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.