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AUTHOR'S NOTE:  IF YOU ARE NORMAL, with normal thought processes and so forth, then the story you are about to read will upset you.  You won't walk away unaffected.  This piece is not journalism.  I don't do that ever; I take a stand, and for that I make no apology. But truth be told, I didn't write this piece. Not exactly, anyway. I listened to a man and tried to reproduce some of his words. Then, as the extent of such a subtly American violation took shape, the story began to write itself.  And I was in the end, occasionally overcome, so that I had to stop, put the pen down, and compose myself before continuing.

Although this is an army tale, you'll have to excuse my shortcomings with regards to military terms.  I never did time in the service, never was conscripted, never joined.  I was in college when I flunked my draft physical and was cast aside for more qualified men.  I remember I had just finished reading a novel by Dalton Trumbo called Johnny Got His Gun, and it so unnerved me that I was terrified I'd have to do Vietnam.  I did everything I could legally do at that draft physical to keep from having to report for duty.  A lot of guys didn't see it my way, though.  A lot of young men were happy to do what they saw as their duty.  It's been thirty years now since the Vietnam war.  Sadly, the aftereffects are still with us.

 

The Best of the Best
An American Story
By Gary Brooks Waid

My name is Gary Waid and I'm a federal prisoner currently incarcerated by the state of Florida.  I'm not new at life inside, I've been down over 6 1/2 years, been given a bunk in at least 19 different facilities.  During all of that period I've lived with ex-GI's doing time.  They're everywhere.  In transit, lockdown, in all the federal and state prisons, every place where there's a cell, you're likely to find a veteran of some foreign war, usually Vietnam, marking time for every imaginable reason.  I've befriended a few, not for any particular reason, mind you, but because we happened to be thrown together at some point on the rocky penal road to nowhere.

At FCI Texarkana a huge biker named Ronnie, from the Austin, Texas branch of the Banditos, liked to read my stories.  One day I gave him a piece about a biker-bank robber who farted uncontrollably (every beginning writer does farting bikers.  Ernest Hemmingway probably did farting biker stories at first.), and when he gave it back he said:  "Waid, you should be on medication," which made me feel great.  I knew I had talent if a biker wanted to medicate me. Ronnie and I used to talk some, but you had to be careful about what you said.  He would get way upset at any perceived disrespect or flapdoodle regarding the POW-MIA thing.  Ronnie was still in Vietnam sometimes.

Also at Texarkana there was a guy who helped me considerably with my back pain. He'd done his time in the Vietnam bucket, too, and must've known his cookies when it came to explosives because they called him "The Mad Bomber."  The hacks were very careful not to piss off the Mad Bomber, so his expertise in various martial arts must have been reflected in his jacket.

Sometimes a veteran is off his rocker.  Or he's not really, but has a reputation he likes to cultivate. At Texarkana an odd sort named Don once asked me if I wanted to bunk in his cell (he had one of the preferred cells with extra room and no direct sunlight in the afternoon), but he always seemed to be kicking old roommates out for imagined infractions, and most of the guys seemed pretty normal to me.  They always said he was crazy, so I declined the offer and remained in my own sweltering but familiar box.  Don had been a Marine.  He did two tours in Vietnam, then became an instructor of something in a country where dictators regularly hired professional help.  I didn't need any lessons from pros, thank you.

Here at River Junction W/C all the inmates are older guys.  We have more than our share of Vietnam vets, and of course I know a few.  Biker Bill Wagener (See Dressing the Pig ) is a vet.  My companion on the laundry truck is another.  I help a guy named Panabaker with his spelling occasionally and sometimes he tells me a funny story...

...and then there's Sergeant Lawrence Hendrix, my buddy, who during the Hell-for-leather days of the '60s was proud to be a part of an elite group of soldiers within the United States Army of Occupation in the Republic of South Vietnam.

Sgt. Larry Hendrix ain't no joke.  He was an Airborne Ranger, one of those guys who jump out of airplanes, and he did three tours of duty in the mud and the blood, with both the 101st Airborne and the U.S. Special Forces.  In combat he earned the Silver Star and the Bronze Star with a V for valor. There's a special caveat on Larry's jacket: "Do not approach this inmate with violence," because he used to teach FNGs (fucking new guys) how to survive in the jungle.  He was a hand-to-hand combat expert, and an expert at seeing what was in front of him.

