Army Vet Takes Advantage of Second Chance after 20 Year Prison Sentence
Everyone has a story. But Richard Harris has one that stands out among most.
Growing up on the streets of Chicago, Harris witnessed his first murder when he was nine and saw more than a dozen friends buried by the time he was 16.
To escape this fate, he enlisted in the U.S. Army at 17. He proudly served as a field artillery specialist and his life seemed to be in order. However, he wasn’t prepared for his discharge.
After moving back to Chicago during the summer of 1991, he was sitting in his car when three opposing gang members fired multiple rounds into his car.
After that he relocated to Kenosha, Wisconsin, in an attempt to raise his family in a better environment. He soon found that field artillery specialists aren’t exactly in high demand outside the military, which posed a problem.
“I couldn’t support my wife and kids with a lack of education and skills to find meaningful employment,” Harris said.
Instead, he relied on what he knew best - dealing drugs as a gang member to support his family. It wasn’t long before that lifestyle caught up with him and he was sentenced to 20 years in prison on multiple drug charges.
That’s where his life began to turn around. He found a support network in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections willing to help him advance his life.
“They made me think about my future choices and helped me make a plan.”
His marriage ended during his incarceration and was forced to start over in nearly every aspect of life.
He needed a second chance and he took full advantage of it.
Harris was released from prison after nine years of good behavior and began a successful reintegration into the Green Bay community.
Richard married his wife, Yvonne, in 2007 and together they had two children, Ray-Shaunda and Mi-Shaun. When Ray-Shaunda was diagnosed with a rare form of childhood cancer, they moved to Madison to seek the specialized treatment she needed.
Unable to locate housing, the family lived in a hotel for six months until a fellow Veteran reached out. “It was all a disaster until I ran into a Vet that recognized my needs and connected me with the VA HUD VASH program,” Harris shared.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development-VA Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program offers support services and housing vouchers to provide affordable housing for Veterans in need. Case managers are able to assist Veterans with health care, mental health treatment and substance use to help eliminate some of the problems that lead to homelessness. The Veterans Health Care and Benefits Improvement Act of 2020 allows the VA to expand their services to include providing food, shelter and other supplies to support homeless Veterans.
“All the programs and individuals were critical in getting me to where I am. I didn’t know what to do without them.”
Not only was he able to find housing for his family, but using VA resources, he earned his Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California. Today, Harris is a social worker with Walworth County Department of Health and Human Services.
He hopes other Veterans will reach out for help. “Do not be afraid to admit that you need help. And be willing to trust social workers, counselors and therapists,” he said.
Congratulations to Richard and his family on their success and for taking advantage of their second chance.
If you or someone you know is struggling, visit https://www.va.gov/madison-health-care/health-services/homeless-veteran-care to connect with our dedicated team. For more information about the Madison VA Hospital, visit www.madison.va.gov, www.facebook.com/MadisonVAHospital and subscribe to our newsletters.