From A Distance
Antonio Romo Reyes grew up in a complicated neighborhood of Los Angeles, California, dreaming of becoming a soldier. As a way to escape violence and crime, Antonio enlisted in the Marines as soon as he met the requirements, and served during the First Iraq War. As is the case with many other veterans, upon returning, Antonio’s life changed radically. War leaves a mark on you … Sometimes in ways you didn’t think possible.
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Welcome to Radio Ambulante, from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Today we have a story from the US journalist Jenny Barchfield. It’s the story of a soldier and his military service.
And it all started in a neighborhood in Los Angeles, California, called Lynwood. Antonio Romo Reyes grew up there in the mid-80s, surrounded by…
[Antonio Romo Reyes]: Gangs and violence, police with constant patrols and sirens blaring, or firefights between the gangs. Let’s just say it wasn’t pleasant.
[Daniel]: Antonio —or Tony, as he likes to be called— lived in a modest home. He had 8 siblings. His parents were Mexican, and like thousands of others, they had migrated to the United States in search of a better life.
Jenny will continue the story from here…
[Jenny Barchfield, producer]: Tony remembers his father always told him…
[Antonio]: We have to study and work. We have to do our best. My dad was very strict.
[Jenny]: Everyday, after school, Tony and one of his siblings would go to a community center where they worked. They used the money they made to pitch in at home. And well, that was Tony’s life: his family. He didn’t socialize much with other guys in the neighborhood.
[Antonio]: I was very, uh, isolated. I never went out on the street. Never, never.
[Jenny]: In his free time, he watched a lot of movies.
(SOUNDBITE FROM ACTION MOVIE TRAILER)
[Narrator] In a part of the world where there are no rules…
[Jenny]: The ones he liked the most were action movies…
[Antonio]: I always liked to play soldier ever since I was a boy. I liked guns, and still do today. I mean, for me guns were like a mechanism, just like a mechanic likes a motor. I like guns. They’re like pieces of art for me.
[Jenny]: His dad had been a soldier in the Mexican army. And Tony’s dream was to follow in his father’s footsteps in the greatest, most powerful military in the world: the US Army.
But Tony didn’t talk about it much.
[Antonio]: My mom wouldn’t have let me go, because she wanted her children near her. They were her babies. And no, she would not have agreed with it.
[Jenny]: So when he turned 18, he went to the Los Angeles recruitment center without telling anyone. He wanted to join the Armed Forces, the Army, but…
[Antonio]: Since I came at lunchtime the Army recruiter wasn’t in his office.
[Jenny]: There was online one person there: a recruiter for the Marines. They take on high risk missions all over the world. And right away Tony remembered a movie that he had seen the week before…
(SOUNDBITE FROM FULL METAL JACKET)
[Seargent]: This is my rifle, this is my gun!
[Soldiers]: This is for fighting, this is for fun!
[Antonio]: It was called Full Metal Jacket.
(SOUND BITE FROM FULL METAL JACKET)
[Seargent]: This is my rifle, this is my gun!
[Soldiers]: This is for fighting, this is for fun!
[Jenny]: Full Metal Jacket. Stanley Kubrick’s famous film.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FULL METAL JACKET)
[Seargent]: Sound off you’ve got a pair.
[Soldiers]: Sir, yes, sir!
[Jenny]: For those who haven’t seen it, it tells the story of a group of Marines during the Vietnam War.
(SOUNDBITE FROM FULL METAL JACKET)
[Seargent]: You will be a weapon. You will be a minister of death, praying for war.
[Jenny]: It’s a movie that many people interpret as a denunciation of violence.
But Tony didn’t see it that way.
[Antonio]: I really liked it. That movie was what inspired me…
[Jenny]: He was seduced by military discipline, which ran so counter to the violence and disorder that he saw in his neighborhood. Buy on top of that, the recruiter told him about some benefits that were very attractive: a decent salary, a pension at the end of his service and health insurance. And for Tony, who eventually wanted to continue his studies, there was another benefit.
[Antonio]: “Listen, if you go active duty, instead of the reserves, you can take any college class you want without paying a dime.” And I said, “Wow, ok, ok, active duty. Yes, that’s what I want. Active duty.”
