Denial in the Corps
The video below was provided by the American News Project.
Marine Lance Cpl. James Jenkins is buried in the same New Jersey cemetery that he used to run through on his way to high school, stopping at the Eat Good Bakery to get two glazed doughnuts and an orange juice before heading off to class. When his mother, Cynthia Fleming, visits his grave, she looks over the low cemetery wall at not only the bakery but the used-car lot where James used to sell Christmas trees during the winter and the nursing home where he worked every summer and says, "Lord, son, you're on your own turf." James, who died at 23, is buried in Greenwood Cemetery; the owners told Cynthia they're proud to have him there.
During his short career as a marine, Corporal Jenkins received many commendations recognizing his "intense desire to excel," "unbridled enthusiasm" and "unswerving devotion to duty." It was for heroic actions performed during a fifty-five-hour battle with the Mahdi militia in Najaf that Jenkins was awarded a Bronze Star for valor. The fighting, which began on the city streets in August 2004 and moved into the Wadi al Salam Cemetery, was ferociously personal. Marines and militiamen were often only yards apart, killing one another at close range. When the battle was over, eight Americans and hundreds of militiamen were dead.
After that tour, his second in Iraq, Jenkins could barely sleep. When he did, the nightmares were horrible. He was plagued by remorse and depression, unable to be intimate with his fiancée, run ragged by an adrenaline surge he couldn't turn off.
Back at San Diego's Camp Pendleton the following January, Jenkins took to gambling, or gambling took to him; he became addicted to blackjack and pai gow, a fast-moving card game where you can lose your shirt in a minute. The knife-edge excitement felt comfortingly familiar. Jenkins went into debt, borrowing thousands of dollars from payday loan companies. Busted for writing bad checks, he was locked up in the Camp Pendleton brig that spring pending court-martial. In the months that followed, he was released, locked up and released again. He spoke often of suicide. The Marines never diagnosed his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). When his mother called his command seeking help, Jenkins's first sergeant, who had not served in Iraq, told Fleming he thought James was using his suicidal feelings to his advantage. "I have 130 marines to worry about other than your son," she recalls the sergeant saying. When his command decided to lock him up a third time, James Jenkins ran.
On September 28, 2005, eight months after returning from Iraq, Jenkins found himself cornered in the Oceanside apartment he shared with his fiancée. A deputy sheriff pounded on the front door, while a US Marshal covered the back. The young man with the "intense desire to excel" decided he could not go back to the brig or get an other-than-honorable discharge. He would not shame his family or have his hard-won achievements and his pride stripped away. And he was in pain. "He said, 'I can't even shut my eyes,'" his mother says, recalling one of his calls home that month. "He said, 'I killed 213 people, Mom.' He said, 'I can't live like this.' He said, 'Everything I worked for is down the drain,' and he was crying like a baby." While the officers waited for his fiancée to open the door, Jenkins shot himself in the right temple.
In the wake of Jenkins's suicide, the Marine Corps attempted to deny death benefits to his mother by claiming he'd died a deserter; but in a report based on that eligibility investigation, Thomas Ferguson, a special agent from the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, described the young man as a "salvageable marine" whose untreated PTSD had led to his suicide.
"LCpl Jenkins was a bona fide war hero," Ferguson wrote. "Unfortunately, it is clear that when he most needed help from the military, the military failed him."
James Jenkins is a casualty of the war in Iraq as much as his fellow marines who died in that cemetery in Najaf, abandoned by an organization that has little tolerance for broken marines and is itself under tremendous stress from sustaining multiple deployments. "They didn't do anything," his mother says. "They just kept locking him up."