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October 29, 2011

American Legion thriving in prison

Inmate veterans have donated more than $5,000 since 2009.

BUNKER HILL — The American Legion members who gather in the chapel have served in Vietnam and Korea.

They’ve raised thousands of dollars for local charities selling pizza, buffalo wings and Twinkies.

They’re noted by state Legion leaders for the reverence they show toward the American flag and the formality of their meetings.

And they are all inmates at Miami Correctional Facility, though that distinction seems to fall away when they walk through the doors of the meeting room, officials said.

“I’m not offender number 106.... in here,” Post Commander Earl Kimmerling said in a press release issued by the prison. “Numbers don’t mean anything in here. In here, I’m a member of the American Legion.”

The group has given more than $5,000 to local charities, and with 36 veterans, its membership is increasing, the release states.

But the men in the post differ from most of other 390 American Legion posts in Indiana. For example, Kimmerling was sentenced in 2000 to 40 years in prison for molesting his foster daughter, according to CNHI news accounts.

That background makes group members more determined to give back to the community, Kimmerling said.

“People out there are watching us to see if we are about what we say we are,” he said.

Miami Correctional’s American Legion Post 555 was chartered in July 2009, one of three posts in Indiana Department of Correction facilities.

The inmates wear Legion hats and their own shirts and slacks during their meetings, said Dick Thomas of Kokomo, a representative for the Indiana Legion’s fifth district.

“That’s why they feel a sense of freedom when they meet,” he said. “These guys are prisoners, but when they walk through that chapel door, they're Legion members.”

Legion leaders from the district, as well as representatives of several community organizations, attended the post’s meeting Wednesday.

The inmate veterans donated $500 to the local Special Olympics; $500 to Blue Star Mothers, a group that represents mothers with children in the military; and $340 to Indiana CURE, an advocacy group focused on changing and improving the criminal justice system. The post raises money through food fundraisers in the prison.

“We really appreciate what you have done,” Lula Ewers with Indiana CURE told the group, according to the release. “We don’t have many fundraisers, and this money takes a big load off my mind.”

Blue Star Mothers representative Karen Orr said the group planned to use the donation for packages it would be mailing to men and women serving overseas and stateside. Doug Adams said the donation to Miami and Wabash County Special Olympics would help about 100 local athletes.

“There are 390 posts in Indiana and a quarter to a third of them cannot do what you’re doing in here,” Ed Trice, fifth district commissioner, said of the donations. “Because of today’s economy, some of the smaller posts are even having a tough time making it.”

The Legion has also donated to Whites Institute, Sew Much Comfort, The Salvation Army and Kokomo Rescue Mission. Plans are also in the works for putting up a flag pole that can be seen from the inside of the prison, the release states.

“Regardless of what they did, they’re still veterans,” Thomas said. “It’s a pretty neat thing. ... It’s a way of rehabilitating them.”

• Dustin Kass is associate editor of the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at 574-732-5150 or dustin.kass@pharostribune.com.

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