Deported combat veterans open their doors to former soldiers in exile

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Juarez shelter provides food, clothes and advice for ex-military who lost the American Dream

JUAREZ, Mexico (Border Report) — At 74, Jose Francisco Lopez Moreno is looking for a second chance at the American Dream.

The Vietnam War veteran found himself deported to Mexico in 2003 after being busted for trying to buy drugs, to which he got addicted in order to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

“I arrived in the United States legally as a child. At 14 I had a green card (a legal U.S. permanent resident document) and a few years later I was drafted to go to Vietnam,” said Lopez, sitting in the living room of a house in a Juarez neighborhood near a park and a school. “When many of us left the service, we were not well. There were a lot of drugs over there. I came back very confused, so I turned to drugs. Trying to buy drugs got me deported.”

Being legally admitted to the United States is a privilege that can be taken away for committing certain felonies or crimes of “moral turpitude.” That applies to non-citizens regardless of military service in the U.S. armed forces.

That’s something that Lopez would like to see Congress change. In the meantime, he and a friend have opened a shelter in Juarez to help other deported veterans adjust to a new and terrifying reality.

“I was very depressed, I was in disbelief when I got deported. I felt betrayed because I put my life on the line for the U.S. and they deported me. I got to Mexico with nothing but the clothes on my back. … It is something I do not wish upon anyone else. It is terrifying,” Lopez said.

Since 2017, the home on 3116 Calle del Arno has hosted dozens of veterans, providing food, sleeping quarters, clothes, personal care items, advice on how to apply for Veterans Affairs benefits and, above all, solidarity, its founders say. Lopez and shelter co-director Ivan Ocon rely on a Facebook page and veteran contacts in the Southwestern United States to find other deported ex-soldiers and offer a helping hand.

Providing others some comfort

“When I got to Mexico I didn’t know what to do. I was 58, almost 59 years old and, after so many years in the United States, my Spanish wasn’t so good,” Lopez said. “I found a distant aunt and she let me stay in her apartment. I survived doing odd jobs, painting houses, painting cars, gardening, installing floors and sometimes picking up aluminum and to sell so I could eat.”

It took him several years to get established in Juarez, where eventually he bought a home in a nice, quiet neighborhood. Then one day he saw a group of deported veterans from Tijuana on television. They were being organized by a man named Hector Barajas. Lopez made it his mission to go meet him and start a similar project here.

“He helped me set up, he gave me some contacts in Juarez and then me and Ivan started the Juarez Bunker,” he said, referring to the shelter. “Little by little, we started this project.”

The shelter has received donations from veterans in the U.S. who have also given Lopez and Ocon flags from each branch of the service. They have used those in public events such as one last Memorial Day in Juarez’s Chamizal Park. And in solidarity with other migrants, the shelter has recently been hosting people who come to one-day interviews at the U.S. Consulate in Juarez as part of their immigration process. “Mostly we’ve been helping DACA recipients with their documents and interviews because they can only come to Juarez for that,” Lopez said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The shelter has assisted 25 deported veterans and is trying to locate 20 more reported to be in the area. No one keeps track of the number of ex-service members that the United States has deported.

‘It’s an injustice’ that must be stopped

A folded ceremonial flag rests atop a shelf at the shelter. “Dog tags” — soldiers’ metal IDs — hang from a perch on a wall next to the photos of deported veterans who have died in Mexico. Those are icons that remind Lopez and Ocon of their commitment to helping their peers.

“Most of the veterans get deported for drugs or DWIs; very few for violent offenses,” Ocon said. The Oñate High School graduate found himself in Juarez after pleading guilty to aiding and abetting his brother, who allegedly kidnapped the relative of a man who robbed him at gunpoint during a drug deal gone wrong.

Ocon, who served on a Patriot missile battalion in Jordan during Operation Desert Storm, said veterans who commit crimes in the United States have several avenues for rehabilitation. In essence, they get a second, third or fourth chance, while those who happen not to be U.S. citizens but took the same risks in combat don’t get a second chance.

“I grew up as an American; I didn’t think about (the naturalization process). My recruiter told me I’d become a citizen after enlisting … I didn’t think too much about it at the time because I already thought of myself as an American,” Ocon said.

Lopez served in Vietnam in 1967-68 as part of the 540th Transportation Company and keeps a uniform that sports the Vietnam Service Medal and other icons that attest to his coming under enemy fire on several occasions.

“We are fighting now so they don’t deport any more veterans. It’s an injustice. We risked our lives in the Army like any other soldier and they send us away as if we were trash. All we are asking for is a second chance,” Lopez said.

For more information on the Deported Veterans Support House in Juarez, email Lopez at panchito25114@gmail.com or Ocon at ivanokiocon@gmail.com.

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