CDCR employees honor veterans with recollections, part 1

InsideCDCR asked for remembrances, recollections and stories to honor and remember those who have served in the armed forces. These are some of those stories. More will be published later in the week.


Submitted by Karen Gragson, Case Records Technician
California Training Facility, Soledad

“My dad, Kenneth F. Gragson, joined the Army when he was 16 years old. His mother had to sign papers so he could do this. He lived in Texas and was sent to Ford Ord, California.

Then, he was shipped to Germany where he was a guard of Adolf Hitler’s house. At night, the guards would eat their supper in a tent because there were many children around who were starving.

My dad ate outside the tent because he didn’t like to be in closed areas. A little girl, approximately 4 years old, was watching him eat and it bothered my dad so he gave her all the food he had.

The other soldiers thought it was asking for trouble but my dad had to risk it because the girl so was so tiny and hungry.

The little girl smiled at my dad and he broke down in tears. He watched her take the food to her family and she waved at him.”


Submitted by Susan McCann, Accounting Technician
CDCR Regional Accounting Office-Central Valley

“My father pulled the targets the Air Force pilots shot at during WWII training in Yuma, Arizona. It was a dangerous job which had to be done.

One day after training, he came down and found the war was over. He went back to the farm with his wife and raised four daughters. He was a strict, but loving father and we loved him for it.”


Submitted by Correctional Officer Rick Kelley
Pelican Bay State Prison

“My uncle, John Elijah Kelley, a veteran of WWII, died this last year. A devout Southern farm boy, he could have gotten a deferral and stayed on the farm supplying food for home and military needs but felt the calling to serve.

Being a smallish young man, he wound up being a ball turret gunner in the underbelly of a B-24 Liberator Bomber. Among his many awards while serving with the bomber group is a unit citation for being part of the bomber group which developed the bombing techniques for destroying the Polish oil industry of Ploesti, memorialized in the book by Stephen Ambrose, ‘The Wild Blue.’

Growing up, I remember Uncle, ‘Ligi’ as a quiet, reserved individual who rarely spoke at family gatherings. When I got older, I finally began to understand more of who he was. He flew 50 combat missions although life expectancy to survive was only 20 or so missions on average.

When he was much older, he finally opened up a bit and told stories of being shot at and the sound of flak or antiaircraft fire ripping into his plane.  With difficulty, he related tales of seeing planes blown up or being damaged to the point of falling from the sky as they anxiously counted the parachutes that exited the stricken planes and nearly always knowing there were friends left inside.  Sometimes he was close enough to a stricken plane that he could see the crew members faces as they prepared to jump.

Probably what weighed on him the most though, was a time he got sick and was ordered to go to the infirmary. From there, he was sent to the hospital where an officer scolded him for trying to get out of duty.

The doctors weren’t sure of what was making him sick, so he tried to get them to let him go because he had a mission the next morning. They ordered him to bed instead.

The next afternoon, he got a visit from his regular co-pilot who had not made the flight either for some reason. My uncle was informed their plane had gone down with the loss of all hands.

He was a true American hero.”


Submitted by Lt. Michael Phillips
Kern Valley State Prison

“I served as a US Army Tank Driver from 1989-1993 and I would just like to echo the words of Brad Pitt in the movie ‘Fury,’ ‘Best job I ever had!’ I served at Fort Hunter Liggett and was a Specialist at the time I got out. My son is currently serving in the U.S. Marine Corps stationed at Mira Mar Air Base San Diego. He is a Lance Corporal.”


Submitted by Brik McDill, PhD, Sr. Psychologist, Supervisor
California Correctional Institution, Tehachapi

“During the Viet Nam era, I was waiting for my orders for my next training station following Army Basic Training.

My orders had been delayed and I was assigned to a reserve holding company until they were inked. When finally called to pick up my orders at my original training company, I was walking along a hallway when I heard someone yell out ‘make way’ – the usual signal that a person of superior rank was in house and about to walk by.

I slammed myself hard and flat against the wall eyes straight ahead at attention only to then find in my peripheral vision all eyes riveted on me. The make way was for me.

I slowly peeled myself from the wall and red-faced at the fool I had just made of myself, and desperate for sudden physical invisibility, sheepishly awkwardly proceeded down the long silent human tunnel as new basic trainees in a long human wave of respectful salutes paid respects to someone of no rank.

I was still one of them. That hallway is still the longest I’ve ever walked.”


Submitted by Corrine Thogmartin, VEP Teacher
Pelican Bay State Prison

“Years before my dad, Frank Gruver, became a Baptist Preacher, he served in the US Navy during the Korean War, I think from 1953-1957. One morning, while stationed in Japan, his unit was ordered to paint the steel portions of the ship.

First they had to sand off the old paint. Around an hour into the sanding, my dad, who had been out late the previous night, began to feel sleepy. The sanding was making him drowsy.

He told his buddy he was going to go in the cleaning supply closet to take a quick nap.

Some time passed, and my dad woke up suddenly and realized the sanding had stopped. Grabbing his hat, he ran outside and saw his entire unit standing at attention down on the shipyard.

