents. Still, it's a tough job to do from prison. The computers don't have Internet access, and their printer is locked in a cage so staff can review what they print. So they rely on help from the outside.


ALMANZAN: Hi, George.

ALMANZAN: That's George Dixon. He's a Monterey County veterans' service officer, and essentially does on the outside what those guys do on the inside. His office helps the prison office by reviewing the inmates' claims and submitting them to the VA.

DIXON: And plus, we can access and check status on appeals and help them with appeals on the outside.

ALMANZAN: That's the big thing they can't do.

DIXON: They cannot do it.

ALMANZAN: He says his job is not to judge these veterans for their crimes, but to help them get what they earned.

DIXON: When you look at some of the discharges - combat experience, Vietnam, Gulf War, Persian Gulf, Granada, Panama - and those are the individuals that are in there.

ALMANZAN: It's why his office is working to develop a similar program at the neighboring Salinas Valley state prison. There, they've trained 7 inmates to help veterans start the VA paperwork. Inmate Ed Munis hopes to reach more veterans in a different way.

MUNIS: I plan on paroling here. I plan on continuing to do this. They'd better tag it on my toe and bury me.

ALMANZAN: His first chance at parole comes up in a couple of years. If he gets out, he says he'd work to expand this program in prisons up and down the state. For NPR News, I'm Krista Almanzan

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