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Street Soldier

Ex-marine brings his skills to the west Baltimore drug trade

Photo: Josh Sisk, License: N/A

Josh Sisk

Photo: Matt Kelley, License: N/A

Matt Kelley

Redhouse’s dress uniform includes five ribbons, two of which have stars indicating his two tours. Below is a badge with two crossed M1903 Springfield rifles and the words “RIFLE EXPERT”—plus a bag of cocaine he’s added to represent his latest campaign.

*Names have been changed.


There’s a shotgun resting behind a chair in the disheveled front room of a West Baltimore rowhouse. The smell of stale beer saturates the stagnant air, and a light film of cigarette ash coats every surface.

It’s noon, and Jim Redhouse* has just woken up. “Sorry for the mess,” he says, stumbling around wearing only boxer shorts. “A friend of mine recently died and I haven’t had a chance to clean up from all the partying we’ve been doing because of it.” He’s a tall, broad-shouldered man in his mid-20s with a dark complexion.

A pack of about 100 stamp-sized plastic bags sits on the coffee table. Soon they’ll all be filled with varying amounts of cocaine, stuffed into empty cigarette packs, and sold in bars and parties throughout the city.

“The money is just so fast in this game,” Redhouse says. He throws on a sleeveless T-shirt and faded shorts and heads into my truck. We’re off to Howard County, where he grew up, to visit his mom.

“I’m efficient and militant about what I do,” he says of dealing drugs. “I think that’s why I’ve never had any trouble.”

When Redhouse says he’s militant about selling drugs, he doesn’t just mean that he does it in a regimented or orderly way; he means he does it as things are done in the military. He didn’t learn his skills on the streets of Baltimore—but on the streets of Fallujah, Iraq, as a U.S. Marine,.

By the time he was 22, Redhouse had already completed two tours of duty and experienced more death and chaos than most people are likely to see in their entire lives. Many Americans would consider him a hero for the dangerous work he did in Iraq. Many would consider him a criminal for the dangerous work he does now that he’s back home.

The two professions may seem contradictory, but for many Americans living below the poverty line, they aren’t very different. Both involve putting one’s life in danger, and both are a potential escape from poverty.

“You have to remember: Half the people in the military join because they don’t have anything—they’re broke,” says Redhouse. “I didn’t really see a lot of rich people joining or serving while I was there. It’s America’s slums doing the majority of the fighting.”

Heading south on I-95, Redhouse gulps down a large Gatorade he picked up just before leaving Baltimore, then exhales and groans in a way that makes it hard to discern whether the dose of electrolytes helped or made things worse.

“Do you mind if we stop at a bar at some point, man?” he says. “Had a rough night.”

Less than eight hours ago, Redhouse was still working. Hangovers come with the job when your office is wherever the hardest partying is taking place and your propensity for alcohol consumption is equal to or greater than that of your clients.

On this day, it doesn’t help that we’re headed to see Redhouse’s mother. Earlier this year, he made the same trip, only under much direr circumstances, after receiving a shocking call from his older brother John*.

John works as a promoter for clubs and venues in Washington, D.C. As a result, he regularly handles large sums of money for events. One day, word got out that he had $30,000 in funds for an upcoming party. Some time later, two men armed with AK47s followed John home one night, looking to rob him. They held him at gunpoint as they walked in the door. They demanded the $30,000, then pointed a gun at his wife and infant daughter, who were also at home. But the money they were after was transferred to John electronically, and he only had $1,600 in the house. Unsatisfied, they said that they knew his mother’s address and threatened to kill her if he didn’t come up with the rest of the money.

“After talking to my brother, I called my friend Mike and asked if he could sit at my mom’s house with his gun until I got there,” Redhouse says. He then grabbed a pistol and a 12-gauge pump-action shotgun, jumped in his car, and sped toward his mother’s house. For the next three days, he guarded the home, just in case the gunmen followed through on their threat. On the third day, his brother called telling him that the situation had been taken care of. John wouldn’t say how. Redhouse didn’t pry.

Redhouse’s mother speaks of the incident in a nonchalant way, almost ignoring the fact that her life was threatened. She focuses on the reality that her son was willfully putting himself between her and danger and how upset she was that he was in that position.

“I don’t ever want it to come to a point where he would ever have to defend us,” she says. “We are kind of opposite. He is a soldier. I am the kind of person who takes care of the wounded.”

Redhouse blames his brother for the whole mess.

“I love my brother,” Redhouse says. “But he portrays himself like a gangster. He’s going to run into some shady people and get into trouble if he rolls like that.” Redhouse left the pistol at his mother’s home in case a similar situation was ever to occur. He also taught his mother how to hold a shotgun, use a pistol, and employ other close-quarters combat tactics he had learned while in the military.