[Jenny]: He had made up his mind.
That same week, he took some tests. He passed them and signed a contract: 3 years of active duty, 5 years in the reserves.
And Tony remembers that the next week…
[Antonio]: It was 4 or 5 in the afternoon. My dad was laying out in the sun and I was playing with my three younger siblings. And then the recruiter came, a sergeant.
[Jenny]: Wearing a uniform. In an official Army jeep.
[Antonio]: And he asks me: “Are you ready?”. “Well, yes” [laughs]. My mom and my dad were like: “Where are you going?”. “I’m going to the Marines.” They just stood there staring at me and… Well, I didn’t hug them goodbye or any of that. I still regret that. My siblings were sad. It was practically the last time I saw them in a long time.
[Jenny]: The sergeant brought Tony to a recruiting center, where there were other young people like himself. That same day they took them on a bus to the Marine Corps base in San Diego, California.
Tony remembers that when they got there an enormous set of gates opened.
The bus went in and parked. And before they could get off a man got on the bus.
[Antonio]: He comes in with his hat looking very strict with a very serious face. He was really rude. He looked like if you tried to start something with him he’d tear you to shreds. And he starts shouting, he shuts us up and says: “The first and last words to come out of your mouths are going to be ‘yes, sir; no, sir’”. And: “You have thirty seconds to get off this bus. Now!”.
[Jenny]: Tony rushed out of the bus…
[Antonio]: Outside the bus there are 3 or 4 other sergeants shouting. They yell in your face, they get right up in your face and say stuff.
And the first thing I said was… “What have I done? My God, what have I done?!” [Laughs]
[Jenny]: Did you regret signing an 8 year contract?
[Antonio]: The first minute of training after getting to the base, yes I regretted it a thousand times, maybe a million. I mean, I didn’t cry, but I was close.
[Jenny]: But there was no going back at that point.
[Antonio]: I said: “No way, this is what I have waiting for me for the next 8 years”. I thought, ok, take it day by day, because my dad always told me: if you start something, finish it.
[Jenny]: I’m going to be honest. From what Tony told me, the initial training sounds like torture.
[Antonio]: You’re there in the mud, you’re cold, hungry, putting up with being yelled at by the sergeants.
[Jenny]: It was 14 weeks of superhuman physical exertion. Of insults. Of humiliation.
[Antonio]: It was super hard. It was sad. At night I could hear a lot of guys crying around me in the barracks.
[Jenny]: Of the 75 recruits that arrived at the base with Tony, only 20 graduated. He was one of them, obviously.
When his training ended, they asked him…
[Antonio]: Where do you want to be placed? What job do you want to do? Administrative, mechanic, trucker?”.
[Jenny]: And Tony told them…
[Antonio]: I liked the guns that are on the helicopters. I wanted a big gun.
[Jenny]: They gave it to him. No problem. Later he found out that nobody wanted that job. It was one of the riskiest and most difficult jobs in the Marine Corps. When he graduated, they gave him 10 days leave and he went to visit his family. As soon as they saw him they were…
[Antonio]: Surprised, “what happened to you?”, after 14 weeks… They couldn’t recognize me, well, they saw I was different.
[Jenny]: When he said goodbye to his parents before leaving for the base, Tony was really skinny. But now he had gained weight, put on muscle. He looked good. Happy. Happy to have made it through training, happy with who he was at the time.
[Antonio]: My siblings were proud; my dad was very proud. And so was I.
[Jenny]: Because, of course, in the Marines, they were constantly telling him…
[Antonio]: We are the first to go in to defend the country, to defend our families, our brothers and sisters, our wives, our sons, everyone…our loved ones. And defend the liberty we enjoy in the United States. Well it makes you feel good.
[Jenny]: It was the early 90s and Tony had already planned out his future: fulfill his contract with the Marines, study military science at college and stay on in the military as an officer.
He thought the next few years were going to be much easier than those months of training. He thought they would be calm…
[Antonio]: It never crossed my mind that we would go to war. I would brainwash myself, thinking that no way were we going to go to war. Those were over. There would never be one while I’m serving.
On August 2nd, 1990 Iraq invaded Kuwait.
