Behind bars, veteran helps other service members

H is reaction was simple and humble.

“Wow,” said Thelbert “Thad” Lawson as he got up to accept his award.

“You know what? I need my vice president up here, and my secretary, treasurer and sergeant at arms,” he added. “It takes more than one person to make a change.”

Lawson is 41. Since he was 24, he’s been in prison. The national award he received Tuesday at the Twin Rivers Corrections Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex is a tribute to the way he’s spent that time.

“You’re fortunate to have a great person who’s very involved in veterans affairs,” Jim Pace, state president of Vietnam Veterans of America, told a group of military-veteran inmates in the Twin Rivers chapel Tuesday evening.

Pace had come to the prison from his home north of Bellingham to present Lawson with the national organization’s Incarcerated Veteran of the Year award.

I’m as curious as you are. The question I wanted answered, before learning how Lawson earned that award, is how did he come to be locked up? What did he do?

Lawson was convicted in 1992 in Chelan County of solicitation to commit murder in the first degree. He shared few details about that and made no excuses. Lawson said he “fell” in 1991 after returning from Army duty in Operation Desert Storm. His case, he said, centered on a plot to kill his wife that involved his wife’s boyfriend.

“Prosecutors called it murder for hire,” said Lawson. “The judge called it 18 years.”

None of that has anything to do with why I drove to Monroe Tuesday. I was invited by Dennis McNamara, a prison volunteer from Monroe who works with inmate veterans. McNamara is so impressed by Lawson, he didn’t want the award to go unnoticed.

“He is a very high-energy person, with many ideas for improvement and growth,” McNamara said.

For two years, Lawson has been president of the Twin Rivers Veterans Action Group-Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 745. Lawson, who is too young to be a Vietnam veteran, grew up in Cashmere in Chelan County and joined the Army after high school graduation in 1984.

McNamara said just a few of Lawson’s successes at Twin Rivers include: reviving a “Voice of the Vet” newsletter; helping create a 43-page “Felon to Freedom” booklet that lists resources on topics such as post-traumatic stress disorder, health, housing, education and employment; and arranging fundraisers for Matthew House, a Monroe charity that serves inmates’ families.

Lawson has served his time in several prisons around the state. Before coming to Twin Rivers, he helped establish a veterans program at the Washington State Reformatory at the Monroe complex and a religious program at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, McNamara said.

McNamara said Lawson accomplishes so much that it may take three men to fill his shoes after his release, tentatively scheduled for March 8, 2007.

Tuesday’s award ceremony, part of a meeting of the Twin Rivers Veterans Action Group, had the added poignancy of the date – the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

One guest speaker was Army veteran Jim Botts, who works at a Monroe car dealership.

He told the inmates of an effort at work several years ago to send M&M’s candies to American forces in Iraq. “Two-and-a-half years later, I’m still getting letters thanking me,” Botts said. The horrors of Sept. 11, Botts said, “woke up volunteerism in America.”

“What about guys like you?” Botts asked the men. “The only thing you can do is support those who’ve been willing to fight.”

At the Vietnam Veterans of America national leadership conference this summer in Tucson, Ariz., there was no question about the award. Lawson was the standout, said Pace, the head of Washington state’s group.

Pace and other guests spoke to about 60 inmates, a group diverse in age, appearance and demeanor, but all with military service in common. They stood for the color guard, proudly said the Pledge of Allegiance, and respectfully listened to speakers in the chapel.

“When I see kids coming back from the war, I spot things. I spot trouble,” Pace told the men. “If we’d had vet centers and other help when you were coming back, some of you might not be here today.”

With his release next year, Lawson hopes to finish a college education he started in prison. He feels blessed to have supportive parents who have visited regularly. “My mom and dad have always been proud of me,” he said.

His goal could bring him back behind bars in a whole new capacity. “I want to start helping incarcerated veterans,” Lawson said. Judging by the reaction of the other men as Lawson accepted his plaque, he’s well on his way to that goal.

Clearly, I don’t know this man’s whole story. I know this: His years behind bars have not been wasted.

Columnist Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460 or muhlsteinjulie@heraldnet.com.

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