Season Two, Episode 07 – Banished Veterans, Part I

Important: Everything Is Stories is created specifically for listening and is best experienced audibly. If you have the means, we highly recommend listening to the audio version. It captures the emotions and emphasis that cannot be conveyed on the written page. Transcripts are produced using a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, so there may be some errors. It is advised to refer to the accompanying audio for accurate quotes when using this content in print.

HECTOR BARAJAS: You know, I have a really bad memory. I don’t know if it’s because of- cause I was, I’m a paratrooper and I had quite a bit of concussions and some other things. I think some of my drug abuse also. I don’t remember too many things. I just remembered going into the military. I remember going to a hotel where they let you stay the night before and signing up. My parents were happy because I was getting into trouble. And I wore the baggy pants and the shaved head. And so I went from that to wearing a green uniform and having that sense of pride. And I was gonna start my new life away from everything. I was gonna have a GI bill. There was promises of citizenship.

I have the Humanitarian Award, Army Accommodations, National Defense, a Good Conduct Medal. The Humanitarian Award is from Hurricane Fran, service ribbon for being in service. My airborne wings. So I have various tattoos. I have a Compton tattoo, I have the Mexican emblem. I have my brother, my sister who passed away. I have a friend that passed away as well, that got killed, my daughter’s name. Is, On my back, I have a paratrooper with with wings, skull. And I have a big tattoo it says Banished Veteran. The reason I got that is because I really believe in what we’re doing, and in a sense we are banished.

We’re forgotten. Well, my name’s Hector Barajas-Varela, and we’re at in Tijuana, Mexico. And we’re at the– what we call the bunker. Which is the deported Veterans Support House. Where we take in men that are deported. That serve the US military either honorably or dishonorably. It doesn’t matter to us. As long as you served in your wore uniform. I was born in Fresnillo, Zacatecas, which is down south. I came to the United States when I was about seven years old, illegally.

My parents are originally from Zacatecas. Which is like a ranch. There was no water, no electricity, a farming community. So I remember going with my grandpa instead of using like tractors, they would’ve to use like donkeys to– primitive compared to like what they have in the states. Farm corn, they farm frijoles, beans, chile. The poverty that we live in. You have to go get water from a water hole instead of just turning on the faucet. But I remember using the– to clean ourselves or the bathroom it was the– after you take off the corn, whats’s left of the corn, that’s what we’d use for toilet paper.

My parents were already in the United States when– cuz they left us. And then one of our aunts took us to Tijuana and that’s how we ended up crossing over. I’m not sure how, how we ended up in the States. I just know that my parents were probably saving up enough money. To be able to pay the coyote or whoever was gonna bring us down. I had no idea about the United States or anything like that. Just another place. I don’t think when you’re a kid you don’t think about immigration. For us it was, we were just going on a trip and we ended up with our parents. So we had no idea what immigration or the United States was. Now you’re just in a better place with your parents. That was it.

When I first got here, , I got here to Gardena, California. So it was it was a lot better than the states. You had hot water and turn on the gas stove and instant gas. And caught on pretty quick to English. And had really good grades. My parents , when they came to United States, they were able to get their green cards and once they were able to get their green cards and then we got our green cards. Must have been in the sixth grade when that happened. Elementary and middle school, I was really into my education. We went to DC. One of my teachers actually paid for my trip to go to DC. So I was doing really good. And like I said that’s just grew up like any old American kid until I went to Compton.

AUDIO CLIP: Far as we can tell, authorities are unable to control. Now the curfew soon will be in effect and then we’ll see what effect that has. 

HECTOR BARAJAS: Compton is just a city that’s in a very rough town from the seventies and up. 

AUDIO CLIP: Less than 10% of the young people are in gangs, yet they are responsible for as much as half the crime.

HECTOR BARAJAS: And then the eighties, there was a lot of drugs and gangs and that’s when it was really active. A lot of racial division.

AUDIO CLIP: They’re across the street, down the road, up the hill, around the corner. All around .Ritualized combat with large forces and darkened schoolyards and parks. 

HECTOR BARAJAS: When it really, when you really get a sense of those things is when you start hitting middle school. There was division like with the Mexican kids would only hang out with the Mexican kids. And there was gangs already there and racial fights. A black neighborhood where were not wanted and you couldn’t walk this area. 

AUDIO CLIP: It is likely to be a very, very long night tonight when things may not be much better tomorrow.

HECTOR BARAJAS: And then high school was just, it was, it got even worse. I was ditching a lot in high school. Hung out with with a certain crowd. Guys that were in gangs and stuff like that. Surenos the I grew up guys from 155th Street. A lot of those guys are in prison or dead. And my teachers actually, they, I guess they saw something in me. And they would tell me, Hey get your act together.

