NEW YORK — Jeans Cruz sits in a chair at the Nokia Theatre as M.I.A.'s "Paper Planes" blares through the speakers of the venue's PA system. He's an unassuming, stylishly dressed guy who smiles at passersby when his eyes meet theirs.
You wouldn't know it by looking at him, but Cruz — who has been out of the service for more than three years — was the man who pulled Saddam Hussein from the dark, narrow hole he'd been hiding in beneath a two-room mud shack on a sheep farm in Iraq.
"When we found the hole, it was covered by what looked like a cinder block, but it was actually made of foam," Cruz recalls, thinking back to December 13, 2003. "I was ordered to toss a flash grenade down into the hole, but I didn't want to. But it was my job — I had to do what I was told."
Looking down into the dark abyss, Cruz — who spent close to two years in Iraq — had no idea what was at the bottom. He feared there would be explosives, and worried the flash grenade — designed to daze and deafen a suspect — would ignite them, killing him and his unit.
"I threw it down there and kissed my ass goodbye," he says. "Then I went down into the hole, and the smell was horrible; there was a hole in the floor he had been using for a bathroom. Saddam had been down there for two straight weeks. When I got down there, he was holding an AK-47, so we handcuffed him and brought him to the surface."
When he returned home from service, he was heralded as a hero. But these days, he's hampered by debt, including medical costs.
As more young veterans pour into the venue for the taping of "A Night for Vets: An MTV Concert for the BRAVE" (which airs Friday, October 24 on MTV at 8 p.m. ET), the 27-year-old Bronx native gets up from his chair and grabs his cane; the former Army scout broke several bones in his foot while serving in Iraq but didn't seek medical attention for the fractures until he returned to the States, where he learned he'd need a number of surgeries to correct bones that had healed naturally but defectively.
His slight limp is the only visible wound Cruz sustained during his service, and it's perhaps the least of his worries. Like many young veterans, the soldier suffers from severe, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, and since his return from Iraq after being honorably discharged in 2004, Cruz has been having nightmares. He hears voices in his head, suffers from hallucinations and occasionally catches the smell of dried blood in his nostrils. Mental-health counselors have characterized him as depressed and anxious; he was discharged shortly after reenlisting because of a "personality disorder," and was diagnosed by a Department of Veterans Affairs psychologist as suffering from PTSD.
"There are lots of guys suffering from the same thing, but there is no cure," Cruz says. "But a lot of soldiers think they don't need medical attention, because they're hard-headed."
BRAVE, the Bill of Rights for American Veterans — a petition presented by MTV and several veterans' organizations that calls on the government to support vets' issues and enact positive legislative changes — was created for men like Cruz who have been denied disability benefits by Veterans Affairs (they claim he has not proven that he saw combat in Iraq, despite his combat awards). When he returned from duty, he was burdened with thousands of dollars of debt, was forced to move in with his parents and had trouble finding employment.
"The government needs to help veterans with their financial difficulties and help them find housing and work," Cruz says. "They need to make sure we have medical benefits from the get-go, so you have them when you get back. They need to prepare veterans and make them aware of what they'll need to do before they get back, because when I came back to New York, I was running around on my own, trying to figure it all out."
The soldiers MTV News spoke with Thursday — some of them clad in their military-issue fatigues — echoed Cruz's sentiments. Young veterans returning from combat are often left out in the cold and made to feel like castoffs by the government they worked so hard to protect.
Hector Delgado, 29, from Patchogue, New York, served in the Marines until 2003, when he was injured in a vehicle accident. "Being over there seemed surreal at first," he said. "But after a while, you become desensitized to the constant threat you face."
Delgado was crushed beneath a tank that had flipped over, and is now wheelchair-bound.
"I worked convoy security, and I suffered crushing injuries from the waist down," he said. "I severed nerves in my legs, and my pelvis is in pieces." These days, Delgado serves as an outreach worker for the Department of Veteran Affairs and visits military bases to publicize the counseling services available to soldiers. He feels there's much more the government can do to honor the service its soldiers so heroically provide.
"The government should make the process of attaining benefits and services easier, because it can be a rather bureaucratic process," he said. "They need to step up job placement for returning vets and make it easier for them to get an education. Everyone has a difficult time getting their GI Bill; it usually takes six months, so you end up laying the money out first for college. Some people can't wait that long, or can't front that bill. They make it sound easier than it is."
Ashley Robertson, a 21-year-old Air Force vet from Georgia who returned four months ago from Qatar, said she thinks veterans should receive more pay from the government, because "it's definitely a long work day. You're working 14 hours a day, six days a week." Her next tour's set for August 2009.
"I think [the BRAVE petition] is awesome, because a lot of times, I don't feel we get the respect we deserve, so it's good to come together for something like this," she said. "Still, I feel the government should provide us with better health care, a better quality of living. I came back to so many bills, and my house was just a mess. The government also needs to take care of our mental and financial well-being."
Air Force veteran Jerry McDougal, 27, from Alabama, spoke about the constant fears he faced while stationed in Baghdad; he returned to the states from his third tour in June, after a six-month deployment.
"It's real," he said, of being in the thick of a combat zone. "One day, you wake up and everything's fine. Ten minutes later, you hear sirens, people shouting, 'Incoming!' and you hear rockets coming in, and a mortar goes off 50 feet in front of you. It's real over there."
McDougal thinks that the government should take better care of soldiers' families while they're deployed, and increase pay for soldiers still serving, because "some of the stuff we do, if we did it on the outside, we'd be making $90,000 a year." He also thinks the government should maintain the same level of benefits for soldiers, regardless of whether a veteran is still active or retired. McDougal also advocates programs to help returning vets reacclimatize to civilian life, and would like the government to create more jobs specifically for veterans.
Louis Torres, 30, from the Bronx, New York, agrees. The Army vet, who's served time in Kuwait and Iraq since 2003, said it's hard for soldiers to return to the States after spending so much time in combat zones. "It was a different world over there, and you had to learn a new culture," he said. "And, while you wanted combat, once it hits you in the face, it's like, 'Damn, I have to do this for real.' You practice so much that, when you get to the real stage, you still get butterflies in your stomach, all the time."
Torres, who came under heavy fire in 2004 near the Tigris River as part of a convoy traveling from base to base, also contends the government could be doing more to support our troops.
"We need more money as reservists because when we come back here, we're not paid very well," he said. "They don't care about you if you're not on contract. Once you leave, they should help you find a job, and they cut your benefits. It's sort of like moving out of your parents' house ... the good times are over."
McDougal said he's urging everyone to sign the BRAVE petition and that he had a blast at "A Night for Vets." "We really appreciate MTV looking out for us, and I know the guys that are still over there appreciate it too," he said.
Don't miss "A Night for Vets: An MTV Concert for the BRAVE," presented by MTV's Choose or Lose campaign and CNN to support veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. The show features performances by 50 Cent, Ludacris, Kanye West, Hinder, Saving Abel and more, and airs tonight at 8 p.m. ET on MTV.