Guidance offered for incarcerated vets

Every Friday afternoon for nearly 3 years, Lee College Veterans Center director Ehab Mustafa has finished the workday and headed south to the Galveston County Jail. As many as 15 incarcerated former military service members eagerly await his arrival each week.

There, in a weekly group support session held behind bars, Mustafa encourages the veterans to speak openly about the pitfalls they’ve experienced in the transition to civilian life. Their stories often parallel those of the Lee College student-veterans whom he guides and advises every day: the struggle to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder and its rippling effects on everything from work to home, health and family.

“For that hour, I’m not treating them as a prisoner,” said Mustafa, a disabled U.S. Army veteran and certified peer facilitator who is studying to earn state licensure as a professional counselor.

“Veterans have that pride, and then all of a sudden they go from being a hero, to feeling like a victim,” he said. “They don’t want to look weak. We discuss coping techniques and talk about the options and benefits available to them both in and out of jail.”

Mustafa completed facilitator training and volunteers his personal time through Bring Everyone in the Zone (BEITZ), a non-profit organization based in Killeen that provides peer support to active service members, veterans, families and caregivers. With dozens of support groups scattered throughout Texas, BEITZ particularly targets those suffering with PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and military sexual trauma to help improve their quality of life.

The veterans participating in Mustafa’s sessions vary from week to week as the justice system churns along. Some are sentenced and moved on to state prison. Some are released and able to turn their lives around for the better. Others seem trapped in a cycle that finds them re-incarcerated within a matter of months.

“If even one veteran gets out of jail and never goes back, that makes it all worth it,” Mustafa said. “That’s the fire that keeps me going. It’s not about money or recognition; it’s about helping someone. It’s about making sure they know everybody makes mistakes, but you deserve a second chance.”

And regardless of who shows up or what they’ve done to get there, Mustafa will continue to take that Friday afternoon drive to Galveston County. It’s the type of commitment any battle buddy would make to their fellow soldier — a promise that, no matter what, they will not be alone.

“We are veterans. We all have that strong bond. We all connect,” he said. “If somebody is willing to put their life on the line for their country, they should never be forgotten.”

For more information about the Lee College Veterans Center, contact 832.556.4300 or e-mail va@lee.edu.