I'll get back to Larry in a minute, but first there's something you should know about some of the above guys. Three of them, three out of the seven I've mentioned including Sgt. Larry Hendrix, were compelled at trial to submit their military records, to be used as evidence against them during sentencing.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

Okay, obviously I'm no expert about war.  I wouldn't know a Bouncing Betty from a Boomerang.  But I'm going to do the best I can to engage you folks in a dialogue, because there's a problem here, a problem similar to the drug war, in that large powerful government agencies and policy knobs think it's appropriate to warehouse American citizens for lifetimes as a means of controlling something they know nothing about.  And not just any American citizens, they're participating in the removal of men who were the best we had, but who's training makes them embarrassments. 

I've only met a few honest-to-goodness warriors in my life, and Larry Hendrix is one of them. Of course he's also a smartass.  He thinks like a Waid.  We could be brothers. The other day we had this conversation:

"Hi, Sarge, what's up?"

"Everything but my sentence, Waid," he says scowling.  "Your face is red."

"Ah, well, I just got off the yard and shit.  Did six billion pushups and shit.  But it's gonna rain and shit so --"

"Shit, Waid!"  He grins.  "Shitty shitty shit.  You live a loose life."

"Huh?"

"You got a fixation. Go to the toilet. I thought you were a writer."

"Words is me."

"I can tell.  Let's go to chow. I'll trade you my green lumpy shit for your, you know, shit and stuff."

See? Not too many convicts would jink me over such a moronic digression. I mean, you know, it's lonely in here and shit: it's nice to have someone to talk to.

So anyway, Sgt. Larry Hendrix was being a warrior during three consecutive tours of duty, while back home in the world I was a flower child.  I was a very good flower child, of course. Still am. But skill-wise my flower child couldn't compare to Larry's bad-to-the-bone. His three tours must've been whiz-bang bitchin' things, because the first time I heard him actually talk about his history in combat my gonads shrank.  Words fail me here. His true tales are absolutely the most horrifyingest, terriblest stuff imaginable and I ain't lying. Larry's liver was more death-defying than Rambo ever thought of being.

Actually it was my neighbor Charlie who asked him how someone gets a Bronze Star.

"Well, said Larry, "mostly by being in a situation. You're scared out of your mind and just sort of react."

He must have felt expansive, then, because he rummaged around in his property and pulled out a document and handed it to me.  Here's the condensed version of what it said:

"On the morning of some long-ago day, during a firefight in the highlands west of somewhere nobody's ever heard of, when a bunch of wounded men were lying screaming in the middle of a minefield, Sergeant Lawrence Hendrix, with total disregard for his own safety blah blah blah, crawled on his belly through Hell and rescued his men."

The Sarge spent a couple quality hours inching back and forth across a fucking mine field.

I was speechless.  "What...I mean, how did...Why - ?

"A lot of stuff was flying around, Waid.  you could hear the guys out there...It was like everyone thought I had nerves of steel, but my whole body was shaking.  I just kept inching along using my bayonet, sweating bullets, poking my bayonet into the dirt ahead of me, probing around for the mines.  You had to find the mines from the side or they'd blow.  I crawled in and out of the minefield, another guy started helping, we got all the wounded out and the dead.  We humped 'em to another area for dust off.  When it was over, I sat in the dirt and pissed all over myself."

Charlie and I just stared at the Sarge, stunned.  I've heard a lot of things in my life.  I've seen a lot of things.  I've heard prison stories that would burn your ears and I've even been slightly brave a time or two, what with the sailing and the pot smuggling and that. But this was over the top.  I'd never heard such a reluctant admission of worth.

That was just one story though.  Larry could float something by you that'd give you the willies before you even gathered it all in.  Once he told me how he went nuts during an engagement:

"You can read about Vietnam and see movies, Gar, but it's true what they say about being there. You had to be there, at least where I was.  I remember one time we were in a big firefight, threatening to get overrun. You could see the VC coming across this open rice paddy and we were hunkered down and I was so damn scared I was blind almost.  I'd set up a bunch of claymores out there so I just started watching the enemy and firing off the claymores when they got inside my kill zone.  I had all the triggers, so they're coming in, running like crazy and I'm firing my mines off, Blam Blam, shit and bodies and brains are flying, and I'm so fucking freaked that I don't know who's dead. Blam Blam, those claymores raised hell, Waid. Then for some reason I pick up my M-16 and start firing. I'm standing inside the perimeter, Waid, and I empty my clip, eject, jam another clip in, standing there like John Wayne, blowing holes in a bunch of enemy dead. I'm out of ammo so I've got a sidearm on my hip pulled out, I'm screaming, shooting my 45, Boom Boom, and the guys behind me are yelling, "Sarge, sarge...they're dead! It's over!"

"They shipped me to Japan for R&R and evaluation. I'd seen too much combat, they decided.  I was gonna go home."

"Thank God for John Wayne," I said.

