"Today is not your lucky day": U.S. military vets who fought for America and were deported anyway

"Support the troops" only goes so far for veterans, even those who fought in foreign wars, who aren't citizens

Published September 12, 2017 6:58PM (EDT)

 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Excerpted with permission from "Without a Country: The Untold Story of America's Deported Veterans" by J. Malcolm Garcia. Copyright 2017, Hot Books, an imprint of Skyhorse Publishing. Available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and IndieBound.

Hector Barrios, a Vietnam veteran, lived in Tijuana. I decide to stop by the small house where he rented a room. A friend of his, Jesus Ballesteros, meets me on a sidewalk nearby, next to a red pickup that Barrios used to sell secondhand clothes from. I consider the narrow street, the house across the way with its leafy terrace and the sounds of water splashing from hoses in the driveway. Small boys scamper on the hot concrete, watering plants.

Jesus takes me into the room Barrios rented. It can’t be more than nine by ten feet. A bed with a pink comforter takes up most of the space. At the foot of the bed, propped against a dresser mirror, is a large piece of cardboard with more than a dozen photos of Barrios. Several appear to be in Vietnam, outside tents with green Jeeps in the background. Barrios looks gaunt. He has a full black mustache, his tired eyes alive with an inviting smile. I sense that sleepless nights have grooved the wearied lines in his cheeks.

A green military jacket hangs from a coat rack and desert camouflage caps decorate the paneled walls. I notice a wrinkled newspaper clipping of Barrios as a young man, playing soccer, next to a calendar with an angelic portrait of Jesus. A photo of the pope is tacked crookedly to one side.

Barrios was born in 1943 and moved to the U.S. when he was eighteen. He served in the Army from 1967 to 1969. In 1968 he was sent to Vietnam, where he suffered head wounds in combat. He earned the National Defense Ribbon, the Vietnam Service Medal, the Vietnam Campaign Medal, and the Army Commendation Medal. But the honors did not relieve the pain of his injuries, and he began using heroin. Barrios was deported from the U.S. in 1999 for possession of marijuana. His addiction to heroin continued in Tijuana.

“Every day incoming fire, everything, fighting—you didn’t know if you were going to come back home,” he said in an interview with another reporter before his death. “It changes one’s life. It changes everything. I came back crazy.”

He always talked about Vietnam, Jesus says. How his commander died in front of him. They had been very close. They promised each other that if one of them got hurt, the other would bring him in. Barrios kept his promise.

“He had a big heart for people,” Jesus continues. “He never mistreated anyone.”

Barrios continued using heroin, however; he developed respiratory problems and died April 21, 2014. His family considered sending his body to the U.S. Despite his deportation, he remained entitled to a full military funeral since he had received an honorable discharge. But because the U.S. had thrown him out, his family buried him in Mexico and maintains his room as he left it.

“No one sleeps here except his ghost,” Jesus says.

If you Google Hector Barrios, you’ll find photos of deported veterans standing at attention beside his coffin, the black and yellow insignia of his unit—the First Cavalry Division—adorning the funeral home walls. Army veteran Fabian Rebolledo, a close friend of Barrios, was among those in attendance. He also suffered from war, Jesus tells me.

I meet with Rebolledo in Las Playas de Tijuana, in a house cluttered with unpacked boxes of clothes, stacked ­suitcases, and a bed, about a half-hour bus ride from the support house. The salt-air-rusted fence separating Mexico from the U.S. rises not far from his home. The brown cliffs of scorched mesas climb above a valley to the east while the sunset burns the pounding Pacific in bright orange hues.

Rebolledo chases a friend’s collie out of the house and shows me in. He has on a blue Adidas sweatshirt and jeans. Like his friend Barrios, he has an inviting smile and an easy laugh, yet he speaks without betraying much emotion. He has a wrestler’s build and moves easily within the maze of boxes. A thin mustache traces a dark line beneath his nose. He sits in a chair across from me, an American flag behind him. “Yes, sir,” “No, sir,” he responds to some of my questions, slipping into Army-think. He sits in a high-back chair facing me. I sink into a sofa, weak springs buckling beneath the cushions.

Rebolledo spent his early childhood in Cuernavaca, Morelos, south of Mexico City. His family’s cramped house had two beds, a table, and a stool. A thin wood porch wrapped around the house. He and his parents and five brothers and sisters shared the beds. In the summer they slept outside on palm leaves, the early luster of warm mornings waking him. He would get up and fetch water in buckets hanging from the stick he balanced over his shoulder.

His oldest brother and sister moved to Los Angeles when he was eleven. A year later they paid for his father and another brother to come over. The following year, 1988, they sent for thirteen-year-old Fabian.

California. It was so big, he recalls. The buildings. The expressways. The expanses of land and houses and shopping malls that stretched for miles until they were so far away they shimmered uneasily on the horizon. At school, American students would say, Hey, you little motherfucker. He didn’t know what they meant. He could not speak or pronounce English, but he listened and slowly began to understand.

