Serving Our Country

Note: This commentary was delivered by Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley.

The latest in a string of superhero movies hit the silver screen this week: Hancock. It features Will Smith as a superhero who falls out of favor with the public, and ends up an alcoholic, homeless man who even does some jail time. But, like any good superhero in the movies, Hancock realizes his true calling and goes on to save the day. Although the movie is really a parody, Hancock is a good reminder that most real life heroes are not picture perfect.

A better illustration of this is the story of a young man from Florida named Angelo Vaccaro.

On October 3rd, 2006, Vaccaro, a combat medic in the 32nd Infantry Regiment, 10th Mountain Division stationed in Afghanistan, learned that his platoon had been threatened by insurgent fire. Although he knew the mission would be highly dangerous, Vaccaro left his outpost to help rescue his fellow soldiers. As he was evacuating the wounded, he was hit by enemy fire and killed instantly. He became the first soldier in the war on terror to receive two Silver Stars-an impressive achievement, especially for someone who spent his youth messing with drugs and getting in trouble with the law.

You see, Angelo Vaccaro was a recipient of the military’s unofficial practice of issuing “conduct waivers” to young men and women who can demonstrate that they are worth a second chance. Although the military does not actively recruit men and women with criminal records, last year more than 900 enlistees who had committed a felony received a waiver.

Some have criticized the Army, saying that it is just lowering standards to meet war needs. But higher-ups emphasize that they are not lowering standards, and that everyone they enlist-ex-felon or not-is qualified to serve our country. But beyond simply keeping its standards high, the Army is making a profound statement by taking a stand on the belief that some people can change, and deserve a second chance.

On June 10th, Army Major General Thomas Bostick told a subcommittee of the U.S. House of Representatives that young men and women like Vaccaro deserve an opportunity to show that they have changed. “These men and women are raising their hand,” General Bostick said, “asking for a chance to serve their country. They are asking for a chance to be a productive member of society.”

I was privileged to hear the General’s testimony that day, because I was there testifying on behalf of Prison Fellowship and the thousands of ex-prisoners we work with. We know that even the most broken lives can be transformed by the power of truth and Jesus Christ, and that even the hardest criminals can become contributing members of society.

As more than 700,000 ex-prisoners return to our communities this year, we at Prison Fellowship are committed to helping them make the most of their second chance-by connecting them with mentors, employers, and churches who will walk with them along the difficult journey of reentry.

And who knows? We might be walking alongside the next real life hero-someone just like Angelo Vaccaro.

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