When Eugene Cherry returned from Iraq to his home in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, his world was turned upside down. He had once been a student at the well-respected Southside College Preparatory School and had then taken classes at Harold Washington College to study medicine. Yet, now he was lucky if he could get out of bed in a day. His life was fraught with nightmares, anxiety, and depression—he was suffering from Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Cherry described this period as a self-imposed exile: “I never left my bed, I didn’t shave, and my hair grew really long. I just didn’t have the energy to do anything.” Meanwhile, his sleeplessness, nightmares, and anxiety about crowds continued. “I don’t like large groups of people because it reminds me of Iraq,” Cherry said. “There, we didn’t know who the enemy was and we didn’t know who was going to try to shoot at us.”
While still in Iraq, Eugene could feel his mental stability slipping away and he sought treatment from military psychiatrists. Instead of treatment, he was given prescriptions and sent back to duty. His condition worsened.
Then, while on leave in the States, Eugene made a decision that brought him national media attention. It also brought the grim possibility of a potential prison sentence. He decided to go AWOL.
A great motivating factor was that the Army wasn’t helping him deal with depression and PTSD. He couldn’t bear the sight of his uniform and he couldn’t bring himself to watch the news because he didn’t want to be reminded of the horrors he had seen in Iraq.
Eugene recounted his earlier fateful run-in with an Army recruiter on the Harold Washington campus. At the time, Eugene was interested in trying to pay for the rising cost of his college education without having to take out loans and the military seemed like an opportunity to make that happen. “I was registering for classes one day and a recruiter approached me and asked for a moment of my time,” Eugene recounted. “We talked for about five minutes. The next thing I knew, he asked me if he could call me just to give me some more information about the Army and what it could do for me.” At that time, Eugene was interested in getting a degree in biology so he could study medicine. The recruiter told him that he could learn those skills in the Army.
What the recruiter didn’t tell Eugene is that, according to research on military recruiting by Peacework Magazine, nearly 57 percent of the men and women in the military receive no money for their college education. Through a Freedom of Information Act request on the military’s recruiting tactics, Peacework also discovered that a mere 5 percent of all enlistees ever receive the maximum allotted for college. The average serviceperson that does receive money from the GI Bill will get a meager $2,151, not the tens of thousands promised in advertisements.
When his mother found out that Eugene was thinking of joining the Army, she was convinced that the recruiter was trying to deceive her son. When Eugene told the recruiter that his mother was suspicious of the recruitment process, the recruiter asked to come speak with her. “She was not trying to hear what he had to say to her,” Eugene recounted. “In fact, she not only cursed him out, but when the recruiting officer called his supervisor, she cursed him out over the phone. Then the supervisor called another supervisor and she cursed him out over the phone, too.
Looking back at it now, I would say that about 90 percent of what the recruiter told me was a lie. If recruiters had to tell people the truth of what the military was really like, what the lifestyle and culture are like, no one would join. Especially if they are a minority or a woman.”
Rife with Racism
Soon after joining the military, Eugene discovered that the military is an institution rife with racism and sexism. He found this to be especially true while he was stationed at Fort Drum. “I had a first sergeant who called two black women in my unit ‘nappy headed’ and ‘n*******’.” Eugene also spoke of how he was denied promotions and had a lower-ranked officer as his supervisor because of his skin color. “I knew more about the job than he did and had more training, but it didn’t matter. Hhe was white and I was black.”
Eugene is not alone in feeling that the military is unfair in its treatment of African Americans. A report put out by the Army in 2005 showed a steep drop in the number of African Americans who signed up for active duty—from 24 percent in 2000 to 14 percent in 2005—the lowest percentage since 1973 when the draft ended and an all-volunteer military began. According to the “U.S. Military Image Study” commissioned by the Army in 2006, the percentage of African Americans who view the military favorably dropped from 22 percent in November 2003 to 11 percent in November 2004.
During his time as a medic, Eugene says that he only met about 15 or 20 other medics who were African American. He said that this was an extremely low number compared to the total number of medics that he knew in the Army. The infantry units he encountered, however, were predominantly black. Eugene saw this as more than just a coincidence. “If you look here in Chicago, they’re mostly targeting kids in poor neighborhoods, which are mostly minority neighborhoods. They’re not going into well-to-do areas like Lake Forest and trying to get those kids to join, but I guarantee you if you go to a neighborhood like Englewood, you’re going to see a lot of recruiting stations.”
The recruiter had told Eugene and his mother that the closest he would come to combat would be taking x-rays of wounded soldiers. Despite these claims, Eugene was part of an ambulance platoon on call 24 hours a day, as well as an airborne medic, and later part of a bomb squad. On top of all of this, he was sometimes asked to work double duty for KBR-Halliburton, an illegal practice where U.S. soldiers are paid to perform tasks for contractors while on military duty.
“I think during the time I was over there, I did about 300 medivacs (emergency medical evacuations by helicopter),” Eugene recalled. Eventually, he was being sent on infantry patrols, which would leave around six in the evening and return around ten the next morning. The patrols consisted of everything from watch duty to midnight raids of civilian homes, the purpose of which was never explained.
