Every Sunday, the Rev. Norman “Mickey” Ryan can be found at St. Stephen’s Baptist Church in Amherst leading the service, but twice per month, Ryan can found at Buckingham Corrections Center, working with incarcerated veterans.
Ryan, a U.S. Marine who fought in Vietnam, began volunteering with the Military Veterans Support Group at Buckingham Corrections Center in 2010. Buckingham Corrections Center founded the program to help incarcerated veterans in 2007. According to the Virginia Department of Corrections, the group “helps participants to become aware of veterans’ benefits, instruct them on how to access programs, builds self-esteem, self-sufficiency, and identify available resources for veterans on release.”
Ryan fell into the role as a community volunteer when Jud Shows, the first community volunteer became ill, and the Rev. Don Stines asked if Ryan would step in and fill the role. Ryan said he generally works with the veterans on mental and emotional problems.
“I’m not a certified counselor, but the fact is that a lot of these guys just need someone to talk to and that’s generally what it is with most veterans,” Ryan said.
Ryan spent six years with the Marines, including reserve time, and volunteered to go to Vietnam. Ryan said when most Vietnam military members returned to the United States, they faced a lot of rejection from the public.
“That’s what these guys are going to face when they get into reentry into society. So my goal is to get them focusing on positive things and change their mental attitude,” Ryan said.
Currently, there are 140 veterans at the correctional facility out of the population of 1,030.
Ryan spends twice per month, the second and fourth Friday of each month, for two hours working with the incarcerated veterans. The two hours involves all 140 incarcerated veterans gathering in a large gymnasium on the grounds, studying manuals and other resources that can help them focus on leading productive lives after they are released.
One popular publication the group studies is called Point Man, written by a combat veteran who discusses ways to spiritually deal with emotions and situations that come as a result of rejection from society. The group also watches different historical and military films, which have been donated to the group. Guest speakers or guest groups also occasionally come in to talk with the men. On Veterans Day, the support group hosted a couple of guest speakers for the afternoon.
“It gives them somebody else to listen to,” Ryan said.
Ryan said oftentimes people bottle up all of the feelings they are struggling with and eventually they come out, not always in the best way. So his role as a volunteer is to lend an ear and provide them with what they need to lead successful lives post-reentry. For Ryan, he can tell the program is working because veterans who have been granted parole or are up for parole will tell him all the positive goals they plan on focusing on once they get out.
“So that’s a positive note. It’s encouraging to me and it’s encouraging to the ones that are left,” Ryan said.
Since 2007, Ryan said, the success of the group has been phenomenal. The size of the group has grown and more or less transferred from a religious-focused group, to a nondenominational support group. The Virginia Department of Corrections used the Veteran Support Group at Buckingham as a model for other correction centers in the state.
“What they have done is tried to start — pretty much started — veterans support groups in all of the prisons in the state. It’s evolved over the years. Evidently, as time went on [the state] saw the value of this type of work because it helps the guys get ready for reentry,” Ryan said.
Now, according to the Virginia DOC website, 17 different correctional centers, including ones for women, have a veteran support group of some sort for incarcerated veterans.
Richard Pence, an Army veteran who served for just over 14 years, began working as a counselor for the program three years ago. Pence said the veterans program at Buckingham has paved the way for the state to create other veterans programs in other correction facilities.
“Buckingham was a pilot program we started,” Pence said.
Pence said he first got to know Ryan when he started at the corrections center. Pence said Ryan has a way of taking any situation, no matter how bad, and pointing out the positives of it.
“He always has an upbeat, great personality. He has a way of brightening up the room,” Pence said.
Due to the growth and popularity of the program at Buckingham Correctional Center, the Director of DOC Harold Clarke approved the concept of “Veteran Housing Units” and allowed wardens at each DOC facility to approve separate housing for veterans only.
Ryan said at Buckingham in 2016, a veteran housing unit was established for 64 inmates who are veterans. The inmates got to paint the “veteran pod” and included images of the Revolutionary War through current wars, the American flag, aircraft carriers, monuments and other patriotic scenes.
“It’s really a neat situation. We’re trying to get it touched up now. All in all they are very proud of their veterans pod,” Ryan said.
Ryan said his own experience as a veteran helps him connect with the men, in turn contributing to the success of the program. Ryan can relate to the stress of their situations, no matter whether they are Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan veterans in the group.
“I think one of the things that’s important in dealing with trauma is finding someone who has an understanding of the stress that’s involved. By doing that, I am able to relate to them,” Ryan said.
Milton Carson, an Amherst resident and Navy veteran, said he’s known Ryan for at least 30 years.
“He’s a mighty fine gentleman,” Carson said.
Carson said along with working as a pastor and volunteering at Buckingham, Ryan works at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9877 in Amherst. Carson said Ryan donated a flag he carried in Vietnam to their veterans pod and said it’s nice they have someone to talk to instead of bundling everything up.
“It’s a wonderful thing that he does go down there and what he does to serve the veterans down there,” Carson said.
Overall, Ryan said he enjoys the volunteer work he does with these men because he’s able to represent Jesus Christ, which is important to him, and the positive attitudes of the incarcerated veterans makes it all worth it.
“I think the key is letting guys know even though they’re incarcerated, they still have value. When you get out, you are going to face obstacles, but they are not obstacles that are insurmountable,” Ryan said.
Reach Erin Conway at (434) 385-5524.