The Marine and The Mudder

On May 6, 2018, the annual "Walk for Hunger" was held here at the Shirley Medium prison. Since the walk's inception in 2013, the men of Shirley have combined to walk thousands of miles and have raised thousands of dollars for this worthy cause. Deacon Art Rogers has been working closely with members of Project Bread for several years, and now Shirley Medium is recognized by Project Bread as an official satellite site. This is something that many of us inside men take great pride in when we gear up to do such things that enable us to give back to our communities and society as a whole, to those who are much less fortunate than we are in here.

We do not go hungry in prison; we are provided three meals a day. We do not sleep outside in the elements. We have warm beds at night. We do not have to beg for clothes or footwear; we can buy them or they will be provided for us.

Sadly, there are lots and lots of members of our communities who are struggling to put food on their tables; who are struggling to find their next meal; who are struggling to find a warm bed at night and may have to spend the night in a shelter (if there is room) — or worse, sleep outside in an alley or underneath a dumpster in the cold rain or snow. What did these men and women do to deserve such harsh treatment? Did they kill anyone? Did they rob any banks? Did they assault or harm anyone? No, they ran into some tough and often harsh circumstances that have put them in a position of need and assistance until they can get back on their feet and back on track.

It is my own personal belief and the belief of many others in here with me that by doing these charity events and contributing in whatever ways that we can, we are helping to heal at least some of the brokeness that's been caused and created both inside here and outside of these walls and fences.

The Marine

Since the spring of 2013, I have had the honor and privilege to push my best friend (and mentor) Joe Labriola in his wheelchair for each Walk for Hunger in May, and then again each October for the annual Toys For Tots, which raises money for underprivileged children for brand new toys for the holidays. It is a charity that is near and dear to Joe's heart. The Toys For Tots is sponsored by the United States Marines. Joe is a retired Marine, who served two tours in Vietnam and earned numerous citations, including the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with a combat "V" for Valor. Joe has been Commander of the American Veterans In Prison (AVIP) for several years, and he is the driving force for veterans and their rights while incarcerated.

Joe is in a wheelchair because he suffers from an insidious affliction called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Joe suffers from the severe kind of COPD, which means he has to struggle to take each breath, because his lung capacity is rapidly shrinking. And the cause of this, you ask? While Joe was patrolling the jungles of Vietnam as a Sergeant with the !st Battalion, 1st Marines, he (along with everyone else over there) was breathing in lots and lots of the chemical known as Agent Orange. Eventually, the highly toxic herbicide, which was being sprayed as a defoliant in chemical warfare, began to burn the air sacs inside of his lungs, meaning that he is out of breath very easily and is in need of constant care and assistance.

The build-up

It has been my honor and privilege to be the guy to help Joe out and try to take care of anything that needs tending to in his daily routine. This has brought us closer than any two men can be as friends. It has also schooled me in ways that have had a profound effect on me, to the point that Joe's influence upon me may be the reason that I get to go back home one day. Having said that, I am also extremely vigilant of his health and very careful not to expose him to elements that can cause him unnecessary pain and discomfort, such as cold air, high winds, rain, sleet, and snow. The cold, damp air, Joe tells me, is like inhaling pins and needles and makes his breathing even worse than it already is. So each time we gear up for one of our walks for charity, we both monitor the weather reports very closely to see what kind of conditions we'll be dealing with on that particular day.

Most of the local news channels boast of seven- to ten-day weather forecasting, and this was something that we paid attention to as our May 6th walk approached. The first forecast I saw the week before indicated that our day would be sunny and around 70 degrees. Then, a couple days later, it went to partly cloudy in the high 60s. OK, we're still good . . . . Then a couple days before the walk, it was a slight chance of rain with temperatures in the mid-60s.

I had asked my friends in the recreation department if they could get a work crew together and go outside the day before and rake the dirt track in the spots that really needed it to make my trek around our little dirt oval somewhat less arduous.