Redhouse and his family are originally from the Caribbean. “It’s the fucking third world,” he says. “I remember living in a shed. We had one bed, and it was me, my brother, my mom, and my dad.”

Tired of raising their family in poverty, his parents packed up what few belongings they had and boarded a plane for New York, in search of the American dream. Redhouse was 6 years old. They moved up and down the East Coast for their first five years in America, positioning themselves closer to family that had already immigrated or chasing better jobs and schools. Eventually, they settled in Howard County.

Even at a young age, violence and drugs found their way into Redhouse’s life. When he was 12, he and his brother were both placed in anger management.

“They monitored me all through high school,” he says. “I got in a lot of trouble.” Once, he got in trouble for burning a kid’s arm and was eventually expelled, forcing him to transfer. By the end of sophomore year, he had decided that traditional education wasn’t for him and, when he turned 16, he dropped out.

“I taught myself a certain way,” he explains. “I read a lot of books. I did what I needed to enrich my life.”

Once out of school, Redhouse “went off the deep end,” as he puts it, getting into more fights and developing a drug and alcohol addiction. He’d use almost any drug that was put in front of him, and by the time he was 17, he had acquired a taste for heroin.

“It was pretty rough on me,” he says. His troubles came to a head when, at 17, he was arrested for a DUI. In court, the judge allowed him the option of joining the military in exchange for dropping the charges. He took the offer.

Redhouse’s accession into the armed forces is not a rarity. According to a report released by the Pentagon in Feb. 2007, between 2003 and 2006, when U.S. operations in Iraq were at their peak, the Marine Corps issued about 20,000 “moral waivers” per year—about 10 percent of all active-duty Marines—allowing citizens with convictions, who would otherwise be ineligible, to enlist. This doesn’t take into account people like Redhouse, who enlisted to avoid a conviction.

Basic training was difficult for Redhouse—not because of the intense physical demands, but because of the psychological conditioning he was subjected to.

“I’m not a fucking idiot,” he says. “They give you all these drill sergeants that try to break you down and make you feel like a complete piece of shit.” Once recruits are adequately broken, drill sergeants try to instill in them the Marine Corps ethic. Things like “every Marine is a rifleman,” honor, and pride. They gave him new role models, like Chesty Puller, history’s most decorated Marine, and World War II Gunnery Sergeant John Basilone, known for his heroics during the battle of Iwo Jima. But none of the patriotic rhetoric or tales of extreme acts of bravery mattered much to Redhouse. He was there for his own reasons.

In 2006, at the age of 19, Redhouse went on his first deployment.

“It was shit,” he says. “I had to shoot people. It was fucking intense.”

He has a videotape of a person he killed. Redhouse says lots of Marines have videos of their kills. To them, he says, it’s like porn. When a Marine sees videos of other soldiers “getting theirs,” it makes them want to go out and kill even more, as if it were some kind of macabre show-and-tell. You can find these videos on YouTube, often set to songs by bands like Drowning Pool or Godsmack. Redhouse’s video had no such music.

During his first full-scale firefight, there were 20 or 30 people entrenched across a river, shooting mortars at his unit, doing what’s called “walking the target.” They fire one round and see where it lands. Then they begin honing in on the Marines in small increments at a rapid pace.

“All you hear is this thump, thump, thump, and then the sound of whistling as they fly through the air before blowing up. We called it whistling death,” he says. “In that mission, we had somewhere around 18 casualties, but no fatalities. We killed 20-something people that day.”

Redhouse tells me about one of his kills.

“I was looking through my scope, and this dude jumps up on a pump house, which is like this little irrigation shack, and he’s just shooting like this.” He flails his arms like he’s holding a fire hose he can’t control. “He was yelling. I remember looking at him and thinking, What the fuck is he doing? But one of those bullets could hit one of my friends, so I—” he cuts himself off and lifts his hands, miming holding a rifle steady, then he mimics the sound of three shots being fired. By the tone in his voice, you can tell that he only regrets that the man he had killed was stupid enough to jump up on a roof in the middle of a battle.

At his mother’s home, Redhouse looks through an old suitcase in search of his uniform, finding old clothes, a pair of nun-chucks, and his old shooting log: records of time spent at the shooting range. There are small targets in the center of the page with pen marks showing where shots landed. There isn’t a single day where he strayed far from his target. On the left side of the page are notes on wind speed and weather conditions. Below that, it lists what he was thinking about while shooting. Most days he wrote “godson,” meaning his nephew. Other times, he wrote things like Natty Boh, booze, or strippers. On one day of exceptional shooting, it reads, “butts, girls, butts.”