And then I was DJing in high school. I just bought my equipment and stuff like that. Since I grew up listening to rap, I played rap and old school. Yeah, parties and like friends parties. I still have my equipment right out there. I ended up getting kicked outta high school for not going to class. And then just– I did get into, quite a bit of fights and stuff like that. I would see the ROTC guys. But like, they never really interested me until the recruiters started coming around. 

AUDIO CLIP: The Army’s special two year enlistment can get you to college two years wiser, and with the GI Bill and the Army College Fund up to $17,000 richer.

HECTOR BARAJAS: I want to get away from all this bullshit, you know, and get away from everything. Just the thought of being a soldier, everybody wants to be a GI Joe. Everybody wants to wear a uniform. And for me it was a form of getting away. I didn’t have really any future where am I– what, am I gonna work at a factory for the rest of my life? So, the thought of joining the military was something that I just have to sign some papers and I’m, and I’m gone and, and I start my new career.

So it was really awesome because I got to meet so many different people. Puerto Ricans and white kids and black kids that had nothing to do with gangs or none of that bullshit. I was promised citizenship when I joined the military, but after being in the military after a while, that was not a fact. The expectation that you’re gonna go and kill and or whatever is, that’s obviously, that’s put into, into your head in basic training. But you’re joining the military, you’re not joining the Girl Scouts.

Part of the reason I joined was obviously patriotism. Totally feel that this is still my country. Even though I’m still– I’m over here. And part of it is just getting the hell away from– the hell outta dodge, where I’m at. Opportunities to do something and to have your college paid for. I finished basic training, did my AIT in Fort Sam Houston. Where you learned your type of job that you’re gonna be doing.

And I couldn’t go infantry because I’m colorblind. I didn’t know I was colorblind until I joined the military. So there’s a lot of things that I– just off the bat, I could not do. I was going in actually as a patient administration. So told me I was gonna be working at a hospital. Pretty nurses and all these good things. From there, I went to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. And that’s when I had orders to go to 44th Med. So I was gonna be in a regular hospital job and finish my military service right there. But when I got to there,– Fort Bragg, North Carolina is known for the home of the Airborne or the 82nd Second Airborne, which is America’s Guard of Honor. 

AUDIO CLIP: It takes skill and courage to earn the wings of an airborne soldier, a way to deliver soldiers directly to the battlefield, anywhere in the world, rapidly and ready to fight.

HECTOR BARAJAS: So you’re like, shit, I wanna do that, and I decided to do it. Interesting enough, rarely happens, but most of the guys that went to the airborne units already were qualified as airborne. So I went to the unit without being qualified as airborne. So I went and went there with no wings. Everybody’s already qualified, and you’re like the only one.

AUDIO CLIP: To attend. You must volunteer and arrive in good condition for daily physical training. Practicing parachute landing calls until you get them right. 

HECTOR BARAJAS: The thing about jumping is, you don’t really know what’s gonna happen. Parachutes are designed so you can hit the ground as soon as possible. So that the enemy doesn’t pick you off in the air. There’s that fear of my parachute gonna open. Or am I going to– they talk about guys getting tangled together or landing the trees. All these different things. Guys breaking their knees or your legs. Guys yelling and screaming. And your heart’s pounding. You’re not expecting all this.

Commotion going on and guys behind you pushing you and shit like that. And wait a minute, this shit wasn’t happening everyone. So you had the jump commands. And you have your arm up to the static line and you’re about to go out and jump out the door. So when you go out the door, you’re actually– you hand the static line to the jump master and you make a right left, depending on which side of the airplane you’re in. And you exit door and you’re you counted 1000, 2000, 3000, 4,000. You feel that shock and you look up, you see your canopy.

The one I remember the most is the night jump. So one of the things that I remember clearly is, is it was really beautiful cause I was able to see the. The moon it was, and it was really, you know, sometimes it’s really dark and you don’t see much, but came to mind for some reason, and I don’t know why this came up. I’ve had friends that have gotten killed or– the environment that I lived in and I’m here I am just enjoying this beautiful view and just, I don’t know why that came to mind. I just said’s one of the things I do remember.

It was awesome, but then you hit like a sack of shit. There was this one malfunction that I had where I think that some of that stuff is messes with my memory and a couple things. It was a collapsed parachute. It landed a little bit harder, and I was out not sure how long. Just came back too and had headaches and my back was killing me. But you don’t feel it when you’re 18, 19 years old and your, your body’s hitting the ground like a, you know, sack of potatoes.

