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before I journey into fort Leavenworth, i was a lieutenant colonel in the Army. And also within minutes, that would all be taken far from me.

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In 2012, i was sentenced to serve a year at Leavenworth—the nation’s main military prison for those that serve in the armed Forces—for exposing a an initial lieutenant come HIV. I’d been HIV optimistic for several years, through my viral fill suppressed to the point where the was difficult to transmit the virus. Regardless of that, and other evidence in my favor, ns was quiet charged through felony assault, willful disobedience, abusive sexual contact and conduct unbecoming one officer.


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Weeks before, when the judge in mine court martial discovered me guilty, i was on my method for a promotion to be a full colonel, the highest rank in the army before becoming a general. In the military, rank is everything; it literally defines who girlfriend are. It defines your pay, that course, but likewise it tells others how to respect you.

As a private, you’re at the bottom that the food chain. Everyone over you requires a salute and a greeting the the day. You relocate aside for higher ranked soldiers. You stand at attention and look at senior officers in the eye and also say, “Good morning,” when mopping the floors.

It take it me over two decades to gain to lieutenant colonel, a location that out of every human who served in mine family, just my uncle had the ability to achieve. It to be such a proud moment for my family that i was given his an individual WWII sidearm—a Colt .45 pistol.

But the night of my conviction, my mother in her own trauma was asking for that very same side eight back; she was afraid ns was going to usage it versus myself.

In Leavenworth, your previous rank tote no weight. On the day ns went in, the silver- oak leaves emblazoned on mine uniform the signaled what i was to be taken away from me, and also I ended up being an inmate—a sinner to a nation that i swore to protect and serve.

Or, at least, that’s what ns was claimed to be.

I was one of the highest-ranking world in fort Leavenworth throughout my time there—and anyone knew that. Despite the military being America’s biggest employer, it’s incredibly small; it’s impossible to not know everyone’s rank when they go in.

The commandant that the prison seemed to avoid me (until recently, I had actually outranked her) and also I still had actually guards inadvertently contact me, “sir,” accidentally. They’d record themselves and shuffle off, unsure of how to occupational with the dynamic that a person you’d typically have to salute currently being a person you had to mental after.

But my former rank likewise could’ve placed me at risk. Uneven in the civilian human being where attorneys decision on even if it is charges space filed against someone, in the military, the commanders and colonels—people favor myself—who decision on if people should be charged because that crimes that could an outcome in them offer time in Leavenworth. Ns felt choose a district attorney walking into the center of sing Sing prison.

To self-preserve, I never ever tried to pull rank among the various other inmates—or the guards, for that matter—until I received news the my 16-year-old cousin died while i was locked up. I went to the clock commander of the prison and also demanded to be left alone because that a week. I might have remained in a brown uniform at the point, yet that watch commander knew cursed well the Lt. Col. Pinkela was informing him to it is in left alone.

And lock did.

Every night, I maintained a journal and wrote the preamble the the U.S. Structure … over and also over. “We the people of the United says of America … ,” filled well over a dozen pages. Ns traced mine hands. I created out the army strategy native “The art of War” simply to repeat myself of who I was.

I never ever pulled location again. However I did use it to assist others. Young soldiers who were using for clemency—many of lock with just a high institution diploma—were make the efforts to write essays questioning for forgiveness to be let out and also go home and see their families. Together a an elderly officer, i would testimonial clemency letter weekly. In Leavenworth, ns would assist the men draft them out.

I became known together a little bit of a den mother, caring after she chicks. And also that’s what a lot of the human being I was locked up with were—they were children being watched by other kids.

On my critical day in Leavenworth, the security helped publication time at the library, whereby I supplied to assist my kids draft the end their letters. One through one, they every came approximately me, hugged me and cried.

“Who’s going to look after ~ us,” ns remember one son saying. “Who’s going come help?”

The emotions I had that night were unforgettable. Even though the armed forces took mine uniform away from me and I no longer had the authority—or also the responsibility—to take treatment of this guys, the army would never ever take away the pride and love I had for taking treatment of soldiers and also their families.

The following day once I was released, I got my uniform back—silver oak leaves and also all. Currently that i was separated from the Army, it didn’t average the same as it did prior to I went in. Before, the uniform was what do my business feel meaningful. Yet being in ~ Leavenworth teach me other else: i didn’t require the uniform to be of service.

Ken Pinkela, 51, is the communications and military policy director at The SERO Project. He resides in Otisville, brand-new York.

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