He knew he would have to face the consequences, so he rushed to get into position. As he was approaching the group, he heard his commanding officer say to the unit, ‘Now why can’t you guys be more like Gruver? He worked clear up to the top of the hour instead of slacking off 10 minutes early like you lazy so and so’s!’

His buddy didn’t speak to him the rest of the day.”


Submitted by Lisa A. Atilano, Materials and Stores Supervisor
Central California Women’s Facility

“I proudly served in the U.S. Army from 1984 through 1990.  I was a part of the peace-keeping forces in Grenada, West Indies for six-and-a-half weeks.

I was proud to deploy with the 716th MP Battalion Chaplain as his assistant. There we provided services to all the deployed service members on our base and outlying sites around the island. The island was beautiful, but it was sad to see what the Contra Rebels had done to it in the fight they had against the locals to try and overthrow the island.

When the Marines had to jump in and save the U.S. citizens and other tourists who were stranded there, even more fighting went on.

Our U.S. service men managed to take control of the island and therefore started training the local island police to keep the island safe. During my stay there, Vice President Bush came to visit us along with his secret service men. We had a little parade for him and it was exciting.

I was one of the last to leave the island in 1985 on a large C-140 cargo plane and I slept on a jeep most of the time I was on the plane.

We stopped in Puerto Rico for refueling and then made our way back to Fort Riley, Kansas, where I was part of the Big Red 1.  I enjoyed my time in the service and I know that it has made me who I am today.

I came from a military family. My dad was a part of the 18th Corp. Fort Bragg, NC, and my brother is former Marine. I am very proud of my father and brother as well.”


Read more recollections in part 2, at


See how High Desert State Prison helped a wounded veteran

Avenal State Prison recognized for its work with veterans

CSP-Solano veterans find support in inmate group,

CDCR recognized for purchasing from small businesses, disabled veterans,

In 2013, CSATF/SP honor guard marched in a parade with 20,000 spectators,


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9 Responses

  1. Paul Williams Wednesday, November 12, 2014 / 5:32 pm

    Reading all these veteran stories are wonderful. I am proud to be an Air Force brat to both my mother and father who each served 10 years in the Air Force. Thank you to all the veterans out there who helped defend this country.

  2. Mili Naituku Wednesday, November 12, 2014 / 1:00 am

    Happy Veterans Day to all the men and women in uniforms. Thank you for your sacrifice.

  3. Kevin Litster Monday, November 10, 2014 / 11:43 pm

    My father served in the Pacific during WWII. I had friends who were on the death march of Battan and spent most of the war working coal mines as a POW. I had an uncle help liberate the death camps in Germany and an uncle at Pearl Harbor Dec. 7, 1941. I also was in the Army from 1973-98 and my son has done three tours in the Middle East: two in Kuwait and one in Afghanistan. There are many stories but no more than most. Bless all who serve and contribute to the cause of freedom, in and out of national uniform

  4. Micheal Robb Monday, November 10, 2014 / 9:01 pm

    Thanks to all who have shared your experiences with us. I thank you all for you and your families’ service. I pray we never forget those who have served our country to defend our rights and freedoms.

  5. Sgt. Jose Padilla Monday, November 10, 2014 / 6:50 pm

    As a 30-year veteran of the Army and still serving, it is so good to hear past stories of family members and others’ experiences. I have deployed several times in my career and I may not have been a tanker, but I did lead soldiers into combat and bring them home. And that was the greatest job I ever had. I love my job now as a Correctional Sergeant but my Army career also helped me appreciate and be grateful for what I do now. I also look forward to hearing funny and inspiring stories. Thank you, InsideCDCR, for printing the stories and thank your to those who took the time to submit them. God bless you all and may God continue to bless the USA.

  6. estela acosta Monday, November 10, 2014 / 5:36 pm

    Thank you all for sharing stories of loved ones’ experiences in our Armed Forces and for their dedication in fighting for our way of a life (freedom): S. McCann (father-Air Force WW II vet), R. Kelley (uncle-WW II vet), C. Thogmartin (dad-WW II vet); to our staff who served in the Army and for sharing your stories: M. Phillips-Army, Brik McDill-Army, Lisa Atilano-Army. A special thanks to my bro-in-law, W. Allison (Army), and my beloved nephew Isaak (Army), who recently return from Afghanistan deployment. Much gratitude to our troops!

  7. Officer Rolando Lopez Monday, November 10, 2014 / 5:17 pm

    K. Gragson, thanks for sharing the story of your dad’s compassion for that little girl while guarding near Hitler’s house. It was very endearing … and thank him for his service to our country.

  8. Joan Warren Monday, November 10, 2014 / 5:11 pm

    I just want to thank all the veterans who sacrificed their time and some their lives for our freedoms. I also want to thank their families who also served our country in a special way, by giving up their loved ones to serve. My father (Reece Roberts), brother (John Roberts), son (Joshua Warren) and grandson (Khori Warren) all served in the U.S. Navy. I am so proud of all of them.

  9. Donna Walsh Monday, November 10, 2014 / 5:04 pm

    As an Air Force brat, I do not take lightly the cost of freedom. Thank you for sharing these stories. I am looking forward to more. And thanks for the chuckles, we need lighter moments. They help us survive the more difficult times.

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