His father worked construction and restaurant jobs. His mother sewed for a tailor. Rebolledo began washing dishes at a restaurant in Almonte when he was ten. He still remembers the address, 12050 Magnolia Blvd. He doubts it’s still there.

He graduated from high school and enrolled in community college but dropped out to help his parents. He found work in farmers’ markets. Sold shoes and boots, silly belt buckles, watches and sandals. Worked construction. In 1994, he became a permanent resident through a petition his father filed to adjust his immigration status.

That was a high. There were lows, too. A girlfriend broke up with him and he bought a beer to cope with his broken heart. He liked it. Liked it too much. He got wasted all the time. I need to do something, he recalls thinking. I’ll end up in an institution, rehab, or the cemetery. In 1997, he enlisted in the Army. For the discipline. To answer the question, “What am I going to do with my life?” He was 23.

First stop after he enlisted, Fort Sill, Oklahoma. As soon as he stepped off the bus a drill sergeant started screaming. Maggots! he yelled. Rebolledo liked it. The sergeant’s sweaty face, his snarling mouth. He saw the shouting as an act, something funny. He enjoyed the rush of hurrying to obey a command. Even now, as he thinks of it, his heart quickens. Push-ups, sit-ups, running. The shooting range. The hand-grenade field. Road marches. Twenty klicks. Sometimes it was raining or snowing, hot or cold or windy. Okay, weatherman, he would say to himself. Okay, bring it on. The sergeant yelling in your face, spitting in your face. Rebolledo bore it all, digging it, defying it. He never quit.

After thirteen weeks, he volunteered for Airborne School. What the hell? It paid $150 a month more. He was attached to Charlie Battery of the Eighty-Second Airborne Division and trained as an assistant gunner.

He can’t remember specifics from his first jump out of a C-130. He was the third jumper. His legs shook. Hell, his whole body shook, heart in his throat. He thought he’d puke. He fell like a sack of weights before his chute opened, jerking him up like a yo-yo. He just had a few seconds to figure out where and how to land. Pull a strap and hope to come down softly. Took a while to learn.

When he hit the ground on his first jump, he didn’t get up for a little bit. Good thing he had Kevlar to absorb the jolt. But when the shock wore off, he gloried in the feeling that he had fallen through the sky. He still remembers all of it. If he had the opportunity to do it now, he’d do it, do a jump despite his bad knees. Just last night he had a dream that he had jumped out of an aircraft, falling through all that sky.

In 1998 he met his wife, Bertha. Her niece was a friend and sometimes when Rebolledo called her in California, Bertha would answer and they would talk for hours. Within a month, he proposed to her over the phone and then paid her a visit. He thought she was pretty. Not supermodel pretty, but pretty. Soft skin, long black hair, black eyes, a nice body. They married the next day. He’s like that. When he wants something, he doesn’t second-guess himself. He goes out and gets it.

In February 1999, his battery was deployed to Kosovo. He had not paid attention to the war there. He had assumed he would be sent to Kuwait to deal with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. He packed his duffle. Bertha, pregnant at the time, returned to California to live with her parents.

Kosovo morphed into a bad dream. Rebolledo had not been overseas long when the Red Cross notified his unit that his wife had miscarried. I’m sorry, a captain told him. You have an hour to pack up and go home. Instead, Rebolledo walked to his tent and played dominoes. When his captain checked on him, Rebolledo told him, It’s no good to go back. How good will I be watching the news of all you here? The baby won’t come back whether I stay or go.

You’re a bad motherfucker, the captain said.

He imagined who his child might have been in the face of innumerable horrors he saw as he patrolled Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, and swept the area for land mines. An uncontrollable anger crept up on him.

A sniper shot him in the leg one afternoon while he patrolled a corn field. Six shots from a semi-automatic. He thought a branch had hit him but when he stepped forward, his leg couldn’t support his weight and he collapsed. He was evacuated to a hospital in Moldova.

At times the war overwhelmed him. Seeing the country all blown to shit, himself almost with it. Kids all fucked up. To him it wasn’t human that people would do this to one another.

He felt helpless and lashed out. He beat up a soldier calling out for his mother and hugging his rifle. Hey, get the fuck up, Rebolledo said, and punched him. Straighten the fuck up.

His sergeant reported him. He was demoted, but a week later he was given his rank back, and he returned to the field more aggressive than before. He didn’t take shit from anybody. What do you want now, man? he would say if he felt challenged. His only thought: stay alive. Like this one time he found a Serb trying to blow up a municipal building. The kid ran off before he could catch him. Little fucker rigging C-4 explosives. That sort of shit drove Rebolledo bat shit. Be alert, he would remind himself. Stay alive.

His commanding officers knew what Rebolledo could do with his anger. They would ask him to “give a little correction” to captured Serb soldiers. That meant covering their faces and beating the shit out of them. Then leave them in a heap on a road or some village for the Kosovars to finish off.

Don’t do it, man, his gunner told him one night when Serb prisoners were turned over to them.