"But I didn't want to go home.  I wanted to win that war, Waid! So they sent me back, but as one of the rear-echelon personnel with the 101st Airborne.  When I arrived, shit I said, this is an in-country training camp for FNGs! There's no action here! I was wrong, though. As wrong as I've ever been.  During the second or third week, in the middle of training my first group, my point man walked my patrol into a VC ambush."

"Why are you still around, Larry? What's your trip?"

"I was a badass. The first thing I'd taught those guys was what to do in an ambush."

"What do you do in an ambush?"

"You fire, Waid. You don't duck, dodge, run or roll sideways or any of that Hollywood crap.  You stand and lay down as much fire as you can in the direction of the ambush.  You make the enemy duck, make 'em hide, make 'em wish they'd never seen your ugly asses.  I remember I had this kid named Camacho from New York on point.  When I saw something weird, I turned and opened up and screamed Ambush left!, and he turned and fired too.  And then everybody was shooting.  Camacho has some cojones, Waid. We were a patrol of fifteen new guys, and we killed eight VC without losing anybody.  Couple guys had minor wounds.  And that was in spite of the fact we got caught in the killing zone. When they asked me how it happened, how in hell we got out of that shit, I didn't tell 'em it was an accident.  They couldn't believe it."

There are one too many stories and not enough space here.  Eventually Lawrence Hendrix came home a bona fide war hero. By the time he got out of the army a few years later, he was involved in broadcasting and music promotions around Ft. Bragg, North Carolina, which led to a larger role as a promoter and producer of talent.  He's got a photo album filled with pictures of his family, but also pictures taken of him with various musicians and groups from the '70s.

But back in the late '70s and early '80s, a job in music often meant a life involved with cocaine. Movie stars, politicians, musicians, people from all strata of society were indulging in nose candy, and admitted freely their love of the stuff, or didn't admit it but indulged just the same.  They said it was non-addictive. Said it enhanced performance. Said it was a harmless stimulant and great fun. SO Larry became entangled in an imbroglio, a man with a gun tried to kill him, and former Sgt. Lawrence Hendrix, 101st Airborne, Special Forces, 3 tours, silver Star, Bronze Star etc, shot the man first in a him-or-me situation that could have easily been dismissed as self defense had it happened to someone else.

The actual charges aren't relevant now.  Larry would have long-ago been released from prison except for a whopping enhancement and a sleight-of-hand at trial in which a firearm element was charged in the information.  Except the jury was never instructed about a firearm element, nor was it submitted to the jury for a factual determination. You can't do that. But they did, in spite of Larry's clean record (he'd never been convicted of anything.

But it gets worse.

The judge had ordered a PSI (Pre-Sentence Investigation), which is common practice before sentencing a man to a prison term. The report, when submitted by the prosecutor, was permanently sealed. To this day, Larry has not been allowed to see what was in that report to create such an impossible situation and to paint him as some sort of deranged killer.  It was right out of Kafka:  You go in a room, you sit, the man behind the desk consults a mysterious book, and you're judged by whatever he finds.  Remember, Larry had no record.

So while the judge was considering this sealed PSR, the prosecutor requested a side-bar for the record and said: "The State thinks this defendant may have his own graveyard, your Honor, that we'll never find.  He may be guilty of other robberies and assassinations that the jury doesn't know about."

What robberies?  What assassinations?  Why weren't these allegations made public?  Was there a secret agenda?  It was like if you were to put huge, gruesome, rusty handcuffs on an accused man, tattoo his face, head, and march him through the judge's bedroom.  Or like mounting little devil horns on, say, your grandmother, then parading her before the court, making her stand on a table and growl and bark like a dog.  Of course, Larry's not your grandmother.  But like I said, he had no record.  And why is his PSR still sealed today?

Then the prosecutor used Larry's military record in front of the jury, asking witnesses questions and going on and on about the training and skills of a Special Forces Airborne soldier.  He forced a theory that went something like this:  Hey, people, it wasn't really a fair fight, wasn't really self-defense, wasn't really cricket at all because this nasty bad-boy defendant here had been a Vietnam killing machine!

So Larry went to prison, sentenced to 75 years hard time.

That's right, 75 years, over two-thirds of which is an enhancement for being a soldier.  And his appeals have all gone for naught because whatever was in that PSR has convinced the higher Florida courts to uphold a lie by the lower Florida court, and to ban Larry from submitting anything further pro se (acting as his own counsel).  He had his day in court, they said, which is not true because he never got to see the enhancement evidence, and the jury wasn't presented with part of the gun evidence, and some of the other evidence was spoken in side-bar and sounded like an editorial describing Attila, King of the Huns.

