This interview with a US Air Force veteran reveals the important place military service has in helping impoverished young people escape from the destructive cycle of poverty. When he enlisted at 16, this man could barely read or write. Through his hard work and training provided to him through the armed services, he now tells his story eloquently, in the hopes that others may learn and be inspired by his experience.
Q: What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How many years of experience do you have in this field? How would you describe yourself using only three adjectives?
A: Currently, I am a Sergeant at the Northpoint Penal Institution and Training Center in Danville, KY. I transitioned to this job from my career in the United States Air Force, the USAF, where I retired after 30 years. I am nearing retirement from my position at Northpoint. I have been employed by them for just a little over 20 years. I began working with prisoners in the USAF and have been a prison guard for over 40 years. I would say I am tough, personable, and fair.
Q: What’s your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you? If you ever experienced discrimination, how have you responded and what worked best?
A: I am a white male from the hills of Kentucky. It has both helped and hindered me. You have to understand, I grew up uneducated, the youngest of 18. Joining the USAF was a way for me to get out of the hills and get an education. Joining the service also ensured I got enough to eat. I know they thought I was a “stupid hillbilly.” It was months before I realized I received a paycheck for my work in the USAF. I thought being fed, given uniforms and a place to stay was payment enough.
My inexperience actually worked to my advantage. I was given a job during Vietnam of infiltrating our own military prisons to gather evidence of both treason by US soldiers and abuse by the guards of those prisons. Because I sounded “simple,” both prisoners and guards spoke freely around me. I worked in several undercover capacities and was never caught.
Q: How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail? Are there any common misunderstandings you want to correct about what you do?
A: As a prison guard, I walk the halls of one of the prison barracks, where the inmates are kept. I make sure there are no fights, no abuse of prisoners by other guards or other prisoners. I make sure the prisoners remain calm. I work in a maximum security wing. I am on my feet a good bit and I interact with the prisoners. Movies portray prison guards as mean and spiteful. In actuality, we are not. We are friendly with the inmates, but not friends with the inmates. There is a distinction there and it is important not to cross that line. I know that no matter what they have done, prisoners are human beings and it is important to treat them with respect and dignity.
Q: On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What might need to change about your job to unleash your full enthusiasm?
A: I would have to rate my job satisfaction as a 9. I am very proud of my accomplishments, considering my roots. I came from nothing and I served my country well. I now serve my state and federal government. I hear so many people complain about America. Travel the world like I did. We may have problems and times might be tough, but even the poorest US citizen has more than those in countries like Turkey and China. Complaining about your situation is a luxury many people in the world do not have.
Q: If this job moves your heart – how so? Ever feel like you found your calling or sweet spot in life? If not, what might do it for you?
A: Being a part of the USAF moved my heart. I was and remain patriotic to my core. Being a part of the military is something I remain proud of. I made a difference to Americans and to my fellow service members. The Air Force taught me the real meaning of family. It gave me the drive and determination and the means to accomplish my goals. Back in the late 1950s, a poor hillbilly from Kentucky usually died at a young age, and yes, I am aware that is politically incorrect, but that is what I was. In the 1950s we didn’t worry about being correct. Back then, the youngest of 18 usually died of malnutrition, exposure, or turned to a life of crime. I joined the Air Force at age 16. They didn’t check birth certificates the way they do now, because a lot of illiterate mountain people didn’t have them. If you’ve ever seen those commercials for “Feed the Children,” that show the hard life of those in the Appalachian Mountains, that was my life growing up. We didn’t have much food, no electricity and no running water. Thanks to the USAF, I not only got out of there, I was able to help my family get out.
Q: Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
A: I’ve already told so much about my situation. When I first joined the military, I couldn’t read or write very well. I have come a long way and when I retire from Northpoint, I will retire with two full retirements. While joining any branch of the service requires that you give a lot, in some instances your life, it also provides you with a lot. You are provided with an education, a set of job skills, medical and dental benefits, housing while enlisted, as well as having your meals, uniforms and other things provided. Once you become married and have children you are provided with nice housing and allowances for each of your dependents. Retiring after 20 years provides you with excellent retirement benefits.
Q: What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?
A: I have learned to follow orders and take direction. I have learned that doing the right thing does not always make you popular. Anyone who served in Vietnam was taught that lesson. Soldiers were reviled by their fellow countrymen for serving and doing as we were told. The right thing is not always the most popular thing. I think that goes for any job. I know it serves me well here at Northpoint. I am not the most popular among my coworkers, but I abide by every rule. The rules are there for a reason, even if I don’t understand the reasoning behind them. I also learned anytime there is a problem, those in lower ranks or positions are going to catch the brunt of it. That’s why you do as you are told and follow the rules.
Q: How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
A: I have been employed at Northpoint long enough to receive three weeks of paid vacation yearly, as well as holidays and sick time. I enjoy my vacations. Anyone who works in a prison needs the break and the vacation. It is a highly stressful position. There are a lot of “politics” within the job, as there is with any government job. People are always pushing and shoving to go up in rank and get promoted. Dealing with prisoners is also a volatile situation. I have been through one riot, long ago, and have no desire to go through another.
Q: What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
A: I would tell a friend there is much satisfaction to be obtained from both lines of work I have performed. I don’t think there is a higher honor than serving my country and protecting the rights and the freedoms of this nation. I also think by serving as a prison guard, I guarantee that for at least eight hours every day, the prisoners on my watch are treated with kindness, dignity and respect. I make sure they are not a danger to others or to themselves. I am proud to be of service.