Who the fuck are you to tell me what to do? They’re orders. If you don’t like them, you know who you can complain to.

Eventually, he did stop. It got to be too much. Beating them up with his rifle. Kicking them. Afterward, he’d lie down and think that what he was doing was wrong, but he rationalized that it was just an order. Protect the mission. He felt further and further removed from his family. He called his wife every night until he had nothing to say to her and then he stopped calling. When his unit was ordered home in September 1999, Rebolledo didn’t want to leave. His life was in Kosovo, not the U.S. But he had no choice. He returned to Fort Bragg, feeling as if he had landed in a foreign country. Too accustomed to being in the field among dead bodies, he slept outside. He got wasted all the time and cited for drunken driving. But drunk or sober, he was home. In March 2000, he received a general discharge and returned to civilian life. Four months later, his wife gave birth to a son.

Rebolledo found work as a security guard. In 2005, he got back into construction and also received another DUI. He dreamed of Kosovo, of dead babies. His temper flared. Yet he met all his familial obligations. He built a construction business, bought a house. He put food on the table, money in the bank. He would eventually seek help from the Department of Veterans Affairs for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The Great Recession broke him. Three construction jobs canceled. He owed $5,000 a month for a warehouse where he stored his equipment. His trucks were repossessed. He had to sell the house.

In May 2007, Rebolledo was charged with felony forgery for attempting to cash a $750 check that he said he got for doing a stucco job. He was given probation. Authorities arrested him again three months later, this time for driving with a suspended driver’s license as a result of his DUIs, a violation of his parole. He was sentenced to sixteen months in prison and came to the attention of immigration. He was released after eight months and turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for removal proceedings.

The immigration officials transferred him to a detention center in El Centro, California, in 2009. His wife divorced him, and the following year he was deported to Mexicali, Mexico. He had no money. Only his prison clothes, gray on gray sweats. On the bus ride to the border, a guard told him, You’re a vet, right? So am I. OK, you didn’t hear this from me. Check it out. You have seventy-two hours to get back into the States before your residency card is canceled.

In Mexicali, Rebolledo called his sister. She spoke to their father. He met Rebolledo in Tijuana and brought his residency card. Crossing back into California, Rebolledo told a border patrol officer, I was in the Eighty-Second Airborne.

I’m a Marine, the guard said. Come on, come on, you can go, I don’t need your ID.

Living with his parents in LA again, Rebolledo worked construction. For two years, no problem. Then in January 2012, a police officer pulled him over for speeding near a Carl’s Jr. He had no license, no state identification. The officer brought him into the Baldwin Park Police station and ran his fingerprints. No warrants, but his prints were sent to ICE.

About six weeks later, six ICE agents showed up at his ­parents’ house. Six-thirty in the morning. Rebolledo got out of bed to answer the door. Squinting. His parents standing behind him. The sun barely up, the houses of the ­neighborhood slowly revealing themselves within the fading darkness. Nothing else. No neighbors about. The noise of a car somewhere far off.

Step out a minute sir, one of the agents told him. Are you Fabian?


Do you have ID?

Rebolledo gave them his card from Veterans Affairs.

Where were you deployed?


Really? I was in Pristina.


I was with the 379th.

I was with the 505th Engineering.

Can I see your DD214?

Rebolledo showed him his discharge papers. The officer said that two other officers with him were veterans, too. He walked a few paces away from Rebolledo to confer with them.

I can’t deport a vet, Rebolledo overheard him say.

What do we do? one of the officers said.

No one spoke. Rebolledo heard their shoes scuff the concrete as they shifted their bodies, not saying anything. Heads down, glancing at one another. Thinking.

Say he wasn’t here.

They gave Rebolledo his DD214 back.

Sorry, you’re not who we’re looking for, the first officer said.

A month later, about six-thirty in the morning again, Rebolledo’s mother woke him up. ICE is here, she said. Sure he would be taken in this time, he hugged his parents goodbye. He dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and met the agents at the front door. He showed them his VA card. They consulted amongst themselves as the previous agents had, returned his card and apologized for bothering him.

But on the morning of June 24, 2012, his veteran status no longer mattered to the half-dozen ICE agents who confronted him at his parents’ house. Seven in the morning. He was dressed and preparing to pick up his son at his ex-wife’s. A trip to the mall to buy the boy some clothes topped his agenda.

Today is not your lucky day, one of the ICE agents said.

By J. Malcolm Garcia

J. Malcolm Garcia is a freelance journalist and the author of "The Khaarijee: A Chronicle of Friendship and War in Kabul" and "What Wars Leave Behind: The Faceless and the Forgotten." He is a recipient of the Studs Terkel Prize for writing about the working classes and the Sigma Delta Chi Award for excellence in journalism. His work has been anthologized in Best American Travel Writing, Best American Essays, and Best American Nonrequired Reading.

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Book Excerpts Deportations Ice Immigration Kosovo Military Ptsd U.s. Veterans Veterans Vietnam War