CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) – Retired Brigadier General Stanley Cherrie flew into machine gun fire, lost a leg to a landmine and directed tanks against Iraqi forces in his long Army career. When he walked into a reunion of top brass looking shaky and then collapsed, another side of his military life was revealed: years of hard drinking had grown into alcoholism that nearly killed him.
Cherrie’s breakdown in front of his comrades, who had gathered to mark the 20th anniversary of Operation Desert Storm, triggered his turn to rehabilitation from a habit that started a generation earlier. Now the man who commanded troops in Kuwait and Bosnia despite the prosthetic leg he got in Vietnam is sharing his story, in part as an example for a new cohort of soldiers coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I always knew I drank too much. In retrospect, I was the poster boy. If you wanted to build a functional alcoholic, you would follow my model,” said Cherrie, 69, speaking for the first time about his struggle.
The turning point came at a reunion of officers who planned Operation Desert Storm, the 1990 military campaign that ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s invading forces from Kuwait. Minutes after sitting down to eat, Cherrie collapsed at the table. The Army’s highest ranking doctor, Surgeon General Eric Schoomaker, was on hand and treated Cherrie before an ambulance whisked him to a nearby emergency room.
At the hospital, Cherrie’s daughter asked to speak to Schoomaker in private. Then she disclosed a family secret: Her father was an alcoholic, and years of drinking had taken a toll.
It was the beginning of Cherrie’s long journey back to sobriety from a thirst that began in Vietnam, where the young officer stepped on a land mine that blew apart his right leg, right hand and part of his left heel.
Despite the injury, Cherrie managed to stay in the military at a time when disabled soldiers were routinely discharged, working his way up the ranks to command troops in Desert Storm and later Bosnia.
As he comes to grips now with the pain he caused his family, he has another even more daunting challenge: caring for his wife, Mary Ellen, who is battling a degenerative arthritic condition. High school sweethearts, they have been married 46 years.
His fight for sobriety also helps illustrate a larger problem _ as troops return home from Iraq and Afghanistan, many have turned to alcohol to help relieve the pain.
Schoomaker, who headed the Army medical command from 2007 until December, says drinking remains a problem in the military, but there are efforts to change that. Three years ago, for example, the Army created a pilot program at six bases that allows soldiers to seek outpatient drug and alcohol treatment without telling their commanders.
“The culture has shifted dramatically, where alcohol use is openly discouraged in a public kind of way. But it’s not in any shape or form been eliminated,” he said.
For his part, Cherrie is using his experience to help others.
“I think Stan wants to get his story out because when he screws up he wants people to know it as a learning experience,” said his friend John Harris, a retired lieutenant colonel. “He’s not looking for sympathy. He’s not looking for notoriety. He’s looking at it as: `How can my story help someone (else) who is going through a similar situation.'”
Cherrie’s wife, Mary Ellen, first noticed her husband’s drinking after his first tour of duty in Vietnam.
A helicopter pilot, Cherrie seemed to encounter enemy fire on every mission, and won a Silver Star for taking out a .50 caliber enemy machine gun on top of a building during the Tet Offensive in January, 1968. After skirmishes, some soldiers would return to makeshift bases carved in the Vietnamese jungles and drink alcohol to unwind, Cherrie recalled.
It was a practice that continued when Cherrie returned from his deployment. At an Army base in Germany, Cherrie would sit around at night drinking with other pilots talking about firefights.
“They turned to alcohol for relief,” she said. “They were talking about everything they had just seen. And pilots were always called back. There was this great pressure: When am I going to be called back again?”
For Cherrie, the call came three years later and he returned to Vietnam in 1971. A month into his tour, Cherrie stepped on a landmine. He was transferred to the amputee ward of Valley Forge Veterans Hospital in Pennsylvania and thought he would be forced to leave the military because of his injuries.
Without the Army, Cherrie thought he would be lost. As a child, Cherrie played war games with friends in the fields surrounding his southern New Jersey home. He grew up in a staunchly patriotic community where everyone, including his father, told stories about serving in World War II. Even when Cherrie played baseball and football at Rutgers University, he thought about the military, participating in ROTC. When he graduated from Rutgers in 1964, he enlisted.
His hopes of staying in the Army were buoyed by Maj. Frederick Franks Jr., who visited the hospital and stopped by Cherrie’s bed to offer encouraging words. Cherrie later discovered that Franks’ left leg was amputated below the knee.
Cherrie was optimistic: If Franks could stay in the military and return to combat without a leg, he could do it, too.
Mary Ellen wasn’t sure about her husband’s decision. She was proud of his physical recovery, but knew he had to prove to the Army that he was still physically fit. Even with a prosthetic leg and mangled hand, he kept up, and was assigned to an infantry unit at Fort Benning, Ga.
But she could see changes in his personality. Yes, he was still the outgoing, charismatic officer. But he was drinking more and more, especially on weekends.
It was all part of the old military culture, his friend John Harris said.
“On Friday nights, you went to the officers’ club, and anytime you had a party it was centered around the consumption of large quantities of alcohol,” he said. “Some would perceive if you weren’t half drunk and raising hell and jumping off of tables and carrying on in the officers’ club, you didn’t have a `warrior spirit.'”
Mary Ellen said her husband never drank at work or did anything to interfere with his career.