[Antonio]: They told us: “Hey, it’s possible we’ll go to war, that we’ll go to Iraq.”
[Jenny]: President George Bush Sr. began mobilizing troops to the Persian Gulf.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: The day after the invasion, the United States announced their first military measures with the deployment of Naval Forces in the Gulf to protect Saudi Arabia.
[Jenny]: The name of the operation was “Desert Shield” and the objective was to prevent the Iraqi army from making it to Saudi Arabia.
Tony was doing a training exercise on a ship near the Philippines when he heard the news.
And it left him shocked. All of his training had been for moments like this. For war. In theory, he was prepared.
[Antonio]: I had trained, but I had never been in a fight in my life. Not really, not at school, not in a gang, nothing. I was always alone…always working or studying.
[Jenny]: Tony’s unit arrived in the desert of Oman, near the Persian Gulf, on August 18th, 1990. There they set up their base. For the moment, they had to wait. The United States was trying to resolve conflict between Iraq and Kuwait diplomatically. But if it didn’t work, they would attack. It was nearly 5 agonizing months of waiting.
During that time, the sergeants were constantly telling him that Saddam Hussein was…
[Antonio]: Committing atrocities against his people, against children, the elderly, soldiers, women… They told us how Saddam’s army was very, very “elite,” very good, very well-trained. They had a lot of weapons…
[Jenny]: One day a sergeant got them together and told them:
[Antonio]: “Write a letter: write what you want to say to you family, your mom, whoever. Because this may be your last chance”. So… That’s what’s on your mind.
[Jenny]: That scared them a lot.
[Antonio]: I was really scared. I think we could all see it in each other’s eyes: a lot of fear about what was going happen.
[Jenny]: In January, 1991, their order to attack finally arrived.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Journalist]: Baghdad, the Iraqi capital, is the target of a forceful aerial attack. A few minutes ago, the spokesperson for the White House in Washington said that the liberation of Kuwait has begun.
[Jenny]: Tony’s squadron had to invade Failaka Island. It was a very small island, a few kilometers from the Kuwaiti capital, where the wealthiest people had beachfront homes. They told them that there would be more than two thousand Iraqi troops here who had already killed the majority of the civilians.
They loaded into helicopters.
In the air Tony was…
[Antonio]: I was shaking, I was terrified. And I closed my eyes for a second, ahhh…wanting to wake up from that nightmare.
[Jenny]: He was thinking about the disadvantage they were at.
[Antonio]: I said: “Well, there are 400 of us. There are 2,400 of them. So how will we fare against them?”
[Jenny]: They gave the signal: 30 seconds to landing.
[Antonio]: We landed. One helicopter after another, I remember. The ramp in the back opens up… We ran out.
[Jenny]: It had just rained.
[Antonio]: Our boots sunk into the mud. The sound of the helicopters, the sound of the people, you don’t know where to even start looking.
[Jenny]: They approached some buildings and when they heard a shot…
[Antonio]: If the Iraqis fired one shot we sent 10 thousand back.
It was paranoia and fear. You just squeeze the trigger and fire, you don’t stop.
And, well you just see mangled bodies. Split in half. The Iraqi survivors who were there killed their own sick and wounded.
And that’s when you stop believing in God.
[Daniel]: We’ll be right back.
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[Daniel]: Before the break, Jenny was telling us about Tony’s first battle as a Marine, in the Gulf War. It was terrible. They won that battle, even though Tony didn’t feel like it was a cause for celebration. Here’s Jenny…
[Jenny]: Tony’s unit stayed in Failaka for a few more days. A little later they returned to the US. This was the first operation Tony participated in, but despite the fact that the combat only lasted a few hours…
[Antonio]: Part of you stays there and that can’t change. You’d like to go back to how you were before. You feel…weird and bad and guilty and…like you deserve all of the bad things that happened to you.
[Jenny]: When he got back, Tony went to his parent’s house.
[Antonio]: I remember when I got home I just stayed in my room. My mom, my siblings and my dad left me alone. I went into my room without… I was like a sleepwalker, a zombie. I didn’t even hug anyone. I just went into my room and I stayed in bed just staring at the ceiling. For days.
