Sunday, May 25, 2014

A Vietnam Veteran Finally Returns Home

Guest Blog by SSgt Tony L Lamson, USMC (ret), Deported Veterans Representative, Point Man International Ministries

Specialist Hector Barrios, a 70-year-old Vietnam Veteran who served with the 1st Air Cavalry, is finally home with his family this Memorial Day. Hector passed on April 21, 2014. He wasn’t one of the lost or missing of the Vietnam War. 

He was one of the discarded.

One of hundreds of deported veterans that the media isn’t covering today.

Hector immigrated to the United States legally in 1961 and was drafted to the United States Army. He could have sought refuge in Canada like so many others of his generation. Or he could have returned to his home country of Mexico. Instead, Hector chose to serve the nation he called home, earning an Army Commendation Medal for his actions in Vietnam and receiving an Honorable Discharge.

As with many veterans that return from combat or traumatic events during service, Hector found himself unable to adjust to civilian life. The anti-war sentiment that pervaded the nation at the time didn’t help much, adding to the struggle that he faced coming back to the country he served.

Since Hector was not a naturally born United States Citizen, when he was arrested for possession of marijuana – an offense that isn’t even a crime in more and more states – he wasn’t treated the same as his U.S. born fellow veterans. While the U.S. Citizen will do his time for his crime and go home, Hector served his sentence and then was deported, the victim of changes in immigration law dating back to 1994 and 1996. Like many foreign-born veterans, his service in the armed forces was not taken into account.

It is difficult to know how many veterans have been deported since the mid 1990s. Current numbers are only estimates as neither Homeland Security nor Immigration Control track these individuals.  Point Man International Ministries, the organization I work with, has had contact with more 200 deported veterans in 19 different countries. And while some of those veterans have chosen to blend back into the fabric of their respective homelands, many others feel abandoned by the government and country they served.

When Hector Barrios was arrested for possessing a few grams of pot, he had been living in the U.S. for 30 years. He was forcibly separated from his family while serving prison time, and remained incarcerated during deportation proceedings before being transported to Mexico and abandoned by the country that he swore an oath to preserve and protect.

After serving their prison sentences, some veteran detainees serve up to three years in lock down in deportation centers around the U.S. When they are deported, they are either dropped off at the Canadian or Mexican border or are put on a plane back to their country of origin where they end up on the street stripped of identity, without money, contacts or knowledge of anyone in the city or country, homeless, jobless, and without transportation or food. They are separated from everyone that they know and love, and dropped into a country that considers them traitors for having served in the U.S. military instead of the military of the country of their birth.

Hector was separated from his wife, children and grand children. Penniless, he was unable to collect Social Security benefits, veteran’s disability benefits for his service-related injuries, or have any access to medical or dental care through the Veteran’s Administration – each of which was rightfully his. At the age of 70, Hector worked sweeping the sidewalks and street surrounding a taco stand, delivering food to customers for 12 hours a day earning a meager $5 per day.

When Hector connected with Point Man Ministries he had lost all hope of ever being able to go home and reunite with his family. He tried to dull his pain and became addicted to heroin, living in a low-rent shack in downtown Tijuana. When he met other deported veterans living in Baja California he began to fight his addiction with the help of his deported veteran brothers in Tijuana and Rosarito.

Last month, after fighting through a lengthy illness and with access to the free clinics in Tijuana as his only healthcare option, Hector finished his fight. Surrounded by the only family he had - other deported veterans who looked after him - he was given military honors at a very low cost funeral in Tijuana before being cremated. Arrangements were made for Hector ‘s remains to be returned to his waiting family in the United States.

Ironically, the same government that deports these veterans and prevents them from ever returning to the U.S. provides a military escort to return their remains once they die. This is the only way most deported veterans will ever return home. Their deportation is a life sentence and the only hope they have of coming home is as Hector did – in a box, covered with the stars and stripes, receiving the full military honors “of a grateful nation.” 

They can be buried in a National Cemetery; they just can’t live near one.

This weekend we will honor and remember veterans who have given their last full measure of devotion for this country. We will remember veterans who returned home from war and who have since passed.

As we do, we should remember men like Hector Barrios and give them the honor they have earned. For Hector and his family, this weekend is a time that has been long awaited. They are once again a family. 

Once again, together.

Rest In Peace, Specialist Hector Barrios and welcome home brother!