A Bitter Homecoming

A Drexel student and U.S. Marine stands charged with opening fire in Philly.

The photograph shows a moment of unadulterated pride. A group of young men – some with sunken chests or rounded stomachs, most in sloppy attire – are celebrating in front of a big, Gothic fraternity house. Their smiles are pure; expressions of children meeting sports heroes. Some are waving American flags. One young man, standing front and center, does not seem to fit in. His body is the proportional inverse of the others’ – there is thickness to his chest, his stomach is taut. Tall, sharp and clean, he smiles sheepishly, as if he can’t quite believe he’s the hero everyone is smiling about. A banner hanging overhead reads “Welcome Home Corporal [Name Redacted]!” The photograph, posted on the Web site of the Alpha Pi Lambda fraternity at Drexel University, is accompanied by text explaining that [Name Redacted], whose name is spelled [Name Redacted] in Drexel and police records, was “called to serve his country” in December 2002. Six months later, he found himself in Iraq, serving in the “battle-hardened” areas of Al-Nasiriyah and Tikrit as a Marine attached to the 4th Infantry Division. According to the Web site, [Name Redacted] “constantly wrote to the Brotherhood.” He’s quoted as saying that “sending letters to the house were really what kept me going in the desert.” The caption boasts that [Name Redacted] “showed to the enemy just how hard it is to put down a Pi boy.” Last July, [Name Redacted] learned he’d be sent home in time for the upcoming school year. Footage from his welcome-home party, at which the Web site photograph was taken, was aired on several local news stations. It was the feel-good story of the day. Nearly two weeks ago, [Name Redacted] made the news again – for all the wrong reasons.

On April 24, the 23-year-old [Name Redacted] was arrested for allegedly firing a shot at a University City District “Ambassador,” one of 35 unarmed officers who pedal around school neighborhoods assisting students and watching out for disturbances. According to police, an ambassador named Steve Greene says he was on patrol at 1 a.m. when he saw a man standing 10 to 15 feet away on the corner of 32nd and Powelton, pointing a gun at him. The report states that Greene, who said the man had blond hair and was holding a cup in his other hand, radioed police after claiming to hear a shot fire past his head.

Officers from the 16th District arrived quickly in their cruisers and pursued a man who matched the description Greene, 41, had given them. [Name Redacted], of the 400 block of North 32nd Street, was apprehended a few blocks away from the scene of the shooting. Police say he had a .357-caliber revolver stashed at the small of his back and a permit issued in Chester County that said he could legally carry it. (The Marines list [Name Redacted]’s hometown as Phoenixville.) Police say two rounds had been spent and [Name Redacted] had an additional 10 rounds on him.

The business-administration major was charged with aggravated assault, simple assault, possession of an instrument of crime and reckless endangerment. Out on bail, he made his first appearance in court Monday morning, briefly standing before the judge with his attorney as his parents watched from the back row. All that was accomplished was that a second hearing was scheduled for June 18. [Name Redacted] didn’t speak.

Even before Monday, most paths to information about [Name Redacted] were closed off. His professors at Drexel refused to comment. The university issued a statement saying [Name Redacted] was placed on interim suspension.

The University City District’s Ambassadors didn’t make Greene available for comment but issued a statement saying, “We are thankful that this is not a common occurrence but we are confident that our staff is fully trained to deal with these kinds of situations in a professional manner.”

Over at the fraternity house -which lost its recognition from Drexel this winter for “detrimental behavior” and hazing – most of those who know [Name Redacted] didn’t want much to talk either. Those who did wouldn’t give their names and would say only that they thought the press wasn’t giving [Name Redacted] a fair shake considering his veteran status. Since the arrest, police have gotten numerous calls from people supporting [Name Redacted] as “a good guy,” says Lt. Michael Chitwood of the department’s Southwest Detectives Division.

Members of the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division, to which [Name Redacted] was attached as a specialist, have been returning this month after a one-year tour. [Name Redacted], though, did not operate on the unit’s schedule. Capt. Daniel McSweeney, a spokesman at the U.S. Marine Corps public affairs office, said [Name Redacted] also served at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal. He attained the rank of corporal in June 2003, one month before he returned to Drexel. After [Name Redacted] left the courtroom in the 18th Police District at 55th and Pine streets, his attorney Michael Diamondstein countered what police claim in incident reports.

“He wholeheartedly denies shooting at the security guard. Wholeheartedly,” Diamondstein says. “There are a number of people who were there, who saw what happened and will support the fact that he [[Name Redacted]] didn’t fire at this guy.”

Though the case has just entered the judicial pipeline, there is plenty of speculation available as to what happened that evening. One theory involves alcohol; the other centers on [Name Redacted] experience in Iraq. Target range: Police say they found [Name Redacted] armed not far from 32nd and Powelton.Photo By: Michael T. Regan

The claim that [Name Redacted] was holding a cup on a Friday night at a university inevitably leaves questions about whether he’d been drinking. Investigators mentioned that likelihood during interviews, but Diamondstein says, “I don’t know if I want to comment on alcohol at this point.”

Regarding the military angle, Chitwood says those who’ve called the police station in support of [Name Redacted] have said the Marine “hasn’t been right” since recently learning he’d be heading back to Iraq. Chitwood says he doesn’t consider the stress involved in being called back a valid excuse for opening fire on a city street. Diamondstein says that he “doesn’t know about him being sent back [to Iraq], but I know he has some training and maneuvers scheduled for the summer.”

Though nobody’s publicly drawing connections in this case, it’s not unheard of for returning soldiers to struggle with violence. In January, a Marine named Kevin Kennedy argued in the Columbia [University] Spectator that “America must provide mandatory psychological assistance for every Marine and Soldier returning from Iraq.” A month later, The Washington Post reported on a rash of suicides among troops returning from Iraq. “The combat situation is a world of its own, where people need to have training to develop a whole other set of responses than they use in civilian life,” says Dr. Andrew Stone, a psychiatrist with the Veterans Administration at the Medical College of Philadelphia, adding that it’s difficult for some to “convince [their] brain that [they’re] not in a combat zone anymore.” Several emotions, Stone says, could take a veteran back into combat mode – anger, fear or any perception of danger might trigger an aggressive reaction.

[Name Redacted], who sat in a military posture while sporting a meticulously ironed blue dress shirt and tie in court, initially expressed excitement about going to war. In March 2003, he was quoted in the Chicago Tribune as saying that 9/11 “just makes me want to work that much harder to slaughter the enemy.”

But Tikrit is Saddam Hussein’s hometown and home to a number of Baath Party loyalists. When [Name Redacted] was there, it was the sort of place that was sending us stories about rocket-propelled grenade attacks on U.S. operations centers. Calling it a “battle-hardened area” is probably an understatement. But for now, it seems that [Name Redacted] has to worry more about the prospect of jail time. (Additional reporting by Brian Hickey.)

By: Doron Taussig