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When I was inducted into the U.S. Navy, I raised my right hand and swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  But as a young 18 year old, I didn’t really take that oath to heart. 

Many years later, a prison sentence, a thank you from a beautiful person, and maturity set me on the path to advocate for the “right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for all people. 

I should back up and explain the social structure of the prison yard.  It is comparable to a high school cafeteria, complete with cliques. People form groups based on race, sexuality, area code, religion or gang affiliation.

After being here at the Moberly Correctional Center in Missouri for five years, I knew a lot of people and observed the various groups. I mostly kept to myself and didn’t initiate conversations with people I did not know. I identified mostly with a group of combat veterans — but an afternoon walk on the track and an encounter with someone different from me taught me to think about what I had been defending during my military service. 

While on my walk, I was called over to a small group of people who were LGBTQ vets. Not every prisoner would have felt comfortable and confident enough to talk to that group but I knew people in that community. Tony, one of the veterans, had some questions for me about veterans benefits. That is when I met Fancy.

Fancy identified as a gay male and a professional female impersonator. Standing at six feet, with a slender frame, neatly trimmed brown hair, perfect skin, and model-like facial features, I could envision Fancy as an attractive female. He was said to be popular in his home city and a hit at drag queen shows. 

Fancy looked me in the eye, and asked if I had served in the military. 

I replied, “Yes, I served for 14 years.” 

Fancy stuck out his right hand and said, “I want to thank you for your service.” 

I was caught off guard with this show of appreciation. I had never before been thanked for my service by another inmate though I had been wounded and had lost friends in Iraq. I stuck out my hand to accept his gratitude, but I was so surprised I asked, “Why are you thanking me?” 

Fancy used both hands to outline his face with traces of make-up and continued the silhouette down the rest of his body until he ended in a curtsy. “Because I can be this,” he said. 

That stopped me in my tracks. I thought about the oppressive societies I had witnessed in other parts of the world, places where gay and transgender people, or even men with long hair, were ridiculed, chastised or even stoned to death for violating religious laws. I looked deep into my values as a soldier and a veteran. 

The first one of my peers to thank me for my service in the seven years of my incarceration was someone different from myself. It dawned on me at that moment that I swore to defend ALL people’s rights, even those whose lifestyle I knew nothing about. Even in prison, Fancy was free to be “fancy” though he would not have been in many of those other places.

At that moment, I took my oath to heart and opened that heart to a  new group of people I had overlooked in the past. Now I wanted to embrace them and learn how I could better assist in their struggles. The gift that Fancy gave me that summer afternoon in the prison yard — of respect and understanding and most importantly, love — is something I will never forget. I’m continuing to learn and grow and I have made some awesome new friends along the way. 

My main message for all active duty military, reserves, National Guard and veterans is to remember the Oath of Enlistment and what we stand for as a people. 

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Shon Pernice is a contributing writer for PJP. He is a veteran and a Kansas City native who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom as a combat medic and came home with traumatic brain injury and PTSD. He has been published in Veterans Voices, The Beat Within and Military Magazine. He is a contributing author to the book, "Helping Ourselves By Helping Others: An Incarcerated Men's Survival Guide." Shon was incarcerated in Missouri.