Hard Luck, Hard Time

Donald Thweatt was once ready to fight for his country. Now he's fighting for his freedom.

In view of Thweatt's military service, his parents and Nester thinks the federal government owes him. But the VA hasn't been much help. "They don't have an understanding of how difficult it is to get Don into one of those institutions," Nester says.

From the other side of the glass, Thweatt looks harmless enough, but his hands are cuffed just to make sure. Guards are stationed just on the other side of the door leading from the visiting room back to the jail's housing units. Thweatt smiles easily and flirts, politely, with a photographer. He complains that guards have "confiscated" a Bible he was using to document their abuses by writing in the margins. But he cradles another as best he can with handcuffs on. "I don't know why they didn't take this one," he wonders. "Yes, I do. The Lord didn't put it in their hearts to think about that. I have a little problem with recall. They know that here at the jail. That's why they consistently take my documentation from me. I learned a long time ago as an officer: If it's not on paper, it didn't happen."

Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.
Thweatt (foreground) playing soldier at age 5.

He apologizes for coughing and blames the towel he clutches. "I'm choking because this towel that I brought with me has Mace in it," he says. Jailers say he was sprayed after throwing coffee on someone. He also carries a hand-lettered envelope signed "Tweetie" he holds up to the window between himself and visitors: "Being abused perpetually since military service," it reads. He recites the names of guards whom he accuses of abusing him and spells their names aloud. He says he's been beaten and sustained broken ribs.

"This is a criminal institution," he says. "But the biggest criminals are not behind the bars."

He doesn't swear, nor does he raise his voice during an interview that lasts more than two hours. He talks a lot about God and tends to ramble. He occasionally laughs and, at one point, cries while describing a time when he was homeless and a Taco Bell manager gave him two fresh burritos when he went begging for leftover tacos. He's not sure what will happen to him once he leaves jail. He's been applying to colleges. He's hoping to get an acceptance letter soon from a Christian school in Florida.

Last Friday, Thweatt was taken from the county jail to Chennault Place, a residential home in Lake Charles, La., run by a veteran who specializes in housing veterans with disorders ranging from schizophrenia to alcoholism. "Veterans taking veterans. We say yes when others say no" is their motto. On the same day, prosecutors dismissed the remaining assault charges against Thweatt, who was scheduled to face trial Monday.

Chennault Place has a wide range of activities for its residents, including fishing, excursions to casinos, movies and dancing. How long Thweatt will stay there is an open question -- violent behavior is grounds for immediate eviction. As of Monday afternoon, home administrators had reported no problems, but Nester is taking no chances. He's already been in touch with a home in Texas in case Chennault Place doesn't work out. Norman Thweatt isn't optimistic. "No matter what kind of restraints they have in that facility, they're going to need them," he says.

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