“But at the officers’ club or home, it was a different story,” she said.
Cherrie was making all the right career moves. He graduated with master’s degree in public administration and landed a job on the staff of Frederick Franks, who by then was a lieutenant colonel on the fast track to becoming a general.
He used his experience in 1990, when Iraq invaded neighboring Kuwait, threatening the stability of the entire Middle East. Franks was one of the generals who helped draw up the plans to liberate Kuwait, and Cherrie, now a lieutenant colonel himself, was a key member of his staff.
After the war, Cherrie was promoted to brigadier general. Preparing to retire, Cherrie received a new mission: Help lead United Nations troops trying to keep peace in Bosnia. When that mission was complete, he retired near Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in 1998 after 34 years of service.
Cherrie was hired by Cubic, a defense contractor, and volunteered with community groups.
But his drinking began to spin out of control. After work, he would go out with friends. Other nights, he would sit at home and drink a pint or more of gin. Mary Ellen and other family members pleaded with him to stop.
By late 2010, Cherrie had left Cubic, and was contacted about the reunion of the VII Corps Desert Storm Veterans Association.
After Desert Storm, VII Corps was deactivated, and the unit’s colors were stored at Fort Leavenworth. Franks asked Cherrie to escort the colors to the February gathering.
Now 70, Mary Ellen couldn’t go because of her health, so Cherrie asked his daughter, Victoria Cherrie, to accompany him. He needed help, too, because his own health had been deteriorating.
A few days before he left, Cherrie decided he wouldn’t touch alcohol. Maybe that would help him feel better. But the morning of the event, he was shaky and dizzy. At a memorial service, his friends were shocked at his appearance.
“I had not seen Stan look that bad ever,” said retired Major Gen. Alan “Bud” Thrasher. “I said, `Stan, what in the world is going on?'”
Cherrie said he hadn’t been feeling well for a while. Thrasher told Cherrie he would ask Schoomaker, who lived at the base, to examine him.
And before dinner that night, Schoomaker talked to Cherrie in the lobby of the officers’ club.
“He looked like he suffered from a chronic illness of some kind,” Schoomaker said. “It wasn’t clear what kind.”
Schoomaker asked Cherrie if he regularly drank alcohol, but he denied it. He asked Cherrie to go to Walter Reed hospital the following day for an examination. Cherrie reluctantly agreed and returned to the ballroom.
About five minutes later, as the waiters were beginning to serve dinner, Cherrie collapsed, falling out of his chair. Victoria began screaming, and cradled his head on the floor as his faced turned purple.
When they reached the emergency room, Victoria turned to Schoomaker and asked to speak to him alone.
“My dad really hasn’t been explicit with you,” she said softly, and disclosed the details of his drinking.
Victoria’s confession set off a chain of events that led to Cherrie entering an alcohol treatment program.
At first Cherrie refused, and became defiant. He said he didn’t have an alcohol problem. He said he had to get back to take care of Mary Ellen. But then Schoomaker said the words that finally got through.
“Stan, you have a choice: You can go to rehab or you can take another drink and die.”
Victoria called her mother and told her the news. After all these years of pleading with Cherrie to stop drinking, he was headed to an eight-week inpatient alcoholic and drug rehabilitation program in Alabama.
Mary Ellen was thrilled about the treatment, and saddened because she knew collapsing in the room was one of the most embarrassing moments of his life. But it probably saved him.
The road to sobriety was difficult. After detoxification, Cherrie learned how his drinking had hurt his family over the years: how they had to walk on eggshells and how his wife had to protect their children because he could become combative at any time.
As part of the program, family members sent his counselor letters that Cherrie had to read aloud for the first time in a group therapy session.
In Victoria’s, she detailed the negative effects his alcoholism had on her life. His daughter, Jennifer, and his wife wrote similar letters. But his son Brian refused, saying if he had something to say to his father, he would do it in person.
“It was very difficult to hear these things,” said Cherrie, his voice trailing off.
He decided that if he made it through the program, he wasn’t going to hide his disease. He would talk to people about it. Maybe he could help someone who was thinking about seeking help.
Nearly a year later, Cherrie hasn’t had a drink.
The struggle hasn’t been made any easier with his wife’s illness.
For years, Mary Ellen doted on her husband. She moved from city to city with their growing family while he took new assignments. She raised their three children while he worked late.
Now, Cherrie spends a good part of his days taking care of her. He makes her tea in the morning and makes sure she’s comfortable.
Mary Ellen has noticed.
“He has been more tolerant. He certainly is waiting on me hand and foot. He really is. Probably too much,” she said.
She also understands why he’s sharing his story. It’s a continuation of something he’s been doing quietly for years: mentoring wounded soldiers, helping them get adjusted to civilian life.
“He has learned a lot and he can share that with other people,” Mary Ellen said. “If he can help young soldiers in that respect _ not to let anything get out of control _ he would be doing good work.”
For his part, Cherrie said he’s not sure why he drank so much, and refused to blame it on the Army or his injuries. Before the military, he rarely drank at all. Not even when he attended Rutgers and went to parties. But since his treatment, he has received positive feedback from friends.
“They say: `You did the right thing. You sought help.’ But hey, look … I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but when God nearly kills you and you have a seizure in front of 300 of your high-ranking best friends, it’s time to do something,” he said.
(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)