Depending on what kind of unit you’re in, I was ended up getting attached to the 307 Ford Support Battalion. So we were a support battalion for the infantry. We were a medical battalion. I was actually in a platoon with medics. You’re always training for war, for combat. I did not serve in combat, but I was ready to go and to be caught upon whenever I was needed. When I was at Fort Bragg, I actually figured I was not a US citizen. So when you go into the military, it’s different now, you’re 18 years old, you’re jumping outta planes or you’re going off overseas or whatnot. They try to take care of everything in charge of making sure that you’re SGLI you’re insurance, you’re power of attorney.

There’s all these different mechanisms in the military that try to make sure that all these things are done so that when you deploy, you don’t have to worry about your pay or your wife getting paid or in case you die. The military? Never. Never. I never got counseled and I never saw any entity that said, okay, well you know what? You need to get your citizenship. Nowadays it’s a little bit different. They do mass swear-ins, they have somebody follow you from my understanding to make sure that gets done. The difference between back then there was a three year waiting period for you to get your citizenship as to now, which is expedited.

Finished my time with division and then from there. Re-enlisted and signed up for another three. Signed up for four the first time. From there, I had a choice of duty station and I picked El Paso, Texas. Your military job can be used in the civilian field. So I worked in air evacuations, births, and deaths. It started like a regular job because you went in from nine to five. During that time, I was going through a bunch of problems. Started drinking a lot, personal problems and just work stuff and then relationships. From the drinking, I started actually abusing drugs and stuff like that while I was in the military.

I ended up going to one of my NCOs and I told him, you know, I have this problem I’m using and it was a self-referral. They basically sent me to a substance abuse counselor. Supposed to do it for six months, and that was it. But my counselor just– hey, Hector, you need to go into inpatient. So I listened to my counselor and I ended up going to Point Loma California for a one month inpatient.

Thing is, once you’re in that inpatient program, then you, you have to have a whole year of being with no incidents at all. So you could have– if you get caught once with a DUI or piss test and you come out hot, you’re getting processed out. And I caught a D U I when, when I came back to El Paso, Texas in Fort Bliss.

I just remember being with my cousins and some friends and just drunk outta my mind. What happens is when you go to a civilian jail, they see your military ID or one whatnot, then they call the base. And I remember sobering up real quick. Like, fuck, you know what I just do. They wanted to kick me out with a dishonorable. But my NCO pretty much backed me. Hey, this guy’s a hard worker.

And (if he) gets out with dishonorable discharge he’s gonna get stigmatized. They ended up processing me out of military. Giving me honorable discharge. I still got all my benefits, my GI bill and all those things. And the chapter that I got is I could not re-enlist. So that, that really sucked because I really wanted to stay in. I had just done a six– almost six year term in the military. So like, my life is over. This is something that I loved.

So I get outta the military. I was still having the same problems with alcohol. And got into a deeper hole. People go through bad times, it just, some of us are susceptible to that and some of us aren’t. This was in 2001 around November, December. So I decided to come visit my family in Christmas. I was still using during that time. So basically I was with some people and scoring some more dope. I ended up getting in a vehicle with somebody and they were on meth. They thought somebody was following us and fired a weapon at the other vehicle– in a random vehicle. I’m pretty sure that he got paranoid.

They took us in. One of the people that was fired upon said that I was the shooter. One of the other persons said I was not, that it was an African-American. Looking into attempting murders, in 2001. Started– was going through the whole court proceedings. And the cops were asking me, well, all you gotta do is just tell us what happened. So that meant me telling on somebody and I just didn’t do it. They said, well, you could take it all the way to court, and you’re looking at, 15 years of life, like, oh shit. Or you just, just take this charge and you’re looking at three years With halftime. I ended up pleading guilty to discharge of a firearm. I ended up going to prison for a bit over two years.

I had never really been into the system as far as prison or jail or nothing like that. So prison’s a totally different world. You gotta align yourself with a certain race or gang. You have to, you have no choice. See people getting beat up for just stupid shit. Just for talking to the wrong person. For not wearing sandals, for just saying the wrong thing. So prison was very– it opened up my eyes to the system and I did not ever want to go back to prison again. From there they– I was supposed to parole cuz they gave me my parole papers too.

So I was supposed to parole and then they’re the guys in the holding cells are like, oh, you’re gonna get released and immigration didn’t come for you. Sure enough, they came for me. Anybody who is a non-citizen that has a green card basically, or does not have a green card that commits a felony, Can be deported. Basically, anybody in prison is there for a felony. So a felony is an automatic deportation.

When I finished my prison sentence, they put a immigration hold on me. So they actually called me into an office and told me, Hey, do you know that you’re gonna be deported? I’m like, why? You know I served in the military why would I get deported. And why is this happening to me? The thought of me getting deported and losing everything and not being able to come back was like, no way.