The night before, I've come to make certain preparations that make my task less painful. With six years of experience doing these things, I have learned these things: to properly tape up my feet so as not to get any blisters; to double-up my socks; to wear the brand of sneakers that work best for me, so I won't incur any more bloody socks like I have in years past; to use the right underwear (boxers, never briefs) so that there is absolutely no chafing on the inner thighs; to use gloves, because the handles on Joe's wheelchair are grooved and cut into my palms as the day goes on. Also, hydration, lots and lots of hydrating. I used to drink only a couple of bottles of green tea that I would put into old soda bottles, but after some severe cramping in the past two races, I now use both green tea and a couple bottles of gatorade mix that I make from the powdery mix they sell you in the canteen. Finally, I always cook Joe and me a nice hot, big bowl of chili and pasta.

We have an arrangement with the staff here to open our cell doors early so that we can hit the yard along with the setup crew to get a head start on everybody. Trust me when I tell you that those extra thirty minutes with no one else on the track is huge for me, if I am to do the twenty miles that we pledged to do.

Sunday morning, race day

Early Sunday morning, I woke up around 5:30 a.m. and started to prepare myself for the long day ahead of me, then I looked out of my window. Rain, a slow and steady rain. I got on my knees and said a prayer asking for improved weather conditions, and when I finished, I cursed the weather forecasters and their Doppler radar!

I went to Joe's cell when my door opened and asked him what he wanted to do. I could tell by just looking and listening to him that he was already having a bad breathing day, and it wasn't even 8:00 a.m., so we talked about it. The rain would probably lighten up; we also had a lot of people who were sponsoring us from the outside to do twenty miles; and when we give our word to do something, we do it; plus we were told by the Deacon that some of the checks had already landed, and we had several hundred dollars in outside donations alone before we even set foot on the track. Basically, there was no choice except to go out and do our best under the conditions that were before us. We'd see where we were at by the time the mid-morning count arrived. My only concern was for Joe's health, but he was trying not to hear it, so . . .

We went out, and by that time it was drizzling, still cold, and raw. People who were waiting for us as well as other staff members kept asking Joe if he was going to be alright. Joe just smiled at them and told them that he had a "tough mudder" pushing him. Once we gathered around in the yard for our pre-race prayer amongst the setup crew and Deacon Artie, Joe announced to all that we would indeed finish the race, no matter what the conditions were, because of his mudder. Finally, one of the fellows asked Joe what the hell he was talking about. Joe told the kid that a mudder is a racehorse that performs especially well on a wet, muddy track. That's me, I guess.

We started at 8:30 a.m. and ended the morning session at 11:00 a.m., having done ten miles. Despite the steady light rain throughout the morning, we made great time.

We went inside, soaked from head to toe, and I could see Joe was not doing good. So we changed some of his clothes, and put on his breathing machine, getting some much needed oxygen into his lungs. I went up to my cell and took off all my wet clothes, dried off, and put on new everything except my socks and sneakers (another lesson learned from years prior). I did some stretching, then relaxed and meditated. I was feeling okay and thankful that I did not cramp up, but I also knew that if the rain did not let up, the track was going to be a mess in certain places. I then remembered a passaage from the Bible:

"For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men."
     2 Corinthians 8:21

I went to Joe's cell and checked on his health; he was still struggling to breathe but wanted to finish. I got some large plastic trash bags and wrapped them over Joe's entire body, keeping only his head exposed so that he could wear his old, trusty ball cap, as well as his earbuds for a music player. When I wheeled him outside, he looked like a giant popsicle (probably felt like one too).

Sunday afternoon

By the time we resumed at 12:30 p.m., the rain had not stopped; as a matter of fact, it was worse. As I was halfway around the track on my first lap, one of the gym workers approached us and told me to be careful over by the softball field, because there was flooding and part of the track was under water. Sure enough: as I came upon it, most of the track was a huge puddle — so I went around it, but with ten more miles to go, this was going to be a problem. And not just that, but most of the rest of the track was quickly turning into mud as well. I could feel the difference in pushing him, as I saw the wheels sink deeper and deeper as the day went on.

