There are currently 700 incarcerated veterans signed up for Battle Buddies in Oklahoma
Modified: September 7, 2015 at 4:00 pm • Published: September 7, 2015
From inside the fence that surrounds Clara Waters Community Corrections Center, a couple of graying men unfurl an American flag and hoist it high into the Oklahoma sunshine.
Then, a proper salute reminiscent of their time in the military.
The men are members of Battle Buddies, a volunteer-led effort to provide assistance to incarcerated veterans in Oklahoma. The program was started in 2012 by retired Maj. Gen. Rita Aragon, who serves as Gov. Mary Fallin's advisor on veteran's issues.
There are currently 700 incarcerated veterans signed up for Battle Buddies. Volunteers help them apply for benefits and establish veterans groups inside the facilities. Participants are paired with mentors, who help them with life after prison by finding them jobs and places to live.
Battle Buddies is working to bring a flagpole to each facility, and with it, a sense of pride. The veterans groups take responsibility for raising and lowering the flag each day.
"It adds a touch of normalcy in an otherwise abnormal environment," said Janet Dowling, warden at Dick Conner Correctional Center in Hominy.
Battle Buddies is operated by volunteers at no cost to the state. It has been so successful, legislators outside Oklahoma are eyeing the program with the intention of duplicating it in their home states, said program coordinator Ron Pandos.
So far, 68 Battle Buddies vets have been released from custody and none have re-offended.
One of them is Keith Matson, 60. The Vietnam veteran was convicted of shooting with intent to kill in 2006, and Battle Buddies were ready to assist when he was released from prison in 2013.
"If you needed food or clothing or any of that stuff, they were ready to help a veteran," Matson said. "Anything you needed, you could put forth to them."
Matson said his mentor helped him apply for disability benefits for his hearing loss and find a job working on tractors.
There are currently 180 volunteer veterans acting as mentors across the state.
Battle Buddies coordinators — Pandos, his wife, Jerletta Alford-Pandos, and Gary Henrick — also are veterans, and Pandos once was incarcerated. He served just over a year in prison for possession of a firearm in 2009. He applied for a pardon in 2013, but his request was rejected by Gov. Mary Fallin.
Having military experience in common helps them befriend the inmates.
"A veteran will talk to a veteran before they'll talk to anybody else," he said.
Battle Buddies estimates there are 2,840 registered veterans in Oklahoma prisons and 78 percent of them are serving sentences for nonviolent crimes.
Battle Buddies has helped establish veterans groups in Oklahoma prison facilities, and club members act as positive role models to other inmates. Some wardens have reported reduced violence as a result, Pandos said.
The groups have taken on community projects such as crocheting American flag blankets for the families of fallen soldiers or beanie hats for homeless children. Other projects include repairing wheelchairs and walkers, growing vegetables for needy families and creating prom decorations for a local high school.
Corrections Department Director Robert Patton applauds Battle Buddies, which was recognized as the department's 2015 Volunteer Organization of the Year.
"As a veteran of the Navy, I know the struggles these men face when they discharge from the service," Patton said. "I appreciate Battle Buddies for their support and dedication to our nation's veterans who have found themselves in trouble. The organization continues to have my full support in their mission."