Twice Betrayed: Deported Vets Struggle to Belong

Editor’s Note: OLB invited writer, veteran and medic Jacob Thomas to document his work with veterans who have served in the U.S. military, but were subsequently deported to Mexico.

Many of the veterans talked about their American and military memorabilia, being moved by the national anthem, and referred to the United States as “home.”

There are true American patriots in the world. There are people who believe in the principals set forth by the founding fathers, believe in the inalienable rights of humans, and believe in the Constitution. There are people who believe so strongly in the idea of America that they have willingly defended it in the U.S. military, and say they would do it again in a heartbeat. Some of these people are not United States citizens, but they should be.

As soon as my feet thawed from Standing Rock, a fellow veteran I met  there invited me to tag along with him to Mexico, where he’d be interviewing deported U.S. veterans for the oral histories department of the Library of Congress. 
 “What do you mean, deported U.S. veterans?” I asked Alex.

“It’s exactly what it sounds like. United States military veterans, many veterans of combat, are being deported.”

I like to say I’m resistant to impulsiveness, but my initial reaction was to develop an elaborate plan to get these folks back home involving a three meter section of rope, two mopeds, three costume mustaches, a pen knife, a forged document from the Department of Homeland Security and a large baby stroller. In my mind, the plan played out like The Great Escape, except with a happier ending.

Alex laughed and said that it was a little more complicated than that, but pretty close. I calmed myself out of my preliminary Aww Hell No! state of mind and decided it would be best to go down and talk to as many people as I could to see what exactly was going on.

Crossing the border into Mexico is painfully easy. Just hop in your rental car and drive south. Cruise down the 5 until you get to the border. A little robot takes your picture as you cross, and just like that you’re in Mexico. Crossing that imaginary line the other way? People die trying. Billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars ensure people die trying to cross that line.

I am picked up by Alex, the founder of the Veterans Action Coordinating Committee, at the San Diego airport. Within an hour of leaving the airport, we cross the border into Tijuana and drive around for awhile. I think Alex is playing tour guide, showing me the sights, but then I realize he’s just lost. My introduction to the city is garnished with intermittent Spanish cuss words muttered by Alex. He doesn’t speak Spanish, but he knows a few palabras. At some point, he shows me where a guy was ‘just domed in broad daylight.’ The departed had been messing with some bad guys, apparently, but we are fine, he assures me. Something inside me doubts that.

Alex and I get to the Deported Veterans Support House pretty late. Hector stumbles to the door to let us in. It feels like a homeless shelter run by its own guests. Hector started the support house after he was deported, and found he had nowhere to go in Tijuana. This is the way the deportation process commonly goes:

1) Get arrested for something.
2) Go to jail.
3) Complete your sentence.
4) Get picked up by Homeland Security.
5) Spend anywhere from 1 hour to 1 year in a holding facility
6) Get thrown in a van.
7) Get driven to the Mexican border in the middle of the night. A gate opens.
8) Get pushed through the gate.
9) The gate closes.

Armando was born in Panama, served all over the world in the U.S. Marines, and now lives in Mexico to be closer to family in the United States.

Many of these US veterans have no family in Mexico, no friends, no one to pick them up in Tijuana. This is because they’ve lived in the United States their entire lives. All of them were brought to the U.S. by someone in their family as infants or young children. They are literally tossed through the fence with nothing but the clothes on their backs and left to fend for themselves. Hector saw some injustice in this and set out to create a place for deportees to regroup in their new life.

Here at the support house, affectionately referred to as The Bunker, a 71 year old Vietnam veteran, Mario, quietly shuffles around all day. He is shy and reserved, but it looks like resignation. He is constantly moving from one menial task to another. He cleans the kitchen, makes coffee, sweeps the sidewalk. He sits in an unused wheelchair and looks out the front door.

The Deported Veterans Support House is the cleanest edificio in Tijuana, thanks to Mario and the others. Its sidewalks are the only ones without piles of basura, its gutters the only ones without standing puddles of caca. Inside, there are milk-crate lockers with names of each deported veteran, holding items like a towel, a bag of chips, and a pair of socks until the next time they stop by. A crate with sketchy penmanship indicates “Rodriguez, US NAVY,” and in it is a sole bottle of hot sauce. There are piles of military memorabilia all over: a tattered U.S. flag, a laundry bag of old uniforms, stacks of military books like The Art of War and We Were Soldiers Once. A pair of dress blues lies nearby, with shiny badges and neatly aligned ribbons. It is seldom worn, but still meticulously cared for each day. I feel like I’m in one of my Army buddy’s man caves back home, except here there’s a strange feeling of deployment and danger, hanging over everything.

Every morning Alex and I go get street tacos. The food carts are simply amazing. Hands down, they serve up some of the best food I’ve ever had in my life. Those pickled cebollas… not sure what they are, but I’m in love with them! Everywhere Alex and I go, we get these strong looks like,  “What the heck is this gringo doing here?” I’m not sure if there is a nice part of Tijuana. There might be, but I know I am not in it. We go interview our first deported veteran who lives across town. As soon as we get there, about nine or ten in the morning, he pours himself a tall glass of gut-rot tequila. This makes Alex nervous, but I assure him it’s just liquid courage. The man almost immediately starts weeping uncontrollably. He says all he wants is to go home. He says he’s not sure where he belongs because the country he loves kicked him out, and the country he was born in doesn’t want him. His Mexican neighbors and friends make fun of him for being a deportee. They say he’s stupid for serving a country that threw him to the street like basura.