[Jenny]: He cut himself off from others and his behavior changed. He became…
[Antonio]: Aggressive and paranoid. It took me a long time to even enjoy a nap.
I didn’t go out, I didn’t go to parties, I didn’t… Do anything. You want to be away from all of that.
[Jenny]: Since he had already completed the mission he had been assigned, Tony went into the reserves. That meant he didn’t have to go to the base every day. The trainings were more relaxed and less frequent, so he had more free time and all he did was think about what had happened during those hours of combat. It was hell.
I asked him if he had gotten any psychological help.
[Antonio]: No, nothing. No, no. No. Nothing. Nothing, ever.
[Jenny]: He told me it wasn’t even offered to him. And on top of that…
[Antonio]: I thought psychologists were just for crazy people. And at that time, I thought I was fine.
[Jenny]: He knew he had some problems, but he thought he had to deal with them on his own somehow. Drinking was what helped the most. Getting drunk. To the point of unconsciousness.
One day, one of Tony’s friends who was also in the military…
[Antonio]: …Said to me: “Try this”.
[Jenny]: He was offering him cocaine. And Tony accepted.
[Antonio]: Well, I wanted not to see those things anymore, to be able to escape because it is…it is painful.
[Jenny]: And well, the drugs…
[Antonio]: Did make me feel alright for a little while, I didn’t want to have those nightmares anymore.
[Jenny]: But when the effects wore off, he went days without sleeping and his thoughts continued to torture him. So he turned to the drug again.
During that time, Tony started going out with a woman. She had two sons from a previous marriage and she also had alcohol problems.
They got married and in 1994 they had a daughter. Tony hoped that things would change with the birth of his daughter.
[Antonio]: With her, I found something that made me feel safe, like a little bit of warmth to go to, to hold, to work for. She was the only reason I had to overcome my problems.
[Jenny]: But he didn’t know how. It was no easy task. Tony started disappearing for 2, 3 days at a time, sleeping in motels or in his car. He almost always went to a bar and ended up fighting with someone. He kept getting drunk and using cocaine and methamphetamines.
To make things worse, in 1993 the Armed Forces suffered large budget cuts. And they denied Tony the opportunity to re-enlist.
The military had been the only place of discipline in his life. It was what kept him straight and out of trouble.
He had some saving so he decided to open a used car lot with his dad. But Tony’s addiction was out of control. He wasn’t careful with his money and he soon left the business.
Now he had a problem supporting his family and his addiction. When people who sold him drugs offered to let him work with them, Tony didn’t see any other option. He accepted. They paid him to do their dirty work.
[Antonio]: “Ah, go do this, go knock down that door.” I went into action, the adrenaline was what I liked, you carried a gun.
I didn’t care what they told me to do as long as I had either coke of meth.
[Jenny]: Tony worked for a group of drug traffickers for close to 3 years. By that time, he had been addicted for nearly a decade.
One day in August, 2001, he was at home with his wife and children and all of a sudden he heard a sound. It was like someone was trying to knock down the door.
[Antonio]: SWAT entered my house and went for me.
[Jenny]: It was a simultaneous operation in which 7 members of Tony’s group were detained. The authorities had been on the group’s trail for several months. That day a squadron of 8 police officers surrounded the house.
[Antonio]: No, I didn’t put up a fight.
[Jenny]: They took him to court in San Diego. That same day he saw a judge who read him the charges against him: conspiracy to sell drugs. But for Tony…
[Antonio]: I didn’t… I was an addict. I didn’t care, I was sick. I wanted to get out, I thought I would get out in a few days and everything would go back to normal.
[Jenny]: But once he was in jail, nothing could be the same. Locked up with other inmates, Tony started to suffer withdrawal. Those were some very difficult days.
After a month in detention, he had his trial. He was sentenced to 7 years in prison. He would carry out his sentence in a federal prison in California.
Weeks later, now cut off from the drugs, all he thought about was his daughter.
[Antonio]: Well yes, I wanted to sink into the earth. Something I…someone that I wanted to protect, someone I would give my life to protect. I gave her up… It was my fault and I still feel terrible to this day.
[Jenny]: And the guilt broke him.
[Antonio]: I wanted to be isolated. I wanted an isolation room. Because there were so many people around me, it wasn’t going to go well.
[Jenny]: Were you afraid that you could become violent with them?
[Antonio]: Yes. Yes, yes. Easily. I said that if they don’t put me in an isolation room, I’m going to do something to someone, to a guard. So if you threaten a guard you go to solitary confinement. That’s where I stayed.
[Jenny]: In that cell, all he could think about was what he had done, what he had lost. He felt like that abandonment was all he deserved.
But if that was his punishment, it was going to be worth it. He started to see his sentence as an opportunity to rehabilitate himself. For his daughter’s sake.
Once he left solitary, he learned that there were meetings in the prison for veterans who would talk about their problems. One day he went out of curiosity.
[Antonio]: The veterans who were with me started telling me why this happens to us. And everyone talks about their…their past. About the war: how old they were, where they were, what happened and what they saw and what we do. Our behavior. So I started to see: “Oh, ok, so that’s why. Ok.”
[Jenny]: For the first time since he came back from the war, he realized that he wasn’t alone in that pain, that anguish, that guilt.
And there, after more than 10 years of not having the right words to explain what he was feelings, that what the first time he heard the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.
[Antonio]: A veteran came to talk to us about PTSD. He fought in Vietnam. He was a prisoner of war. And he told us: “This happens and that happens, nightmares and all that.” So I told him: “I…yeah.” And he said: “Go see the psychologist here.” And I asked to see the psychologist. I had 2 sessions and yes, that was my diagnosis: PTSD.
[Jenny]: He kept going to the meetings and one-on-one therapy. He also started exercising and reading everything he could get his hands on.
[Antonio]: Romance novels [laughs], and books about exercise science: health, yoga, drug classes, alcohol classes, parenting classes for fathers, anger management. All to keep myself occupied for the whole day. And distance myself from others, to be alone.
[Jenny]: His wife visited him twice and then stopped going. She wanted to move on with her life. Without Tony. She didn’t bring their daughter to any of the visits. He preferred it that way because he didn’t want his daughter to see him in those conditions.
His siblings also went a few times… But at one point…
[Antonio]: I told them it was better for them to spend more time with their families, not with me.
[Jenny]: He still believed that he deserved his punishment and that punishment was abandonment. Even so, he didn’t cut of contact with his parents completely. He called them from time to time. During one of these calls, they told him his mother had died. She had been sick with diabetes for a long time.
[Antonio]: But in front of all of those inmates, it’s not a good idea to cry. And I didn’t.
I just asked my brother not to leave my dad alone, and told him I was very sorry, that was all I…I talked to my dad…I told him she wasn’t…my mom wasn’t suffering anymore. I hung up and all that was left to do was…was… I asked to be put in an isolation cell to be alone.
[Jenny]: Alone. While he overcame the pain. Even though when he was in the communal cells, he didn’t interact with the other inmates much either. That was how he spent practically 7 years of his sentence. But that isolation helped him: he felt better, more at peace with himself and everything he had done. Besides, soon he was going to leave prison and move on with his life.
[Antonio]: I said: “This won’t last forever.” I was just thinking about getting out: what was I going to do, or what would I have planned out, continuing with my therapy. I have to see the psychologist.
[Jenny]: But on top of that, of course, he was going to make up for lost time with his daughter and his family. That was what he was looking forward to the most.
But in August, 2007, one month before he would complete his sentence, he got a visit. They were representatives from the Immigration Service.
[Antonio]: And they brought my file and everything. And one of them says to me: “Ok. Because of your crime, you are….these are cause to be deported to Mexico.”
[Jenny]: And all of his plans went up in smoke.
Ok, here I need to explain how all of this happened.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Yes, Tony’s parents crossed the border in search of better opportunities, but they crossed in 1982 along with their two children. Without documentation. At that time Tony was already 12 years old. They remained undocumented until 1986 when the president of the United States, Ronald Reagan, signed a reform that gave amnesty to nearly 3 million immigrants.
(SOUNDBITE FROM NEWS REPORT)
[Ronald Reagan]: I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots, even if some time back they may have entered illegally.
[Jenny]: With that, Tony’s family could regularize their situation. The process took 4 years. They got permanent resident status, or a green card. This was one month after Tony turned 18, and it was with that document that he was able to join the military, since only citizens and permanent residents can serve in the Armed Forces.
But being a citizen and being a permanent resident aren’t the same thing. They don’t have the same rights. And so, for permanent residents, the crime Tony committed —conspiracy to sell drugs— doesn’t just entail going to prison, but it also means mandatory deportation.
And in these cases, the law prevents judges from taking into account the person’s record or circumstances. Like if it’s their first offense, for example, or if as in Tony’s case, they’re a veteran of the Armed Forces.
And after a year of service, Tony was able to apply for citizenship without having to wait 5 years like civilians do. But no one explained that to Tony. And it didn’t occur to him when he as a 20 year old to ask how the process worked. He thought of himself as an American and he never gave much attention to his legal status.
Let’s go back to 2007. Tony was in his cell and they just gave him the news he was going to be deported. They gave him 2 options: immediate deportation or an appeal. Tony decided to appeal and waited a few months in a migrant detention center in Hasco, Texas.
In court, the first question the judged asked Tony was:
[Antonio]: “Mr. Romo, why should I let you stay in my country?”.
[Jenny]: And Tony said:
[Antonio]: “Could your honor take into account my military service in this country?”.
[Jenny]: The judge hadn’t seen Tony’s file and he was surprised. He was also a veteran from the first Gulf War. They briefly exchanged stories about their military service and the judge said:
[Antonio]: “I’m going to send you the citizenship application. Fill it out and send it to me,” that’s it.
[Jenny]: Tony was excited, and a few days later…
[Antonio]: Yes, the application made it to me. I filled it out, they took my fingerprints and picture and everything. And then I sent it in.
[Jenny]: And waited and waited. For 5 months. The whole time he was locked up in the detention center. Until July 2nd ,2008, two agents…
[Antonio]: Came to my cell and told me: “Ok”—it was at 12 at night—“get your stuff. We’re going.”
[Jenny]: In other words, they were deporting him.
But, didn’t you tell them you had an application that was under consideration?
[Antonio]: Yes, I told them but: “No, here’s the order.”
[Jenny]: They put him on a bus along with some others who were going to be deported. They headed toward Tamaulipas, Mexico.
[Antonio]: I had never been to Tamaulipas. I didn’t have a dime [laughs]. No money at all. All I had was a jacket, a pen and a pencil. No ID, nothing.
[Jenny]: Tony didn’t even have a Mexican passport. They made it to the border at 3 am.
[Antonio]: And there they told us: “Get off the bus and go.”
I crossed the border on foot. But since at that time there were disputes between drug traffickers, several people who got off the bus didn’t want to cross. But I got off and went. I wanted to get somewhere.
[Jenny]: Tony was still a strong guy.
[Antonio]: And soon others attached themselves to me. “Can I walk with you?” they asked me. “Yeah, come on” [laughs].
[Jenny]: One of the people who went with him thanked him by getting him a hotel room and buying him something to eat.
[Antonio]: He bought me tacos, it was the first time in years that I ate tacos. What a good guy. I ate like 10 tacos. They were adobada [marinated pork].
[Jenny]: He worked for a few days in Tamaulipas, and one of his dad’s brothers send him money. He got on a bus. His destination was Tijuana, were he had lived 30 years earlier. It was the only place in Mexico that still felt familiar to him, plus it was close to the border, near his family in California.
So, as we said, he was deported on July 2nd, 2008. About 5 days later, a letter arrived at the detention center that scheduled for him to have his photo and fingerprints taken.
[Antonio]: In other words, if I had still been in Hasco that day, from there I would have gotten out and they would have sent me to my citizenship interview by order of the court. But that’s not what happened.
[Jenny]: The date was set for July 21. There was still time. So he asked his lawyer to send him a copy of the letter in Tijuana. He went to San Isidro, the largest control post on the border between Tijuana and San Diego. And he showed him the official letter.
[Antonio]: I told them: “I have an appointment.” But they didn’t let me across. It seemed like they didn’t know what to do with me.
[Jenny]: He called the office in the Armed Forces that conducts the citizenship process.