All of this is confusing as hell to me, but typical of the crap I hear every day.  Except every day a man isn't done in for 75 years! Larry's adjusted out-date is 2021.

Larry's been down a long time now, all of the '90s, most of the '80s, and River Junction Work Camp is the first time he's been allowed to live in a semi-relaxed environment.  He's a certified law clerk, a litigator, who fights for the rights of Florida inmates, so if you've go a question or a problem, he's the guy to see.  He is admired and respected by everyone in blue behind the wire, and also by the guards who know some of his history.

But his wounds are daily on display, bleeding still. The scars of prison line his face and exhaust his eyes and when he walks he limps with Airborne Ranger pain, but also with the effort it takes to keep his pride and integrity intact in a world that doesn't want him, that doesn't need him, that has never needed him except during one dark day in America's past that we wish would just go away.  For Sgt. Lawrence Hendrix, that dark day has turned into thousands of dark nights in dark cells in some of the most violent prisons in one of the most politically corrupt states in the greatest country the world has ever known, the land of the free, the home of the brave.

I wanna be an Airborne Ranger,
Live a life of guts and danger...

Yeah, right.  The greatest country in the world has a self-serving president who's own involvement with cocaine is said to have begun when Larry's did, but is somehow excused as youthful indiscretion, which makes it acceptable for him to judge others from on high.  The greatest country in the world has an ex-president who pardons smarmy, oily, billionaire profiteers, but didn't have the courage to call a halt to the madness in our courts.  The greatest country in the world has a population eager to punish, but that bows to the antics of football players, wreathes them in glory and gives them MVP awards for bravery on the field, toasts them, lets them speak in victory parades, lets them tell us how sorry they were about, you know, the thing outside the bar that time.

There are a lot of vets in prison in America, and some of them are still being punished for their training and their devotion to duty in far flung theatres around the world.  Who cares?  We don't?

What America wants, but what it won't get is absolution. Neither will it get these men to finally succumb and fall down smooth-faced and porcelain-eyed from all that brain-numbing rejection after rejection.  There are minds at work inside here, and emotions - angers, joys, selfless industries, reckless courages, contempts, horrors, memories - men hanging on words, children of a greater God, inferno-hardened but not for what they did, only for what they endure today - and saddened for what will be endured by the next groups that goes to war for liars.

And it's the politician-facilitators that should be recognized as dangerous.  They're the serial criminals.  They're the ones who are slack-jawed and shrill and constantly afraid of things and asking guys like Larry to do the dirty work.

Everybody reading this should go to the FL DOC website and look up Mr. Lawrence Hendrix, DC #094601. Punch him in, scroll him down, look at the man.  Look into the eyes of Sarge.  He's the best of the best.  The best we ever had.  The question someone should ask is not what did Larry do, but when did he do it.  And the answer is not 20 years ago when he protected himself from armed attack, but 34 years ago when he crawled on his belly, eyes squinched up and pee-in-your-pants scared, so that the men he was serving with could be redeemed and could live and go home.

Look at the man.  There's your Rambo, Folks.  In Prison.

FL DOC Website
http://www.dc.state.fl.us/ActiveInmates/inmatesearch.asp

FOR THE RECORD

Sgt. Hendrix's sentence was illegally enhanced by a venal, ignorant American underbelly alive in our legislative bodies and our courts, not to mention Washington.  His skills were not needed.  He was frightening and embarrassing.  After all, we lost the war.  We shouldn't have to put up with reminders as distinctive as Larry.  And his PSR, written by morons, probably claimed he was an assassin or maybe Spiderman.  They enhanced his sentence using a firearm question never presented to any jury, despite a legal requirement to do so.  Then they made it stick by dumping all over his record of valor in Vietnam.

I hope this story is coherent enough to be read.  I hope that personal stories, their connections and consequences, can help people see the larger picture and take offense at the cruel disparity involved with locking up some longer than others.  I encourage anybody who is moved by Larry's plight to circulate this story, to print it up and mail it to diverse people, to talk radio maybe, to republish it, whatever. *  Maybe Sylvester Stallone needs a copy.  I already asked Kay if there might be lists of pro bono lawyers on the net that may want to tackle an unpopular cause.  But if anyone reading this is affiliated with or knows of a law firm willing to provide a little assistance in helping Sgt. H. file a collateral motion, or if any veterans' groups are interested in assisting him, please write:

Lawrence Hendrix
DC # 094601
River Junction Work Camp
300 Pecan Lane
Chattahoochee, Florida 32324

Gary Waid
River Junction
3-26-01

* Although I retain copyrights on my work for artistic purposes, I assure you I don't wish to restrain it in any way.


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