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Clinton pardon arrives for AWOL

But after a lifetime spent suffering the opprobrium of a dishonorable discharge, Willie Pruitt Jr. never saw it.

By TAMARA LUSH

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2001


PORT RICHEY -- Willie Pruitt Jr. was a 22-year-old Korean War veteran when he went absent without leave to visit his young son who was in danger of losing his eyesight.

Pruitt spent a lifetime paying for that decision.

In 1955, the Air Force gave him a dishonorable discharge, and the stigma trapped him into a series of menial jobs.

Pruitt thought the punishment too harsh and wondered if his black skin had anything to do with it. For decades, he tried to clear his record, and failure left him bitter.

photo
[Times photo: Dan McDuffie]
Betty Pruitt of New Port Richey struggles to control her emotions as she holds a copy of her late husband's pardon.
"He was treated as a criminal his whole life, said Betty Pruitt, his second wife, "and he wasn't a criminal."

‘No schooling, no pay...’

Willie Pruitt Jr. was born in Montgomery, Ala., in 1932. He dropped out of high school to join the Air Force in 1951, where he thought he could get a good job. He served in Korea, transporting troops to the front lines.

Pruitt had married young. In 1953, his first wife, Dorothy, gave birth to a boy, according to Betty Pruitt. The next year, 9-month-old Willie Al Pruitt developed eye problems. Pruitt learned his son might lose his sight.

His request for leave from his duties at Kinross Air Force Base in Michigan was denied.

Pruitt left anyway and was AWOL for eight days.

Al recovered, and Pruitt returned to Kinross. On Feb. 5, 1955, he was dishonorably discharged. "He got no schooling, no pay, no nothing," said Betty Pruitt.

The dishonorable discharge also meant that Pruitt had a difficult time getting good jobs. So he worked as a chef, a lawn man and did inventory for a moving and storage firm.

Pruitt, who suffered from a variety of health problems including congestive heart failure, also couldn't use Veterans Administration hospitals. And he was never able to vote.

"It was a stigma hanging over him," said Al Pruitt, now a 48-year-old jail employee in Montgomery. "It affected him a lot. Something was missing from his life."

‘A kind, gentle man’

Dorothy Pruitt died in 1977. They had had five children together. Shortly after his wife's death, Pruitt met Betty, who was a teacher's aide in a school. They married in 1978 and moved to Port Richey in 1983.

Their lives revolved around their 13 children -- Betty had eight of her own -- their dozens of grandchildren and their church. Occasionally, they would go dancing and once went on a vacation to Jamaica.

But Pruitt didn't stop thinking about his dishonorable discharge. He twice appealed to the Air Force to upgrade his discharge. These were denied.

In 1998, Betty Pruitt was caring for an elderly woman, and they happened to visit the Veterans Service Center in Port Richey. While there, Mrs. Pruitt told an employee about her husband's appeals to the Air Force. The case eventually made its way into the hands of Bill Klinger, the assistant county veterans service officer. Klinger and Willie Pruitt met and filled out another request asking the Air Force to upgrade the discharge.

"He was a kind, gentle man who had been through some hard times," said Klinger. "This was the one thing he wanted accomplished."

The Air Force again rejected Pruitt.

In early 2000, Klinger had another thought: They would ask for a presidential pardon, then hope that would induce Air Force officials' to change his discharge to honorable. Pruitt and Klinger met again and filled out "mountains of paperwork," Pruitt said.

But Pruitt had lost hope, Betty Pruitt said. He had been depressed since his last rejection letter and was drinking heavily.

Pruitt died Sept. 3, 2000, at age 68.

Five months later, nearly 46 years to the day that the Air Force discharged him, a registered letter arrived at the Pruitts' home, announcing an action Bill Clinton had taken on his last day in the White House.

"A presidential pardon is a sign of forgiveness," the Feb. 4 letter read.

"I was so happy," said Betty Pruitt.

"But it dawned on me: What good is it?"

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