Vietnam veteran who spent 38 years in prison for crimes he didn't commit donates $80,000 to Thank a Vet charity
By PAM KRAGEN | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: May 9, 2019
CARLSBAD, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Military veterans often struggle when they transition to civilian life. The same can be said for parolees starting life over outside prison walls. Craig Coley has experienced both.
After four years in the Navy during the Vietnam War, Coley returned home in 1969 to attend college in L.A. And after serving nearly 39 years in California prisons for two murders he did not commit, Coley was exonerated in 2017 and has since retired in Carlsbad.
Coley, now 71, didn’t get much in the way of help when he left the military 40 years ago. But when he got out of prison two years ago, he was assisted by the all-volunteer charity Thank a Vet. Now Coley — who has since received nearly $23 million in compensation from the city of Simi Valley and the state of California for his wrongful prosecution and imprisonment — has returned the favor.
On April 27, Coley presented a check for $80,000 to Thank a Vet at the Orange County nonprofit’s fourth annual charity golf tournament at Pechanga Resort Casino in Temecula. The amount is equivalent to the full balance of a Gofundme account established on Coley’s behalf in 2017 by his best friend and benefactor Mike Bender of Carlsbad. A former Simi Valley police detective, Bender spent nearly 30 years fighting to reopen Coley’s case before Gov. Jerry Brown declared him innocent and freed him.
Coley said the Gofundme account was a great help to him when he walked out of Lancaster prison 18 months ago with nothing more than a trash bag of clothes and a $200 debit card. But now he wants to pass some of his good fortune to others, particularly veterans who sometimes struggle without the rules and structure of military life.
“Nobody understands a veteran like another veteran,” Coley said. “I got a lot of help from Thank a Vet when I got out of prison. Now I’m in a good position to pay that forward. I’m so glad I could do it.”
Thank a Vet was started in 2007 by retired Sgt. Maj. Jesse Acosta, 61, who spent 34 years in the Army and Army reserves. On Jan. 16, 2006, he lost both eyes and suffered a traumatic brain injury during a mortar attack at Camp Anaconda in Iraq. In the subsequent years, he underwent 40 surgeries.
Acosta — who, like Coley, joined the military when he turned 18 — said he started Thank a Vet after he slipped through the holes in the Veterans Administration’s safety net during his own recovery. The veteran-run group provides money, care packages, clothing, computers, services and other assistance to veterans who are homeless, jobless or struggling to pay bills. It serves veterans in Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, as well as in North San Diego and South Los Angeles counties.
Acosta first met Coley in 2013, when Coley invited him to speak to Veterans Embracing Troops, a group he co-founded at Lancaster prison with fellow inmate and Army veteran Andrew Kicking Horse. The group holds twice-monthly support meetings and raises money for the families of deployed military personnel.
Acosta, who uses a guide dog, said when he went to Lancaster prison for the first time, a man tapped him on the shoulder and politely asked if he could pet his guide dog.
“He said to me, ‘I haven’t petted a dog in almost 40 years,’ ” Acosta recalled. “It just grabbed my heart. That gentleman was Craig Coley.”
Four years later, Acosta helped Coley with the paperwork to apply for his veterans benefits following his release from prison. After receiving compensation from the state, Coley initially wanted to start his own veterans charity, but felt he couldn’t do better than Thank a Vet so instead he signed on as a donor. His April donation was the largest in Thank a Vet’s history.
Besides Coley’s $80,000 donation, he and Bender have also launched a new Gofundme account for Thank a Vet (Gofundme.com, “Craig and Mike Thank a Vet”).
Coley did three tours in Vietnam, serving on the USS Enterprise, USS Bainbridge and USS Bon Homme Richard. A petty officer third class, Coley ran the ships’ bakery operations, baking up to 1,000 loaves of bread each week as well as breakfast pastries, rolls, buns and desserts for up to 5,000 enlisted men.
“I was proud to do my part in protecting the freedom of our country,” he said. “I valued the experience very highly. It taught me life lessons and it taught me to be social, to take orders and to give orders. It gave me a head start in life.”
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