By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
If Dreux Perkins' life were a movie, right about now the restaurant's sound system would cue up John Mellencamp's "Pink Houses."
It's not, but it does: "Ain't that America?"
His myriad trips to the casino, Perkins allows, were "basically an escape — a way to take my mind off everything," his decision to smuggle in cigarettes to an inmate, stupid. "I knew what I was doing was wrong," he says. "But gambling superseded the consequences."
Dreux Perkins (his first name is pronounced drew) graduated in Greenville High School's class of '04, an all-conference linebacker who led the Comets football squad in tackles senior year. In his spare time the happy-go-lucky teenager rode motorcycles and snowboards and hunted with his dad, a retired first sergeant for the army.
A year out of Greenville High, motivated by the September 11 terror attacks and ongoing wars in the Middle East, Perkins followed in his father's military footsteps. His first assignment sent him to Korea as a radio operator. By the time he was reassigned a year later, he had ten soldiers under him and spent his spare time as a volunteer teaching English to Korean children.
But Perkins had enlisted to fight a war, and he lobbied successfully for a transfer to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where the 101st Airborne Division — the venerated "Screaming Eagles" — was preparing for deployment to Baghdad. Training included overseeing "prisoners" at a mock Iraqi jail, where he and his comrades were taught to be firm, fair and consistent.
"After the unit landed in Baghdad in April 2008, Perkins assumed a communications role. When the young soldier made it clear that he wanted to be closer to the action, his leaders moved him to a VIP security detail, where he chauffeured top brass and other emissaries into and out of the Green Zone." His thirteen-man platoon managed a quartet of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected tanks, 40,000 pounds of bulletproof steel apiece. "Pretty soon [the tank] getting shot was, like, 'whatever,'" Perkins says with a shrug.
"Dreux Perkins was one of my finest junior NCOs. He served daily in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods of Baghdad," attests Capt. Josh Lyons, at the time a second lieutenant who led the platoon. He says he and Perkins occupied the same personnel carrier for about six months, during which they made 151 trips along the Baghdad Airport Road, better known as Route Irish. "Dreux was a great soldier with unlimited potential in the enlisted ranks."
When he said he could handle more, Lyons moved him from driver to gunner. Perkins directed his tank from its turret, where he was able to swivel 360 degrees and fire at insurgents on sniper towers and bridges. Documents from his case indicate that he performed above and beyond. Several months into Perkins' Baghdad tour, the army promoted him to E-5 sergeant. He'd already received several commendation and achievement medals. While on leave over Christmas in 2008, he traveled to Greenville and proposed to his then-girlfriend, Kelly Derrick.
But under the surface, Perkins was struggling. He'd absorbed painful shocks from roadside bombs; medical records indicate that on at least two occasions IEDs (improvised explosive devices) knocked him unconscious. He took the lives of several attackers, and others returned the favor, killing a handful of his buddies over the course of his deployment. Going on four years later, he says he's still haunted by images of flesh-splattered tanks rolling home to the base.
In Baghdad he found it increasingly difficult to transition from battlefield action, during which there was no time to think, to downtime at his housing unit in Camp Liberty, when bouts of boredom led to creeping doubts about the war's purpose.
There was, however, an antidote to the monotony: poker.
Perkins, who says he'd never gambled before, recalls anteing up for his first hand of Texas hold'em. What began as a once-a-week diversion escalated to a nightly routine, fueled by the buzz of energy drinks combined with wagering limits that ballooned to $200 a round. Every now and then, a fellow player's wife would ship over a care package with whiskey disguised as Mott's apple juice.
The U.S. Central Command had banned all forms of gambling in Iraq, and fraternizing with subordinates violates the government's Uniform Code of Military Justice; Perkins knew full well he was breaking the rules, but as long as they kept it to themselves, no one cared. "All that garrison crap goes out the window once you're in Iraq," he explains. When they sat down to play, he'd tell the soldiers around the table not to call him "Sergeant."
Every now and then, the level playing field at the card table bled onto the battlefield, and Perkins would find his authority questioned by a subordinate. But mostly poker provided a much-needed respite from the psychological toll of the war. Gambling with their money at night seemed a fair tradeoff for gambling with their lives by day.
"It was almost like a high," says Perkins. "That's all we looked forward to. Even out on missions, it was all we talked about — how we were going to play cards that night. It got to the point where sometimes we'd start at six and we wouldn't be done until three in the morning."