They put me on a plane from California to Arizona. So in Arizona I was not able to get an attorney, so I had to defend myself. So now I’m fucking– I’m going from being an inmate to a fucking attorney, all of a sudden. They don’t appoint attorneys to you. I went before this judge. I put a package together basically saying, this is Hector Barajas, he’s a good citizen, served in the military.

Accomplishments and all the different classes that I took in prison and county jail. And part of the argument was, is that because I served in the military, I’m a US national. So a US national is by law or immigration law is somebody that owes their permanent allegiance to the United States. Somebody that served the country is to me, I’m a US national. Again, during that time, I did not understand what I was trying to tell the judge and now I do. He said, well, thank you for serving our country, but you know, you committed this felony and you can appeal it. If I appealed it, I was looking at another three years in prison.

I do remember telling the judge I’d rather fight my case from the outside and try to vacate my case. I was starting to understand some of the law. I was deported in 2004 to Nogales. So basically they put us in a van to other people and I just remember a gate opening up. They closed the gate and that was it. There was no receiving a Mexican authority. So like the clothes off your back and you’re still kind of scared because you don’t really know where the hell you’re at. You’ve never been to this city.

The only good thing that I had going on is my family was already waiting for me in Nogales .And I went down south for a couple months. I stayed with my grandmothers for a while, for about six months. Back to this little ranch that I remember since I was a little kid and we had visited a couple times but now I’m like staying there permanently.

My grandfather wanted me to stay here, help around the farm, and I’m like, this is not my life. I’m not gonna stay here. When you are deported you, you sign a paper that says, that if you come back and you get caught, you’re looking at 2-20 years in a federal prison. So I’m like, man, if I get caught, I’m going back to the same place I was at. My longing to being in the United States was that– fuck it, it’s worth it.

And being here, there’s no way I’m staying here I don’t mind risking it. That’s why there’s so many people that immigrate to United States. Because if you have to cross the desert, if you have to– whether it’s cartels that are gonna– might kill you or kidnap you or leave you in the middle of the desert. Or so many people dying, not just here in Mexico, but all over the world. That you’re willing to put yourself through that so you can have a better life. So for me it was like better life is in the United States. 

AUDIO CLIP: It’s a new worry on our southern border tonight with border agents overwhelmed by this huge recent surge in illegal immigrants. The cartels are now taking advantage. We have a cinematic idea of what the US Mexico border looks like. Razor wire, helicopters, and soaring fences.

HECTOR BARAJAS: Decided to come back. I cannot get into details about how I came back, but I crossed illegally. And I did do that. I’m open about that. 

PRODUCER: We’ve interviewed people that don’t want to say certain elements of their life. The question I’m kinda asking you is, what’s the nature of why you can’t tell us? 

HECTOR BARAJAS: Just, I just can’t talk about it. I went back and I started my new life. I actually started working as a roofer for the union. And as an illegal or undocumented person, I was making $32 an hour. And within two years I had a daughter. I moved in with girlfriend and sort of the American family. Birthday parties, hanging out with my family, just paying rent. I couldn’t tell nobody that I’m a veteran. I couldn’t go to the Veterans Day parade and wear my uniform.

I couldn’t get the jobs that I could probably get if I hadn’t been deported. Roofing is a very hard job and there was days when they fucking screw you over on hours. And as an undocumented person, you can’t say shit. I gotta put up with the bullshit. So waking up at five o’clock in the morning to get at the job site at eight and work long hours and drive back. And always, you know what if they stop me?

What happened was basically, I was pulled over, had a minor infraction, or I hit somebody and it was basically supposed to be a ticket, but it was an accident. The guy decided to run a check on the residence where I was living at. I didn’t pay a ticket. There was a warrant for my arrest. I ended up going to Palmdale Court and that’s where I was working construction. It was time served, but then, hey, you know you’re gonna go through immigration again. They actually let me make a phone call so they can send all my paperwork.

And they said they were going to either reinstate my deportation, let me parole. But they ended up deporting me. So I got deported for 20 years the first time, and I got deported for life in 2009. I only have one daughter. My daughter’s name is Leanna. And just the love of my life. She was a little baby. She’s a little baby still. When I got deported was– she was about four years old. And, just, that’s the most difficult thing I think ever. Everything that I’ve gone through, prison, all none of that, but just being separated from your kid is very difficult.

This time I was deported to Tijuana and decided I’m not going to go back anymore. I’m gonna do it the right way because I have family involved now. And I decided to say, well, you know what? I’m gonna dedicate my full time to Deported Veterans and everything just led up to where we’re at right now.