View Full Version : 'Hood to Battlefield'

07-26-04, 06:26 AM
'Young punk' goes from 'hood to battlefield

July 25, 2004

BY FRANK MAIN Crime Reporter

A career in the U.S. Marines seemed a world away when Dennis Medina was growing up in an apartment over Club Verde Lounge.

His dad managed the seedy Northwest Side bar -- the kind of place where a patron was shot to death after stepping on a stranger's boots and failing to say "Sorry" in Spanish.

Medina's parents were too busy serving the roughest hombres in their Logan Square neighborhood to offer much guidance to their son. He didn't find much direction on the streets, either.

Medina was jailed on his birthday for using a friend's train pass. He was convicted for possessing a small amount of pot. And he was arrested for punching a man in the face.

He never joined a gang, but his friends did, and he was often a step away from violence. He was 13 when he watched a teenage gang member jump off a bike and shoot a visiting New York boy in the head in the schoolyard. It was a case of mistaken identity.

His best friend, Phillip Ortiz, joined the Maniac Latin Disciples to avenge the death of his cousin from New York, only to suffer the same fate in 1998, Medina said.

But community reformer Larry Ligas saw past the young man's aimlessness and his scrapes with the cops. He said he grabbed the "young punk" by the shoulders and shook him to get him to think about a better life outside his block at Fullerton and Spaulding.

It worked.

Now Medina is a combat-tested corporal in the Marines and is setting his sights on a police career. He credits Ligas' cajoling, and Ortiz's slaying, with kindling his desire to find success outside the neighborhood.

"I couldn't stand that Phillip died," said Medina, adding that most of his pals have wound up in jail or dead. "I had to get out."

On his own

Medina, 29, was born in Brooklyn, N.Y. His family, originally from Puerto Rico, moved to Chicago, where the opportunities seemed better.

Life didn't turn out to be so easy here, either.

His father was a heavy drinker, and his parents had a difficult time making ends meet.

"He was kind of on his own," said an aunt, Nilda Roman.

Medina hung out with gang-bangers and ignored school. Ligas, chairman of Logan Square Concerned Citizens, met Medina after matching him to a photo of a carload of young men he suspected in a shooting.

"The guy was not an angel," Ligas said. "He had police problems. But he was not a gang-banger. He was not a murderer."

Medina, listed as being 5 feet 11 inches tall and weighing 210 pounds in an arrest report, was as tough as the 3300 block of West Fullerton where he lived.

"I got shot at as early as 10 years old," Medina said. "You learned to defend yourself when you were very young."

When he was 11, a Latin Kings gang member swiped a pair of gym shoes from him because they were the wrong color.

"They were blue-and-black Pumas. I was at a bodega playing an arcade game, and this guy pulled them off my feet."

The Maniac Latin Disciples wore blue-and-black colors, while their rivals -- the Latin Kings -- wore black and yellow.

The distractions of the street prevented Medina from graduating from Clemente High School. When he met Ligas in the mid-1990s, he was at a dead end.

"Many doors were closed because I didn't get my high school diploma," he said.

'Had persistence to be a Marine'

Ligas persuaded him to earn a General Equivalency Degree, and "things began to open up for me," Medina said. With a GED, he got into Northern Illinois University in DeKalb and founded a chapter of Omega Delta fraternity.

In college, he also met his future wife, Jessica. And he met a Marine recruiter, Jeffrey Jaeckle.

The Army did not want to deal with Medina because of his police record. But Jaeckle, a Marine gunnery sergeant in Racine, Wis., decided to gamble on Medina.

"It would have been really easy for him to quit and say the 'hood is better for me, but he kept working two to three jobs to pay his way through school," Jaeckle said. "That kind of determination gave me the proof he had the persistence to be a Marine."

Medina got a waiver for his criminal background and was accepted to boot camp. He quit college to achieve his dream of becoming a Marine. But there was still a problem: He was fat.

So Jaeckle exercised with Medina, and he dropped 20 pounds before he shipped out in November 1999.

He lost another 10 pounds in boot camp. He went from 194 pounds to 159.

"His girlfriend didn't recognize him when he came home," Jaeckle said, chuckling.

Medina was in the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit that entered Iraq eight days after the initial invasion March 20, 2003. He says he engaged in combat after arriving in the northern city of Mosul.

"We were trying to stop the Iraqi Republican Guard from fleeing into Syria," said Medina, who is based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., a community of 25,000 battle-hardened leathernecks.

After the fighting, Medina flew home and learned that his mother, Sonia, was dying of cancer. He took a leave of absence and stayed with her for three months until she died.

"He was with his mother 24/7," said his aunt. His father, Florentino "Junior" Medina, died in 1998.

Over his four-year career, Medina has been promoted to corporal and has been awarded six medals and ribbons. He hopes for a promotion this year to sergeant.

"He is a role model not only for inner-city kids but those guys who grew up in the suburbs and had everything given to them," Jaeckle said.

Past still haunting him

Medina said he wants to set up a Young Marines program here to raise interest in his branch of the service. On leave here earlier this month, he chatted with kids in his old neighborhood, urging them to aim for the military.

He also told them he is trying to take another step in his life: Medina -- whose 2-year-old son is named after his friend Phillip -- wants to become a cop. Again, his criminal record is getting in the way.

Brimming with hope, Medina interviewed last week with the police department in the retirement town of Largo, Fla. His wife's family lives nearby, and he knows ex-Marines on the force.

The interview did not go well. He was told he was unqualified because of his criminal record.

"They said I don't have the moral character to be an officer," he said. "It's disappointing. I have done as much as I could in seven to eight years to get away from my past, but it is haunting me."

Other departments might be willing to give him a chance. In Chicago, a drug arrest in the last five years would be a problem. But his two misdemeanor convictions were in the 1980s. "There might be some flexibility there," said Chicago Police spokesman David Bayless.

Ligas is still confident Medina will become a cop if that is what he wants to do. Until then, Medina can excel as a Marine.

"I took a risk with Dennis Medina," said Ligas as he stood outside a pawn shop and tattoo parlor that occupy the space where Club Verde once rollicked.

"The kid has not let me down once."