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January/February 2018

Photo: Mokie Porter

Tommy Joyner is a Free Man

Tommy Joyner is a free man today thanks in large part to VVA Region 7 Director Allen Manuel, who has been supporting Vietnam War veterans inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for a quarter of a century.

Manuel had expressed an interest in speaking on Joyner’s behalf in front of the parole board, and Joyner was glad he did. “Allen had a detailed list,” he said. “He remembered more about my accomplishments than I did. He has known me for over twenty years, and he hadn’t forgotten a single thing. He spoke so well on my behalf.”

During his tenure as president of VVA Chapter 689 inside the Louisiana State Penitentiary Joyner excelled. His accomplishments—including his Toy Shop (SeeToy Shop Story,” July/August 2015)—earned him the distinction of being the only incarcerated veteran in VVA history to be awarded the Commendation Medal, the organization’s highest award.

Tommy Joyner is now a member of Chapter 1052 in Independence, Louisiana. “I’m doing great,” he said recently, “setting up my wood shop.”

What is it like for Joyner to be out after all these years? “It’s a little surreal,” said Betty Ryan, who first met him nearly three decades ago at the Angola Rodeo and who lives with him. “Tommy and my eleven-year-old grandson are fast pals. Justin shared some tangerines with him, and he kept on exclaiming how good they were. It turns out those tangerines were the first fresh fruit he has had in forty-three years. A Hershey bar with almonds? He thought he died and went to heaven.”

Has he adjusted to not being counted every four hours? “Well, he’s no longer getting up at 4:30 a.m.—the time of the first count of the day for the prisoners at Angola,” she said. “I’ve convinced him that 6:00 a.m. is a reasonable hour to rise.”

“You know what I hate?” said Joyner, laughing. “I hate going to Walmart. The aisles are a mile long, and there is so much food, and Betty says, ‘If you see anything you want, put it in the cart.’ And I want everything!”

Like Betty Ryan, Joyner is a military brat. Driven by a deep sense of patriotism, he volunteered for the Army in 1967 and chose Airborne Infantry and Special Forces. He served in the Studies and Observations Group, Special Operations Augmentation, Command and Control North in Da Nang.

In the summer of 1969 he was wounded and sent home. Joyner got an early out to attend Louisiana State University. He married and had a son. The marriage was troubled, and he and his wife separated in October 1974. A few months later, he was in jail: He had killed a drug dealer before the man killed him.

A recent Joyner project is the memorial for all veterans—incarcerated and free—on the grounds of the Louisiana governor’s mansion. In addition to raising $6,000 for the materials, Joyner chose the following words to adorn the memorial : “While political and military leaders change, our trust and commitment toward those who volunteer to wear this nation’s uniform must never change. All who put themselves into harm’s way in defense of freedom, as well as the families who endure their absence, deserve our unwavering gratitude and support.”

He is sixty-nine years old. He has done his time, and he made his time count for others. Now he is a free man.





- Departments
University of Florida Smathers Libraries
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Also: chapter 301The Season for Sharing: Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Chapter 301
brings Christmas dinner to veterans and their families.
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