In 1991, when he was a gung ho 21-year-old marine, Jesus Jimenez marched off to fight in Desert Storm. "After that was over I didn't think I'd ever go back to war." But soon he'll be heading back to Iraq as a member of a local national guard unit that's being deployed to Iraq. "I'll go and I'll give 150 percent," he says. "But I won't lie--I don't want to go. I feel like I was deceived. I'll bet there are lots of other guys who feel the same way."
Jimenez, who's now 34, says he's like "a hundred other working-class kids" who wound up in the military. He grew up in Bucktown long before it gentrified. His parents, who came to Chicago from Puerto Rico, were factory workers. In 1988 he graduated from Prosser Vocational High School, and his parents urged him to go on to college. "I wanted to join the marines," he says. "I was just a wiseass kid who thought I knew all the answers. I saw the commercials on TV and I thought, oh, cool, I'll be like a knight. My mother said she wouldn't sign the induction forms, but once I was 18 I didn't need her signature."
He has mixed feelings about his time in the marines. "Everything you ever read or heard about boot camp is true," he says. "You're the lowest of the low--they call you 'maggot' and 'maggot worm' and other endearing terms. You're there to eat, sleep, drink Marine Corps. They break you down so they can build you back up as a marine."
Yet he credits the marines with toughening him up and teaching him discipline. "You are a part of a brotherhood," he says. "You have pushed yourself harder than you ever thought you could be pushed."
In 1990 Jimenez was sent to Saudi Arabia as part of the buildup for Desert Storm. "I was an infantryman--my specialty was shooting a machine gun," he says. "They based us in the middle of the desert outside an air force base. They told us, 'You guys are the first wave of defense for this base. Your home is whatever hole you're going to dig in the ground.' It rained for three consecutive days. We were drenched. You just huddled under your poncho."
Eventually his unit drove through Kuwait and into Iraq. "The worst thing about war is the dread and the uncertainty," he says. "You see so much violence and so much bloodshed. There's so much fear. There's nothing good about it--except when it's over."
Jimenez was away from his wife, Marie, and their two-year-old daughter, Azaria, for almost a year. (His son, Elias, was born in 1993.) "When I got back Azaria wouldn't call me dad," he says. "She would call me by my first name. I guess she didn't know me that way--you know, like a father. It's hard to be away."
After returning Jimenez worked his way up to sergeant, but left in 1996. "After all those years it was time to get out," he says, though he admits he missed being in the service. "I missed the discipline and the camaraderie. I missed the guys I went to Desert Storm with. I felt the friends I had here were nothing like the friends I had there. How many would trust me with their lives? It's hard to explain."
He took courses at various branches of the City colleges, then got a job as an office clerk with the architectural firm Hartshorne & Plunkard. He also began coaching Little League baseball (his son and my daughter played on the same team), and last summer he and his family moved to Naperville. "It was the American dream, right?" he says. "I had a good job. We had a house in the suburbs. Things were going well. But I wanted to finish my degree. I was still about a year short." And time had already run out on the Marine Corps' obligation to pay for it.
One day last summer Jimenez was with his son at the Puerto Rican festival in Humboldt Park, where he saw a registration booth run by the Illinois National Guard. "They had this souped-up Humvee there with a PlayStation built into it--it was addressed to the PlayStation generation, and you had all these 17- and 18-year-olds hanging around looking at it," he says. "I started talking to the recruiter. I told him I'd been a marine, and he asked if I was interested in coming back. I said, 'No way.' And he said, 'It could pay for your education.' He said, 'All you have to do is give us one weekend a month for a year.' I said I wanted to do something that would contribute to my architecture career. He said he had an opening in one unit as a generator-repair electrician."
At the time, of course, American troops in Iraq were under siege. "I didn't want to go," says Jimenez. "I was very up-front about that. I'm not a coward, but I've been to war, and I don't want to go back. I told the recruiter, 'I don't want to be deployed.' He said, 'Sergeant Jimenez, the unit I'm sending you to has never been deployed for anything.'"
Jimenez says he talked things over with his wife. "I went through the pluses and minuses," he says. "I thought I'd be able to pay for the education to finish my degree. I'll get some electrical experience that will help me with my career. I'd only have to go a few weekends a year, so I wouldn't be away from my family and it wouldn't interrupt my job. I'll do some service for the state--you know, if there's a flood or something like that. And I'd only be in for a year. I decided, why not? In August I signed up."
The guard sent him a notice telling him to report for his first day of processing on November 2 at the base at First Avenue and Cermak Road in Riverside, and he did. "That's when they dropped the bombshell," says Jimenez. "A captain broke the news. He said, 'This unit is being deployed.'"
When he got home Jimenez called his recruiter. "I said, 'We're being deployed--what's going on?' He said, 'Don't worry. You don't serve a purpose in that unit. This is a maintenance battalion, and you're not qualified for maintenance.' Remember, I had no training as an electrician--I was signing up to get that training. I said, 'You're right--I'm obsolete.' I thought I'd show up for training and they'd send me home."
On November 12 he showed up for a training session in Riverside. "There was this speech by a colonel who said, 'I'm the asshole who signs the order for your arrest if you don't show up for deployment.' He said, 'I will send out the state police and have you arrested. The U.S. marshals will transfer you to Leavenworth. You'll await trial in Leavenworth, and the minimum sentence for failing to report is 15 months.'"
