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This veteran survived Iraq but couldn’t beat heroin


When he returned from Iraq, Gregory Chapman couldn’t drive by roadside debris without shaking.

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At 19, he had been an Army Humvee driver during the time hundreds of Americans in Iraq were being killed and maimed by the roadside bombs called IEDs.

For 15 terror-filled hours a day, the boy who had loved music and writing stories in high school threaded his truck down dusty roads past debris that often hid the deadly makeshift weapons.

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On one trip, snipers shot out his tires, he told his mother, Corri Roberts. Gregory wrestled his truck to a stop just short of where an IED had been planted to blow up him and his crew.

“He had a lot of fight-or-flight trauma from his time there,” said Corri.

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He survived Iraq, but not his personal battles with the war’s aftermath.

Back home in southern Maryland, driving past piles of yard trash triggered his anxiety. “Please don’t kill me, please don’t kill me,” he would mutter to himself over and over, said Corri.

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He had enlisted to get away from a burgeoning drug culture in his hometown of Pomfret, Md., near the Potomac River.

“He wanted the structure of the military,” said Corri.

By the time he got out, he was an addict, she said, dependent on opiates prescribed for a back injury and anti-anxiety medications that were supposed to help his PTSD.

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Nothing helped him shake the nightmares punctuated with bouts of insomnia or the crippling depression. Nor could he quit the Percocet and Xanax that masked the trauma he found impossible to discuss.

“He didn’t like to talk about (his pain),” said his high school friend, Heather Atwell. “He didn’t want to bring anyone else around him down. He cared about what others were feeling; he always put himself second.”

Like hundreds of other addicts who have flooded into treatment centers and halfway houses in south Palm Beach County, Gregory came to Delray Beach, hoping to push restart on his young life.

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He was 26 in August 2015 when police found his body in a converted Delray Beach garage during a drug raid on his landlord’s property. Gregory became one of 216 people, three-fourths of whom were 40 or younger, who died from heroin- and fentanyl-related overdoses in Palm Beach County that year.

It was a Thursday. His mother said Gregory was supposed to enter treatment the following Monday.

***

His photograph sits by her bedside.

Whenever she’s tempted to use again, she looks at it and hears his voice.

“There’s more to life, Heather,” she remembers Gregory telling her. “More than our addiction.”

“The times I want to go out and die because I can’t stand to be in my own skin even 10 months clean, I think about Greg, about what he would want me to do,” said Atwell, who is recovering from her own heroin addiction.

The two of them grew up together in southern Maryland before becoming patients in several Delray Beach drug rehabilitation centers.

“He was always uplifting, always helping others,” she said.

But while he helped many friends, Gregory couldn’t help himself. His death left a huge hole in the hearts of his friends and family.

To Atwell, he was the supportive friend who coached her through the compulsive hell of addiction.

“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Greg,” she said.

For his mother, he was the boy who always put others first, the young man always there to help his friends, the son she had a premonition would die young.

“I had this thing where I thought he was not long for this world. I always kind of felt that way,” said Roberts. “But I always knew that he would impact peoples’ lives.”

Her Facebook photo includes a mother’s heartbreak carved into a lonely beach. “Miss U Son,” it reads.

Those who knew him say Gregory adored his large Italian family that included a half-brother and sister, as well as dozens of cousins, aunts, uncles, nieces and nephews.

For a long while, his recovery seemed to go well.

He was flourishing in an outpatient facility, said a letter his therapist wrote to Corri. He was reaching out to other people and volunteering at Big Dog Ranch, where he gravitated to the lovable, clumsy Labs, who reminded him of Kelly, the pit bull/Lab mix he left in Maryland.

Gregory began attending Calvary Chapel Church in Delray Beach with Jason, a friend he met in rehab, and Jason’s girlfriend, Nuria Williams.

“I hesitated at first, because I didn’t want to be involved with people who did drugs,” said Nuria. “But after being with (Gregory) one time, I figured out what kind of person he was. He was adorable, kind and an old soul. It was the three of us always together, for seven months before he died.”

One night, Nuria and Jason got a call. Greg had relapsed and was being kicked out of the halfway house. She and Jason picked him up just as he was taking multiple doses of clonazepam, an anti-anxiety drug.

“He had told me that outside the rehabs there are dealers waiting,” said Corri, “just hoping that this will be the day you fall.”

Nuria and Jason drove him to a detox center.

A few weeks later, he entered another treatment facility. There, he began a relationship with a woman fighting heroin addiction.

“He wanted someone to love, someone to support him, like Jason and I had,” said Nuria.

“Greg was always was drawn to wounded birds,” said his mother. “I think he tried to help her but instead he got pulled in.”

By August, Gregory and his girlfriend had relapsed. They were ordered to leave the treatment center.

While looking for a cheap apartment, Gregory insisted on one that would let him bring down his dog Kelly from Maryland.

They found a garage apartment in a sketchy Delray Beach neighborhood on Congress Avenue. Heather and Corri believe that, at first, Gregory didn’t realize that his new landlord, Alin Prophete, was dealing heroin.

On the streets of Delray Beach that summer, heroin had become cheaper and more available than pills. Stronger, too, since it was frequently laced with fetanyl, a powerful narcotic that’s 50 times more powerful than heroin.

In a police report, a witness describes Prophete boasting about addicts “blowing up his phone” with calls, after he began cutting his heroin with fetanyl to make it more potent.

“I don’t think (Greg) did anything like (using heroin) until he moved into that house,” another friend told police. (Prophete is in prison for selling and manufacturing the drug.)

“We went in there one night, and we were like, ‘Oh my God,’” said Nuria. “It was a terrible place, but they allowed dogs.”

Within days of moving in, Greg and his girlfriend flew to Maryland, driving Kelly home with them in a rental car.

“They were a mess,” Nuria recalled. “She looked like a drug head, and Gregory had never looked like that.”

Shortly afterward, the girlfriend nearly died from an overdose after buying heroin from their landlord, according to her statement to police. She said she usually injected the contents of three heroin capsules, but that time she had used only two of those augmented with fetanyl, according to the police report.

Greg visited her in the hospital every day.

Around that time, Gregory had become so desperately ill that he posted an photo online of a veteran holding a gun under his chin. His mother quickly realized it was a plea for help.

“I reached out to him right away, asking if he was OK,” said Corri. “He kind of hemmed and hawed, saying he had to get out of where he was living. That’s when he went to (a treatment program) to try to get a bed.”

Later that week, he was dead, four days before he was scheduled to enter rehab.

His system contained heroin, fetanyl and flakka, a designer drug that can cause hallucinations, paranoia and psychosis.

The only witness to his death was Kelly, the dog he loved.

More than a year after his death, Corri tries to find meaning in a life without her only child.

“A few days after he passed away, there was this voice inside me that said, ‘Mom, I didn’t think I was going to die.’ I know he had no idea what he was getting,” she said.

Kelly came to live with her in Maryland. In May, the dog was run over and killed by a car.

“It just destroyed me,” Corri said.

She counsels other parents who contact her about their own children’s heroin addictions. She explains that addiction isn’t a choice or a matter of lack of will power. It’s a brain disease.

She tries to counter the shame many families with an addicted child feel.

There’s no disgrace associated with diabetes or high blood pressure, she tells them. Why are we ashamed of our children addicted to heroin?

“I have to turn this into something good, because that’s what Gregory was,” she said. “I have to take what’s left of my life and do this for him.”


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