I get back to The Bunker and Mario greets me. We talk for a long time, and he tells me a story about when he was in the central highlands of Vietnam. He awoke one morning and his entire patrol was staring at him. Everyone in his platoon was going crazy, because Private Mario was in his sleeping bag and covered in blood. Private Mario was paralyzed with fear. He had no idea what he was bleeding from, but his face was drenched in his own blood. As he tells me the story, he rubs his face with his leathery hands and looks at them, he looks up at me and smiles, “Leeches,” he says. He laughs for a long time. Just like many veterans, his war stories don’t involve actual combat even though he has been in countless firefights, the stories revolve around little stories of camaraderie and dumb luck and daily life.

Mario was drafted into the U.S. Army where he served with the 4th ID. He did his tour in Vietnam, was honorably discharged and never talked to anyone from his unit again. He has never stepped foot in a V.A. Hospital. I got out of the army six years ago and I am still seeing a head shrinker at the V.A. I talk to guys I deployed with almost every day. It has been instrumental for my personal reintegration into society and deescalation of my personal violence. I believe Mario when he says that he slept next to his bed on the floor for 25 years, but is unsure why. He was homeless right after Vietnam, mostly because of the attitude Americans had of veterans at the time and his inability to find work. Mario was deported as a 61 year old, and has been homeless for the last ten years in Mexico. He works on construction sites, sweeping, cleaning up and doing little chores and sleeps at the site at night. Mario still refers to the U.S. as home, he lived here for 54 years, and says he would join the military again if he could do it all over.

The sentiments in all the interviews are similar. Every man calls the U.S. home. Every man feels like an American. Every man is unsure why he’s still getting punished for a crime for which he already paid his debt to society.

And that’s how it was. Their crimes varied, but they were uniformly a result of addiction or mental illness incurred or exacerbated by war. Two guys were deported because they lost their wallets. Alcohol and drug use were common. But those habits, coping mechanisms really, are all too common in the active duty military as well. As they are all talking, unpacking and unloading their deeply emotional histories in front of my recorder, all I can think is, “I have been arrested more times than most of these guys.” They each say something that hits such a deep personal chord inside me that I too, weep.

“I drink because I keep seeing the war in front of my open eyes.”

“You just start going and before you know it, your entire life has slipped out of your control.”

“When they say they support us, they put a sticker on their car, but they don’t listen to us.”

“I did bad things, but I’m not a bad person.”

“I was just a kid.”

While we are interviewing Mauricio, I can barely hold the camera anymore, because although we’re so incredibly different, I feel like he’s telling my personal story. I never ask him what crime he initially committed to get deported because I don’t care. We broke it, we buy it. He is an American, he is a soldier, and he deserves every right that all American soldiers deserve—like access to mental healthcare. While interviewing Augie, I’m asked who is more American, he who was born in Mexico and drafted and served, or the guy who was born in the U.S. and was drafted and then spent a few years in Canada or college, avoiding service. While interviewing Andy, I realize that these guys have been abandoned twice, twice left with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their own devices. Once after Vietnam—or Iraq—and once at the Mexican border. While interviewing Edwardo, I am told that he gets teary-eyed every time the national anthem is played. I personally have never gotten teary-eyed when the national anthem is played. I personally am very critical of my country of origin, sometimes fairly, sometimes unfairly. These guys are not. They really are true American patriots, forced to live south of the border.

As Americans, we are living inside a political world that seems intent on perverting our national identity and corrupting it into xenophobic nationalism. There are a lot of lines being drawn between “real Americans” and people who aren’t American enough. The ridiculousness of this is too much to handle. The easy verbiage we all fall into using highlights this stupidity: America isn’t even a country, it’s a land mass composed of two whole continents.

Jose lives alone, rarely leaving his apartment. His Spanish is poor and he fears the violence of his current neighborhood of Tijuana, Mexico

Our last interview is with Jose. He wants to be with his family. That’s all he wants. He’s an old man. He’s about to die, he knows this, and all he wants is his family. He says his biggest fear is dying alone in his little apartment and no one knowing that he’s died. I can’t help but feel like a massive turd. I want more deshebrada-style tacos, another ice cold real-sugar Coke in a glass bottle, I want a good round of pinball, I want to go home and have a beer with my friends. I don’t deserve any of those things. I am an American by birthright and I take it for granted every day. I have my struggles with alcohol and violence. But since I just happened to be born in a tiny north-woods hospital in Wisconsin, I’m looked at as a troubled veteran. Mauricio has gotten in legal trouble less frequently than I have, but he’s looked at as a foreigner, a liability, a criminal… I’m telling you, he’s more of a patriot than I am. Our nativist policy is the criminal.

Look at it like this: I value choice over inheritance. If someone chooses a lifestyle or affiliation, I know they actually think about it, question their situation, seek out a better one, and work to achieve that new reality. There are some religions that value converts more than inborn members for this reason. They look at a convert’s faith as the strongest because they consciously choose their faith. I am surprised that in a country which values freedom of choice as much as The United States does, that this same view is not adopted regarding immigrants. I look at immigrants as the true patriots, true citizens, because they choose America over any other country in the world. I was just born here.

After another long, emotionally draining day of interviews, I get back to The Bunker and again I am greeted by Mario. He is slowly sweeping the sidewalk. He has to stoop because the broom is broken and the shaft is short. He leans the broom against the wall, stands upright and shakes my hand. He smiles as he says hello and asks me how my day was.


For more about the Veteran Action Coordinating Committee and The Deported Veteran Support House visit these links: