The ‘Mudder’ and the Marine: From behind prison walls, a mission of caring

Pulmonary disease stemming from exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam has taken its toll on Joe Labriola since this photo was taken in 2010. But though confined to a wheelchair, Joe and fellow Shirley inmate Michael Skinner have managed to trek 20 miles in the Walk for Hunger and a walk for Toys for Tots.

Running and walking in support of a host of good causes is an honored tradition in our country. It is no different behind prison walls.

The following was written by Michael Skinner, an inmate at the Massachusetts Correctional Insitution in Shirley, a medium-security facility. Michael’s intention was just to share it with me; I’ve elected to share it with you.

Back in May, the annual Walk for Hunger was held here at the Shirley Medium Prison. Since its inception in 2013, the men of Shirley have combined to walk thousands of miles and have raised thousands of dollars for this worthy cause. Deacon Arthur Rogers has been working closely with members of PROJECT BREAD for several years and now Shirley Medium is recognized by PROJECT BREAD as an official satellite site. This is something many of us “inside men” take great pride in, when we gear up to do things that enable us to give back to our communities and society as a whole, to those who are much less fortunate than we are in here.

We do not go hungry in prison; we are provided three meals a day. We do not sleep outside in the elements. We have warm beds at night. We do not have to beg for clothes or footwear. We can buy clothes and shoes, or they will be provided for us.

Sadly, there are so many people in our communities struggling to put food on their tables, who are struggling to find their next meal; who are struggling to find a warm bed at night and may have to spend the night in a shelter — if there is room — or worse, sleep outside in an alley or underneath a dumpster in the cold rain or snow. What did these men and women do to deserve such harsh treatment? Did they kill anyone? Did they rob any banks? Did they assault or harm anyone? No, they ran into some tough and harsh circumstances that put them in a position of need and assistance until they can get back on their feet and back on track.

It is my own personal belief and the belief of many others in here with me that by doing these charity events and contributing in whatever way we can, we are helping to heal at least some of the brokenness that has been caused and created both inside here and on the outside of these walls and fences as well.

Since the spring of 2013, I have had the honor and privilege to push the wheelchair of my best friend and mentor, Joe Labriola, for the WALK FOR HUNGER in spring and then, in October, for the walk for TOYS FOR TOTS, which raises money to purchase toys for underprivileged children. That’s a charity especially near and dear to Joe’s heart, since it is sponsored by the United States Marines and Joe is a retired Marine, one who served two tours in Vietnam and earned numerous citations, including the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star (with a combat “V” for valor). For several years, Joe has been commander of the American Veterans in Prison (AVIP) and is the driving force for incarcerated veterans and their rights.

The reason that Joe is in a wheelchair is because he suffers from an insidious affliction called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Joe suffers from the severe kind, which means he has to struggle to take each and every breath because his lung capacity is rapidly shrinking. How did this happen? While Joe was patrolling the jungles of Vietnam as a sergeant with the 1st Battalion, 1st Marines, he and his fellow soldiers were breathing in lots and lots of the chemical known as Agent Orange. Eventually, the highly toxic herbicide which was being sprayed as a defoliant in chemical warfare began to burn the air sacs inside of Joe’s lungs. For that reason, he is out of breath very easily and is in need of constant care and assistance. It has been my honor and privilege to help Joe out and try to take care of anything that needs tending to during his daily routine. This has brought us as close as any two men can be friends. It has also schooled me in ways that have had a profound effect on me and may one day be the reason I get to go back home. I try to be extremely vigilant and careful not to expose him to elements that cause him unnecessary pain and discomfort, such as cold, high winds, rain, sleet and snow. Cold damp air, Joe tells me, is like inhaling pins and needles.

So, each time we gear up for one of our walks for charity, we both monitor the weather reports to see what kind of conditions we’ll be dealing with. I had asked my friends who work in the recreation department if they could get a work crew together and rake the dirt track in the spots that really needed it so that my trek around our little dirt oval would be a little less arduous. Over the years, I’ve learned how to properly tape my feet so as not to get blisters, double up my socks and choose a brand of sneakers that will help me avoid bloody socks, which I’ve had in the past. Choose the right underwear to avoid chafing (boxers, not briefs), and a good pair of gloves, because the handles on Joe’s wheelchair are grooved and cut into my palms as the day goes on. I also makes plan to hydrate properly. After some cramping the last two races, I now use green tea as well as a couple of bottles of Gatorade that I made from the powdered mix they sell us in the canteen. I always cook Joe and I a big meal the day before for the carbs — this year we went with a nice hot bowl of chili and pasta.

We’ve arranged with the staff to open our cell doors early so that we can hit the yard along with the setup crew, to get a head start on everybody. Trust me, those extra 30 minutes with no one else on the track is huge for me in reaching our goal of 20 miles.

The advance forecast had been a day of sun, but when I woke up around 5:30 and looked out the window, I saw rain. A slow and steady rain. I got on my knees and said a prayer for improved weather conditions; when I finished, I cursed the forecasters and their Doppler radar!

