Before I drove into Fort Leavenworth, I was a lieutenant colonel in the Army. And within minutes, that would all be taken away from me.
In 2012, I was sentenced to serve a year at Leavenworth—the nation’s main military prison for those who serve in the Armed Forces—for exposing a first lieutenant to HIV. I’d been HIV positive for several years, with my viral load suppressed to the point where it was impossible to transmit the virus. Despite that, and other evidence in my favor, I was still charged with felony assault, willful disobedience, abusive sexual contact and conduct unbecoming an officer.
Weeks before, when the judge in my court martial found me guilty, I was on my way for a promotion to be a full colonel, the highest rank in the Army before becoming a general. In the military, rank is everything; it literally defines who you are. It defines your pay, of course, but also it tells others how to respect you.
As a private, you’re at the bottom of the food chain. Everyone above you requires a salute and a greeting of the day. You move aside for higher ranked soldiers. You stand at attention and look at senior officers in the eye and say, “Good morning,” while mopping the floors.
It took me over 20 years to get to lieutenant colonel, a rank that out of every person who served in my family, only my uncle was able to achieve. It was such a proud moment for my family that I was given his personal WWII sidearm—a Colt .45 pistol.
But the night of my conviction, my mother in her own trauma was asking for that same side arm back; she was afraid I was going to use it against myself.
In Leavenworth, your former rank carries no weight. On the day I went in, the silver oak leaves emblazoned on my uniform that signaled what I was were taken away from me, and I became an inmate—a prisoner to a country that I swore to protect and serve.
Or, at least, that’s what I was supposed to be.
I was one of the highest-ranking people in Fort Leavenworth during my time there—and everyone knew that. Despite the military being America’s largest employer, it’s incredibly small; it’s impossible to not know everyone’s rank when they walk in.
The commandant of the prison seemed to avoid me (until recently, I had outranked her) and I still had guards inadvertently call me, “sir,” accidentally. They’d catch themselves and shuffle off, unsure of how to work with the dynamic of a person you’d normally have to salute now being a person you had to mind after.
But my former rank also could’ve put me at risk. Unlike in the civilian world where attorneys decide on whether charges are filed against someone, in the military, it’s commanders and colonels—people like myself—who decide on if people should be charged for crimes that could result in them serving time in Leavenworth. I felt like a district attorney walking into the middle of Sing Sing prison.
To self-preserve, I never tried to pull rank among the other inmates—or the guards, for that matter—until I received news that my 16-year-old cousin died while I was locked up. I went to the watch commander of the prison and demanded to be left alone for a week. I may have been in a brown uniform at that point, but that watch commander knew damn well that Lt. Col. Pinkela was telling him to be left alone.
And they did.
Every night, I kept a journal and wrote the preamble of the U.S. Constitution … over and over. “We the People of the United States of America … ,” filled well over a dozen pages. I traced my hands. I wrote out the military strategy from “The Art of War” just to remind myself of who I was.
I never pulled rank again. But I did use it to help others. Young soldiers who were applying for clemency—many of them with only a high school diploma—were trying to write essays asking for forgiveness to be let out and go home and see their families. As a senior officer, I would review clemency letters weekly. In Leavenworth, I would help the guys draft them out.
I became known as a bit of a den mother, caring after her chicks. And that’s what a lot of the people I was locked up with were—they were kids being watched by other kids.
On my last day in Leavenworth, the guards helped book time at the library, where I used to help my kids draft out their letters. One by one, they all came up to me, hugged me and cried.
“Who’s going to look after us,” I remember one kid saying. “Who’s going to help?”
The emotions I had that night were unforgettable. Even though the military took my uniform away from me and I no longer had the authority—or even the responsibility—to take care of these guys, the military would never take away the pride and love I had for taking care of soldiers and their families.
The next day when I was released, I got my uniform back—silver oak leaves and all. Now that I was separated from the Army, it didn’t mean the same as it did before I went in. Before, the uniform was what made my service feel meaningful. But being at Leavenworth taught me something else: I didn’t need the uniform to be of service.
Ken Pinkela, 51, is the communications and military policy director at The SERO Project. He lives in Otisville, New York.