On Sunday, April 23, I had the honor to ride alongside Mr. Jan Ruhman, a United States’ Marine Corps Veteran who served during the Vietnam War, on the drive South of San Diego to the US/Mexican border at Tijuana. Crossing the border in Jan’s Ford Ranger, a speed bump was the only thing in our way, but for Jan’s friends and the United States veterans that I would soon meet, they would never again be allowed to cross the border and return home to the United States. They’ve been permanently banished from the same country they swore to serve and defend.
When I first heard that the United States deports its own veterans I was shocked. (Honestly, not that shocked, because the US often operates on backhanded deals.) Knowing the familial and unconditional bonds that are formed between servicemen and women which continue long after their service has ended, even among veterans who haven’t met before, I was surprised that this policy is so underreported. Where is the outrage? Lance Cpl. Daniel Torres, who served as an infantryman in the First Battalion, 7th Regiment in Iraq, and just recently became a U.S. citizen after five years of exile in Mexico, calls the policy “shameful, unjust and un-American.” He writes in the Winter 2017 edition of the National Veterans Magazine, “When you join the US Marine Corps, you are taught to ‘leave no man behind.’ I lived and breathed those words… These days, however, that maxim holds a very different meaning.”
I traveled with Jan to learn and see for myself what was happening to these veterans, why there is extremely little coverage of this issue, and what can be done about it. Our first stop in Tijuana was the Deported Veterans Support House, affectionately known as “The Bunker.” The windows and door to the building were draped in American flags and the flag of the American organization Veterans for Peace, which also includes chapters in Rosarito/Ensenada and Mexicali, Mexico.
The Deported Veterans Support House was started in 2013 by Hector Barajas, a former Army paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne, who was also deported. The Support House began when Barajas started meeting homeless deported US veterans in Tijuana and let them crash at his apartment. The Bunker now operates out of a small office to provide basic needs and support to deported veterans until they can support themselves. Above the office there are three small rooms. One serves as a kitchen, and another holds three tidily kept cots for veterans to sleep on. The third room is reserved for female veterans to stay in. Any donations of food or toiletries are divided up between the veterans who are staying at The Bunker or those who are transitioning to their own place but might still need support getting on their feet. The walls of The Bunker are decorated with symbols of American pride. Pictures of the veteran’s service and men in dress blues hang on the walls next to a framed picture of JFK and homemade Christmas cards.
After we left, Jan explained to me that the older man I had met inside had received two Bronze stars for his “heroic or meritorious service in a combat zone” during Vietnam. The United States thanked him by banishing him to Mexico where he sleeps on a cot to avoid sleeping on the street.
The issue of deported veterans and what they endure is very multi-faceted. In July of 2016 the American Civil Liberties Union of California issued a report titled “Discharged, then Discarded” detailing the experience of 59 veterans who have either been deported or are facing deportation. The report explains the potential traps foreign-born servicemen and women can fall into by enlisting in the United States military and assuming or being told they’ll be automatically given citizenship. The report also explains the lack of support they receive to gain citizenship once they enlist, and the risks they are especially exposed to when they end their service. The severe lack of support and health care given to American veterans is only magnified for foreign-born veterans by the looming and irreversible punishment of deportation.
The consequences of deporting veterans go way beyond punishing someone by sending them to a foreign land where they often don’t know anyone or speak the language. Deporting veterans breaks up families that remain behind in the United States the majority of the time. When a veteran is deported he or she often has extreme difficulty accessing their veteran’s benefits such as healthcare. Finally, due to their service in the United States Military, foreign born veterans are at risk of being violently targeted for their service once they are deported.
After Jan and I visited the Deported Veterans Support House, we met a group of deported veterans and their families opening a new resource and information office to serve deported veterans. The office is a project of the “Unified U.S. Deported Veterans” as well as the Rosarito/Ensenada chapter of Veterans for Peace (VFP). VFP works to expose the consequences of war, promote peace, and amplify issues such as deported veterans. I attended a meeting of the San Diego VFP and learned about their initiatives such as their “Compassion Campaign” that provides sleeping bags for homeless people in San Diego. The group of men and their families opening the office hope to attract deported veterans who are released at the San Ysidro Port of Entry. If the newly deported veterans learn of the resource office they can get some support and know they aren’t alone.
In my next post, I will talk about my experience meeting these men and their families. I will explain in detail the system that enables and perpetuates the deportation of US military veterans. We use them, abuse their bodies and minds to fight our wars, and then throw them out once we’re done. The families in Tijuana explained to me the hardships they face in the day to day reality of their new life in exile. As Daniel Torres put it “These veterans are this nation’s brave, yet they are not free. Regardless of what your political views are, I think we can all agree that an American veteran belongs in America.”
Support the Deported Veterans Support House
Director and Founder SPC Hector Barajas 82nd Airborne
Support San Diego Veterans for Peace
Special Thanks to Mr. Jan Ruhman, the San Diego Veterans for Peace, and the Deported Veterans Support House