During briefings, while waiting to be deployed, Eugene and his fellow soldiers had been educated on every facet of Iraqi culture. “But,” says Eugene, “the purpose of the briefings was to indoctrinate us to thinking that Iraqis were basically like animals. It doesn’t matter what you do in the military, if you’re a medic, a pharmacy tech, whatever, you are trained first and foremost to be a soldier and to kill when you are told to do so.” Eugene says that he was able to recognize this kind of psychological warfare. “The Iraqis were some of the most decent and hospitable people I’ve ever met in my life.”
Errors of Neglect
As a medic, Eugene’s main function was to treat victims of improvised explosive devices, suicide bombs, small-arms fire, and laser burns from the devices used by the U.S. military. Because of his position as a medic, Eugene was informed of the dangers of depleted uranium so he could treat those harmed by the radioactive material that is used in U.S. armor and munitions. However, he says that most servicepeople in Iraq were not told of the threat depleted uranium poses to soldiers who are exposed to the radioactivity it emits or about the increased cancer-rates and horrifying birth defects.
There was one incident in Iraq that Eugene recalls as the breaking point leading to his rejection of military life. It happened one evening when his unit was called to respond to a possible car bomb in a residential neighborhood. His unit arrived on the scene at approximately 8:30 PM to find a car filled with 250 mm artillery shells, propane tanks, gasoline, and other flammable liquids. They spent about five hours trying to figure out what they were going to do with the car. Finally, the unit decided to blow it up. A mere 30 minute warning was given to evacuate the entire neighborhood and Eugene said that he felt suspicious of the evacuation attempt as he didn’t see anyone leaving or any other activity by the civilians who were sleeping close to the bomb site.
Then word came for the soldiers to get in their cars, close their windows, and lock their doors. It was going to be a big one, they were told. “I had seen a lot of explosions in Iraq, but this one was the worst. It was like looking at the sun,” Eugene said.
Five minutes later, after the dust and debris cleared, frightened people who should have been evacuated ran into the street in droves. In the midst of screaming and yelling by the outraged civilians, Eugene responded to medical emergencies, first tending to a young boy who had debris embedded in his face. While he was patching up the boy’s face, Eugene was interrupted by a soldier telling him that there was an even bigger emergency. He was brought to an apartment building next to where the bomb had exploded. It was almost completely destroyed. Eugene walked through a wall of water, caused by ruptured water lines, into the smoldering building where he found three bodies. The floor was covered in blood and he tended to a woman who was the most severely injured of the three. Her only response when asked her if she was okay was a quiet moan. Eugene then tapped on her shoulder, but she didn’t respond. He turned her over and noticed that half of her face was gone. Her right eye was out of her socket, she had a huge gash across her face, and a partial amputation of her foot. An Iraqi surgeon on the scene helped Eugene try to patch the woman up. When Eugene’s Convoy Commander asked him if he needed a medivac, he replied “Yes.” The Convoy Commander went to radio for the helicopter.
Even though the woman was critically injured and needed emergency care in a hospital, the Convoy Commander returned a few minutes later and told Eugene that the medivac was wasn’t coming, but didn’t give him a reason why. The woman was placed on a pile of bodies on an Iraqi ambulance and driven off into the night. Eugene does not know if she ever made it to a hospital alive.
Mistakes like that were common occurrences that were usually covered up, Eugene told me. While most people might wonder why there was no real effort to evacuate the neighborhood, Eugene states that it’s because soldiers are trained throughout the war not to care about the civilians. Dealing with the racism and such drastic errors of neglect drove Eugene over the edge. He felt he had given so much of his life to the military and received nothing in return.
After 16 months AWOL Eugene managed to get help. He began working with a counselor and a psychologist and was able to begin treatment for PTSD. Eventually, his counselors convinced him to turn himself in. Even though the Army doesn’t usually go after AWOLs, that doesn’t stop them from wanting to punish those who do turn themselves in. Eugene was no exception. Instead of accepting a court martial and jail time, he chose to fight the military. He was able to get the heads of the mental health department at Fort Drum to testify that he suffered from PTSD and depression and that these ailments were the cause of his going AWOL. This testimory, along with exposure in the media and calls and letters from people all over the country, helped his case. “I fought them tooth and nail,” says Eugene. “Most guys in that situation will just let the military walk all over them. But because I wasn’t one of those guys, they didn’t know how to deal with me and I won my case.”
Eugene is a free man now, officially a civilian. I asked him if he had any words of wisdom to the those who haven’t been to Iraq. He said, “My only hope is that people can learn to think with their hearts. Try to open up to another culture and relate to them. Ask yourself how you would feel if it was your country being invaded. How would it make you feel if guys from another country were breaking into your home at two o’clock in the morning, handcuffing you with guns pointed to your head, and dragging off your father or your brother into the night?”
Eugene also had some advice for young people of color who might view the military as their only shot at a college degree and a better life. “First of all, there is always another option. In fact, there are multiple options that are much more viable and less emotionally and physically taxing than joining the military. Most jobs that minorities occupy in the military are supply, cooks, and artillery…. These jobs are what people in the military refer to as ‘low-tier jobs,’ not the glamorous jobs that are promised by recruiters.”
Ryne Ziemba is a freelance writer, artist, and musician living in Chicago.