Heading into his first deployment, Redhouse was no more than a typical grunt, but by the time he had finished that tour, he was known as the best shot in his unit. As a result, he was selected for special training to become a designated marksman. He was told to select a group of five Marines that he would command, executing missions in what’s called a “fist team.”

“I was in charge of protecting Marines’ lives and deciding who gets to live or die,” he says. Before his redeployment, the mother of one of his men came up to him and asked if he could promise to bring her son back alive. He says he couldn’t promise her that. “We’re going to war,” he told her. “I’ll try my darndest to bring him back. I’m gonna fucking protect him.” Her son made it home safe.

In 2008, Redhouse left for his second deployment. He would once again return to Fallujah. By now, Allied forces had begun the arduous process of handing over control of the city to Iraqi forces.

“Our base was enclosed with an Iraqi base, which was a really risky thing to do,” he says. “Anyone can join the military in Iraq. It’s how a lot of terrorists infiltrate.”

His distrust wasn’t unsubstantiated. In October, 2004, interim Prime Minister of Iraq Ayad Allawi told The New York Times that as many as 5 percent of Iraqi forces were either insurgents or sympathizers. Regardless, he was going to have to work with them. He would be conducting operations just as before; only now, Iraqi soldiers and police officers accompanied him, “so people in Fallujah feel like Iraqis are taking over, and it’s not us conducting everything,” he explains.

Upstairs, Redhouse finds his uniform. On it are ribbons representing the campaigns he took part in and honors he’s received. There are five ribbons, two of which have stars indicating the two tours he’s completed. Below his ribbons is a badge that has two M1903 Springfield rifles crossed in front of a wreath with the words “RIFLE EXPERT” above it. He’s pretty sure he’s eligible for more honors but isn’t motivated to find out. He never wears his uniform anyway and finds the fact that he has to purchase the awards himself repugnant.

He collects his items—the nun-chucks, his shooting log, his dress uniform, and an old pair of camouflage pants, soon to become cut-off shorts. As we’re leaving, his mother gives him a lecture about not calling or visiting enough. I interject and tell her that I can vouch for the fact that his phone has been disconnected for the past two weeks. She tells me this problem has been going on longer than that. We say goodbye and get back into my truck.

He tells me he has no regrets about joining the military and going to war. “It’s something I needed to do,” he says. “God knows where I would be right now had I not done it.” He believes it made him a stabler person.

After returning to the U.S., Redhouse was homeless for seven or eight months, couch-hopping and sleeping outside. According to a 2009 report conducted by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, he was one of 136,334 people who self-identified as homeless veterans that year, meaning one out of every 168 veterans was homeless at that time. In fact, soldiers have a higher likelihood of becoming homeless after leaving the military than they did of being killed while serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Homelessness didn’t bother him though. He says he still returns to the lifestyle every now and again, even though he has a house.

Redhouse directs me to a local bar where he used to drink, only to find that it wouldn’t be open for another hour. Instead, he buys a six-pack of hard cider from the liquor store next door. As we pull out of the parking lot, he opens a bottle and starts drinking, finally getting some relief for his hangover.

Driving home, Redhouse tells me that he’s actually a very nice drug dealer. He only sells to people he knows, and if someone looks too wasted, he cuts that person off.

“I’m like the parents that let teenagers drink in the basement,” he says. “If they are going to be doing drugs, it’s better they get [them] from me than by running and risking interactions with dangerous people . . . like cops.”

He says that given the number of Americans dying from obesity as a result of eating fast food, it’s hypocritical to vilify what he does. He says he doesn’t sell much and has no intention of selling more. “I don’t want to be greedy,” Redhouse says. “I just want to make enough to get by.”

It’s not his only source of income either. He also works a full-time job as a cook and collects disability from the government for post-traumatic stress disorder. But the job is only enough to pay the bills, and he’s been giving his disability checks to his mom ever since his father lost his job. “I do it to take care of my family,” he says.

If he could find a safer way to get by, he would. But the odds aren’t in his favor. Recently, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs reported a slow decline in unemployment among Gulf War II-era veterans over the last two and a half years, with unemployment, down from 12 percent in Jan. ’10, currently at 9.5 percent—still well above the national unemployment rate of 8.2 percent. This means that while recruiters promise careers and adventure, what young men and women are really signing up for is a statistically proven higher likelihood of becoming unemployed, homeless, and/or suffering from possible mental illness after service.

Redhouse knows that some Marines would look down on the lifestyle he’s chosen, but he thinks that there’s also an equal number of Marines that wouldn’t care.

He says he has friends he’s served with that are getting by the exact same way. He tells me that, for them, it’s about surviving.

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