Finally after about fifteen miles, I pulled over and told Joe that I did not know if we could make it in time: my breathinbg was becoming more and more labored, and my pace seemed to be slower than usual. I stopped in front of the tables where everyone was sitting, keeping count of the laps, passing out cups of water, and registering new runners and walkers for the afternoon session. Deacon Artie and all of the rest were soaked, cold, and miserable, and they asked me if we should just shut it down for the 2:30 p.m. movement rather than the usual 3:30 p.m. movement.

With all the expectant eyes like wet puppies looking at us, Joe turned his head and motioned me to lean in so that he could tell me something. He said that he was having a hard time breathing and that he was cold. He also knew that I was struggling, because he could hear my huffing and puffing through his music. But he said we had too many people counting on us, including the humgry families that were counting on this money. That was good enough for me; I took off and told the fellows at the tables that we would finish by 2:30 and get the twenty miles in.

The finish

John Andrew Holmer once said that "there is no better exercise for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up." Just before the 2:30 movement, I pulled up at the tables and asked the Deacon and the rest of the men to join Joe and I for our traditional slow walk for the final lap, so we could finish as a community. One of my friends from the Dog program, who is training a dog to help veterans, joined us with his dog, a black lab named Knight. The trainer's name is Evans Auguste, but we call him Boogie, so mand and dog together are . . . Boogie Knight! It was a great feeling crossing the finish line with Joe and among friends and supporters. Don't ask me how we did it, but we did. I believe in my heart it was because God was with us, as He always is, and that this day was just another part of His plan for Joe, myself, and the others.

Joe and I did some math: this was our eleventh charity event in six years. Combined, we have walked (pushed) a total of over 230 miles. We have raised, as a community, over $10,000 (and counting).

As I write this, my best friend is in his cell dealing with a slight lung infection — no doubt from being exposed to cold, rain, and wind for more than five hours — but his spirits are better than ever. Because we did what we said we would do, and we kept our word and promises to our family, our friends, and all of those who supported us and believed that we would get the job done and accomplish our mission. And we did.

I've known Joe Lab for over thirty-two years, and I consider him to be the real deal: a true warrior and hero, not only for what he did on the battlefields and jungles of Vietnam, but for what he's done and is still doing for all of us inside these places who've had the honor and privilege (like me) to know him and consider him a friend in every sense of the word.

Truth be told, Joe had no business at all being out there in the yard, exposing himself to the elements like he did on May 6th. What's he got left to prove to anyone? How tough he is? That he could do it? No and no. The reason he went out with me was that he wanted to help out in feeding the needy and hungry. He wanted to be a huge part of what we as a community are doing in here by giving back, helping out by putting in the work. What Joe did was yet again set an example by showing us what true dedication and pereseverance is, and he shined like a star doing so.

The lesson

Goethe once wrote: "One cannot always be a hero, but one can always be a man." Believe me when I tell you that sometimes simply being a man can be a mighty struggle. What I and others witness on a daily basis is a man who literally struggles for each and every breath that he takes in, yet still goes about his everyday routine of helping and and encouraging others who are struggling in different aspects of their lives. Despite Joe's current set of circumstances, he is always upbeat, positive, and smiling when he greets you. All of the men that he mentors in here (of which there are many) comment on how this type of demeanor and attitude serves as an inspiration, exemplifying that no matter how bad things may seem, you are still doing better than most, and that there is always someone who is worse off than you. Such a powerful, powerful, lesson that Joe teaches us just by being around him.

Looking back on that day, I believe in my heart that Joe pushed me more than I pushed him, in more ways than one.

Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
     Hebrews 12:1 NIV

   Mike Skinner

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