After the speech Jimenez approached the colonel to plead his case. "I said, 'Sir, I'm not qualified for a job in this unit.' He said, 'Well, what was your job in the marines?' I said I was in the infantry. He said, 'Well, then, you do have a job.' I said, 'But sir, I have a guaranteed contract that I'll be an electrician.' He said, 'Guaranteed contract?' Then he laughed. He said, 'A guaranteed contract doesn't mean shit.' I said, 'Sir, don't think of me as a coward. I don't want to go at all, but if you send me I don't want to go as an infantryman.' I said, 'The last thing anyone who's been in combat wants to see is more combat.' He looked at me and said, 'That's why they need you over there. You have experience. You serve a purpose there.'" He would still be part of the maintenance unit, but no one had any idea what he'd be doing.
One last contractual technicality had to be cleared up before Jimenez could be sent to Iraq. He'd signed a 12-month contract, and it expires in August. To be deployed, a guardsman has to sign an 18-month contract. "I had to sign a six-month extension," he says. "I told them I wasn't going to sign an extension. And so this staff sergeant said, 'Fine.' She got out a form called the 'involuntary extension of contract form,' and she took out her pen and wrote 'soldier refuses to sign' on it. Then she signed it. I said, 'What's this?' She said, 'You don't have to sign it--that's why they call it an involuntary extension of contract.' I'm like, 'Wait a minute. This is the United States of America. How can you have an involuntary extension of a contract?' I mean, I'm no lawyer, but a contract is a consensual agreement between two parties. So how can it be consensual and involuntary at the same time?"
The answer has to do with something the military calls "stop loss." "Basically what happens is when a unit is being mobilized, the guard puts the entire unit in 'stop loss,' which means no one in the unit can get out--everything is frozen," says Eric Schuller, a military-issues adviser to Lieutenant Governor Patrick Quinn. "In this case [Jimenez's] unit is being called up under an order of President Bush. The president can call up to 250,000 troops per national operation."
That means the president has the authority to mobilize tens of thousands of national guard troops for Operation Iraqi Freedom, which is what the Bush administration calls the conflict in Iraq. After they've served their 18 months in Iraq, those troops can then be redeployed to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. They can also be deployed to Operation Noble Eagle, which provides domestic security by guarding, among other things, airports and bridges.
Conceivably, a guardsman like Jimenez could be kept on continual duty. "In theory, yes, that could happen," says Schuller. "But in reality it would not."
Schuller says he's sure the recruiter broke no promises to Jimenez. "I can imagine the conversation," he says. "The recruiter probably told him the chances are slim that you'll go. He's right--that unit has never been called up before. In fact, there are several units of the guard that are being called up that have never been called up before. Under the old premise, things were safe. Under the new premise, everybody is fair game."
Because it's now engaged in conflicts on two fronts and there's no draft, the military needs just about every enlisted person it can find. "I suppose it's a matter of them needing bodies badly," says Jimenez. "I guess I was naive to believe anything they said. I should have known better."
Many of Jimenez's friends called to offer sympathy. Some suggested he sue the guard for violating the terms of its contract. Mark Weinberg, a lawyer and constitutional expert, thinks it would make an interesting case. "There is an issue regarding fair disclosure," he says. "Presumably there was something in the contract that says the guard claims the right to extend his contract whenever they want. But if they don't spell it out for him, if they keep it buried in the fine print, it's a kind of fraud."
Schuller says such a case wouldn't stand a chance: "No judge would allow it beyond the initial filing stage."
In any event, Jimenez says he won't sue. "I don't want to go to jail. I'm just SOL. None of this is working out the way I thought. They said I'd get electrical training, but I won't. They said I'd get out in August 2004, but I won't. They said I wouldn't go to Iraq, but I am. After all these years I'm back to square one--I'm a grunt. It's almost funny, except I'm not laughing."
In November he broke the news to his children. "I told them what I knew--that I'd be gone for at least a year," he says. "I've never seen them cry so much. Elias said, 'I don't want you to go to Iraq. I've seen on the news that they are sending soldiers there, and a lot of them are getting killed.' What could I tell him? He's smart--he figured it out."
A few days later he told his employers. They dedicated this year's holiday party to him and gave him a watch, engraved on the back with "Be Safe."
"Jesus is a great guy--a great success story," says Gary Ruderman, a principal with the firm. "It's going to be very hard to replace him. I don't think we will be able to. We're all going to pray for him."
On Sunday, January 4, Jimenez and about 300 other soldiers from his unit gathered at the Riverside base, where they'll be trained for a few weeks before being sent to Iraq. Dressed in battle fatigues, they stood in the middle of a large, dim hall jammed with family members and friends. The USO served coffee and pumpkin pie. A group of politicians and officials gave speeches. Schuller said the soldiers were "serving their country." A national guard official said they were "defending our freedoms." State treasurer Judy Baar Topinka said they "were all Illinois state treasurers" and they would never be forgotten.
After the speeches the soldiers had an hour to say their good-byes. Men cried. Mothers hugged their departing sons and daughters. Children hung on to their departing parents. The hour quickly passed. The politicians and state officials left. A few guardsmen began folding up chairs.
"Time to go," an MP bellowed.
One by one the soldiers walked up the stairway that led to their barracks. Jimenez was one of the last to leave. His children, still crying, clung to him. They exchanged a final hug. He kissed his wife and climbed the stairs.
"Good luck, Jesus," a friend called out.
Jimenez waved and vanished through the door.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.