[Antonio]: All they said was: “We’re going to change the date of the appointment.” And they sent me another. And so 5 or 6 letters followed, 6 more letters. I would go to San Isidro, to immigration: “Hey, these are the dates for my interview.” And they wouldn’t let me in. Well no. I stopped insisting.
[Jenny]: And well, Tony has spent nearly a decade living in Tijuana. Today he rents a small apartment by the beach and works at a gym as a personal trainer. Since he doesn’t make a lot of money, he has to unload trucks and work in construction to make it to the end of each month.
When he has enough money, he sees a psychologist. But his sessions are infrequent.
Four years ago, Tony realized that he wasn’t the only one in this situation. One day he was walking on the beach near the border and saw several men in US military uniforms. He went up to them and started talking with them. They were also veterans who had been deported and some of them stayed at a special shelter. It’s called the Bunker.
For Tony, finding this place was…
[Antonio]: Something amazing, a surprise. I never told anyone about where I was from. But now that I’ve found others, I feel better, like I have moral support.
[Jenny]: Hello, Héctor!
[Héctor Barajas]: Come on in…
[Jenny]: Thank you!
I wanted to see this place. It’s a small two-story building. The first floor has a few large windows displaying huge U.S. flags.
There’s no Mexican flag.
The founder of the Bunker is Héctor Barajas, a veteran who was deported in 2010. He was the one who let me in and showed me around.
[Héctor]: And well, here is our kitchen. And here we have, uh…we have more cots. But right now only two people are staying with us. And here is where Luis Vargas stays…
[Jenny]: In addition to giving food and beds to veterans who have none, the Bunker helps dozens of veterans who live in Tijuana and surrounding areas with legal and medical services and they also help them get jobs. They also organize sessions for psychological support. Tony goes from time to time.
Over a year ago, Héctor contacted some lawyers from the ACLU, the American Civil Liberties Union, to report the deported veterans’ situation. The ACLU is an organization that defends civil rights in the United States and it released a report harshly criticizing the deportation of veterans.
The organization argues that these people have already paid for their crimes by going to prison and that being deported punishes them for life.
As a first step, the ACLU asked the governor of California to issue pardons to around 6 veterans. In April of this year, Governor Jerry Brown issued 3, including a pardon for Héctor.
That meant wiping away his criminal record so that he could apply for citizenship.
But getting that kind of pardon isn’t a viable option in most cases. Tony’s crime, for example, is a federal crime and only president Trump could pardon him.
And, of course, in the current political climate, that’s not very likely.
So Tony is still in Mexico and the ACLU believes the only way he and the vast majority of deported veterans will get to the United States will be through an immigration reform, which also seems unlikely in the near future.
And well, all Tony can do is focus on the positive. He likes Mexico. He like his job and his routine, but..
[Antonio]: My family is in the United States: my dad, my siblings, my nieces and nephews, cousins… My daughter…
[Jenny]: Tony hasn’t seen his daughter in 16 years and he only talks to her on the phone occasionally. The hardest part for him is having been absent for so long.
He wants to make up for lost time. And well, he think he’ll only be able to do that if he goes back to the United States.
[Antonio]: What I want most is to turn back time and start over. But I can’t.
It’s a dream.
[Daniel]: There is no official government statistic, but the ACLU estimates that in the past 20 years, thousands of veterans of the Armed Forces were deported to more than 30 countries, including El Salvador, the Philippines, The Dominican Republic, Peru and, of course, Mexico.
This story was produced Jenny Barchfield and Luis Fernando Vargas, and it was edited by Camila Segura, Silvia Viñas and myself. Mixing and sound design by Ryan Sweikert. Daniel Villatoro hizo el fact-checking. Special thanks to Hernando Álvarez and Roberto Belo-Rovella with the BBC.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Andrés Azpiri, Jorge Caraballo, Patrick Mosley, Laura Pérez, Ana Prieto, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo, and Elsa Liliana Ulloa. Maytik Avirama is our editorial intern. Andrea Betanzos is our program coordinator. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
And remember, send us the questions you would like Radio Ambulante to investigate by going to radioambulante.org/ pregunta
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
Learn more about Radio Ambulante and this story on our website: radioambulante.org. Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin American I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.