I had a cellmate who fought in the Gulf and would tell me about some of the things he had experienced. In many ways I am reminded of Vietnam Vets—as if the government just didn’t learn its lesson the first time.
As I listened to him speak of those experiences, I knew full well that he would never write about them himself. Still, it occurred to me that his voice deserved to be heard as much as anyone else’s. So bearing this in mind, I have written several stories based upon him. This is one of them.
Growing up in Ohio, we never really had large groups of long-term methamphetamine users — tweekers — like they have here in the Southwest. My cellmate Kevin was one and he would quite unabashedly recount stories about his own drug use. He started using after he left the military, and like many other veterans of the Gulf conflicts, he seemed to follow the pattern set by Vietnam vets in coping with P.T.S.D. — he turned to drugs and alcohol.
A trend I’ve noticed over the last few years is that more and more veterans from these conflicts are washing up bruised and battered into correctional facilities of one kind or another. The one in which we were both currently housed was the county jail. Most jails were designed to hold inmates for strictly short- term incarceration. All too often, however, someone gets caught in the net of criminal justice and can spend many months, if not years, trapped in one. It becomes purgatory. An existence of crushingly claustrophobic tedium in which three men who don’t know each other are forced to spend more time in extreme close proximity than they ever have with their girlfriends, wives, or mothers.
This tedium is punctuated by numerous cell lockdowns throughout the day. If there’s little to do in jail, generally, there’s even less to do through these lockdowns — and so during them, Kevin would often get going on some pretty impressive rants. One day he was telling me about all of the partying he did on the street.
“Yeah, I just got my suicide check so I had some money to work with.”
“Your what?” I asked.
He started telling me about long-term disability payments for soldiers—some of whom, if they waited a long period of time before being diagnosed, could be owed a substantial amount of money in back-pay.
“Occasionally you get these Vietnam vets who were diagnosed as disabled In like ’95, but it goes back to their days in the war so the government owes them payments going back to like 1970. Well, some of these guys have been homeless since ’72 or ’73,” Kevin told me, “So you got guys who for 25 or whatever years have been alcoholics or drug addicts or chronic masturbators.”
“Or all of the above,” I ventured.
“Right. Or all of the above.” He continued.
“So the federal government is handing out checks for 25–30 years worth of disability at once! Hell, you could be talking like $400–500-thousand and usually they don’t even bother to determine if the dude’s even competent to handle it. Well, you get someone who’s been living under a bridge and had nothin’ for that long and hand him a half a million dollars and he’ll be at the bank like–”
He raised his arms in triumph: “Wooo-Hoo! So right off the bat he goes and buys the house he’s been sniffing paint behind and a quarter pound of weed and three ounces of heroin and then he puts 10 grand down on a Harley that he’ll never even ride ’cause the third fucking night after getting the money he’ll OD.”
My cellmate’s voice is coming faster now and he’s standing and orating like Jesus on the Mount.
“The federal government is giving out the money through the V.A. right, but after the guy dies, the money he will never use goes to the State of New Mexico — and the Feds are fucking pissed and they’re all like Fuck Bill Richardson! If he wants the money then he shoulda taken his draft-dodgen-ass to Vietnam himself, instead of getting a deferment and inhaling with Bill Clinton.”
Kevin sat back down, looking a little weary after his outburst. He ripped open a Ramen soup and munched on it raw.
“So now when they get these big disability payments going back a long way, they’ll give you a check for like 30-grand first and wait a year before they give you the rest. They figure if you’re gonna buy a bunch of guns and end up in prison, where they won’t have to give you what’s left (or more likely, you just kill yourself), you’ll do it with that first check and they’ll save a bunch of money. It’s a suicide check. It’s a cheap way of getting out of what they owe.”
Kevin had gotten his suicide check around six months earlier and, if he were still around, would collect a lump sum at some point before the year was up. I wondered if he could keep it together long enough to enjoy it. I wondered what I would do if I received a bulk amount of money like that.
Having been a drug addict myself, I’ve known an embarrassing number of them — but there’s something different about tweekers. Guys that seem so fried you swear they’d have trouble remembering their own names, will break down the chemical processes and reactions involved in meth production in such excruciatingly specific detail it would make a college chemistry professor’s eyes glaze over.
But conversations about drugs get old. Hell, I have a million war stories myself since I’ve scored and otherwise had dope-fueled ‘adventures’ in a number of cities…
The most intense was in Mexico. I was traveling around with my girlfriend and at one point found myself in the projects of Mexico City, which I gotta tell you is pretty sincerely bad news and no place for a pinche wedo. We’d met some locals who said they could score for us and were hanging out in the common hall area of a large apartment building. As I waited near the steps that ran up and down the floors of the building, I watched a group of teenage kids play soccer and occasionally take breaks to inject cocaine. Once, as several of them were shooting up, an old woman came out of her apartment and when she walked down the steps, they made a halfhearted effort of hiding their syringes behind their backs until she walked by. Even after all of the shit I had seen, that one was kind of an eye opener.
I’m not sure if his belt [used as a tourniquet] broke, or he just thought it would be funny, but one of the teenagers walked over and using gestures and repeating himself in loud, angry Spanish, got across his demand that I squeeze his arm while he shot himself up. I really didn’t want to, but he was pretty insistent and, as I looked around nervously, I noticed that we seemed to be drawing attention.
So I did it.
While he filled his syringe, I had one of those moments of self-reflection where it hit me: I was in the projects of Mexico City, with my girlfriend, waiting to score heroin, and helping a teenage kid while he shot himself up and…
What was I doing?
But it didn’t stop me.
Heroin has taken me many places where I didn’t want to be and this was definitely one of them. That is one of my adventures — but it seems so distant now. I see guys who, when they talk about their war stories, get excited and return to the scene of the crime. But as I tell mine, the taste in my mouth is stale, like the shelf life has expired and gone bad.
Returning to the present, I glance at my cellmate who is wrapped in his own thoughts.
Suicide checks — wonder which federal employee thought of that one first? When I think back to the time I spent in Mexico, I wonder why I wasn’t stabbed or shot. I know that there are plenty of people who make a living off of kidnapping tourists like me and sometimes I’m still surprised I walked away from it.
Why my cellmate and I were still alive, I don’t know, but I think that maybe if we were going to go, it would have happened already.
For whatever reason — good, bad, or otherwise — we’re still here. Still waiting to cash in on what life has to offer.
Kenton Warnock is serving 30 years for murder.
If you’d like to contact this author, please write to:
Kenton Warnock #73692
185 Dr. Michael Jenkins Blvd
Clayton, NM 88415