After they opened my cell, I went to Joe’s cell and asked him what he wanted to do. I could already tell that he already was having a bad breathing day and it wasn’t even 8 o’clock. We thought the rain would eventually let up and knew there were a lot of people on the outside sponsoring us, expecting us to go 20 miles. When we give our word to do something, we do it, and the deacon had told us he already had received several hundred dollars in checks pledged to our walk. Basically, we had no choice but to go out and do our best, and see where we were by mid-morning. I was worried about Joe’s health, but he wouldn’t hear of it.

It was drizzling, cold and raw when we went out. People kept asking Joe if he was going to be all right. Joe just smiled and told them he had a “tough Mudder” pushing him. When we gathered for our pre-walk prayer with the Deacon, Joe announced we were going to finish the race no matter what because of his “mudder.” Joe explained that a mudder is a racehorse that performs well on a wet, muddy track. That was me, I guess.

We started at 8:30 and by the time the morning session ended at 11, we’d done 10 miles. Halfway there. Despite a steady light rain, we had made great time. But we were soaked head to toe, and when we went inside, I changed some of Joe’s clothes and put on his breathing machine to get some much needed oxygen into Joe’s lungs. Then I went back to my cell, took off all of my wet clothes, except for my socks and sneakers, did some stretching, and relaxed and meditated. I was feeling OK and thankful that I had not cramped up, but I also knew that if the rain did not let up, the track would be a mess in places. Then I remembered a passage in the Bible, from 2d Corinthians: “For we are taking pains to do what is right, not only in the eyes of the Lord but also in the eyes of men.’’

I went to Joe’s cell. He was struggling to breathe but wanted to finish. I got some large plastic trash bags and wrapped them around Joe. Only his head was exposed, so he could wear his trusty old ball cap and wear his ear buds for the music player. When I wheeled him outside, he looked like a giant Popsicle. Probably felt like one, too.

By the time we resumed, at 12:30, the rain had gotten worse. As I was halfway around the track on our first lap, a worker came over to tell me that over by the softball field, there had been flooding, and part of the track was underwater. Sure enough, there was a huge puddle. I went around it, but this was going to be a problem with 10 miles still to go. Not only that, the rest of the track was turning to mud. I could feel the difference as I was pushing Joe’s chair — the wheels sank deeper and deeper.

Finally, about 15 miles in, I pulled over and told Joe I didn’t think we would make it. My own breathing was becoming more labored and my pace was slowing. When we got to the registration table where they were counting laps, Deacon Artie — who was soaked along with the other race organizers — asked me if we should just shut it down. Joe turned his head to me and motioned me to lean in. He said he was having a hard time breathing and was cold, and knew that I was struggling, too, because he could hear me huffing and puffing above the sound of his music. But then he said we had too many people counting on us, especially the hungry families.

That was good enough for me. I took off and told the fellas at the tables we were going to finish. There is no better exercise for the heart, someone once said, than reaching down and lifting people up.

It was close to 2:30 when we stopped at the tables once more and asked Deacon Artie and the rest of the men to join Joe and I for our traditional slow walk on the final lap, so that we could finish as a community. It was a great feeling to cross the finish line with our friends and supporters. Don’t ask me how we did it. But we did. I believe in my heart it was because God was with us, as He always is, and that this day was just another part of His plan for Joe, me and the others.

This was our 11th charity event in six years. We did the math. We have walked and pushed over 230 miles. We have raised, as a community, $10,000 and counting. As I write this, my friend Joe is dealing with a slight lung infection, no doubt from being exposed to the elements for over five hours. But his spirits are better than ever because we did what we said we would do. We kept our word to our family, friends and everyone else who had supported us and believed in us.

I’ve known Joe Lab for over 32 years. He is the real deal, a true warrior and hero, not only for what he did on the battlefields of Vietnam, but for what he has done and is still doing for all of us on the inside. Joe had no business being out in the yard that day. What he’s got left to prove to any of us? How tough he is? That he could do it?

No, that wasn’t it. He went out there because he was determined to help out those in need. He wanted to set an example for the rest of us what it meant to persevere. In doing so, he shined like a star.

It was Goethe who once wrote that one cannot always be a hero, but one can always be a man. Believe me: Sometimes simply being a man can be a mighty struggle. And yet there is Joe, who literally struggles for every breath he takes, showing us on a daily basis how to help and encourage others. He is relentlessly upbeat, positive and smiling, which inspires all of us to understand that no matter how bad things may appear, there is always someone else who is worse off than you and could use a hand. That’s a powerful lesson.

Joe Labriola said I was his mudder, pushing our way through. But when I look back on that day, I can tell you Joe pushed me more than I pushed him. And always will.

I leave you with a line from Hebrews: Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

Thanks for reading,

Michael Skinner

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Gordon Edes was an award-winning sportswriter for 35 years and spent nearly five years as the historian for the Boston Red Sox

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Gordon Edes

Gordon Edes

Gordon Edes was an award-winning sportswriter for 35 years and spent nearly five years as the historian for the Boston Red Sox

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