Private First Class Andres De Leon, 72, signed up for the U.S. Army to fight in Vietnam when he turned 18-years-old at a time many were trying to avoid the war. He served for 12 years and spent two full years overseas before being honorably discharged. Like many veterans, he suffers from depression, that spiraled out of control when his mother passed away. But unlike most veterans, his depression led to him being deported.
De Leon may have moved to Madera, California with his family legally when he was 12-years-old but he was deported when he became addicted to heroin to medicate his depression and was eventually arrested for possession. Section 237 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (I.N.A.) lists this as a valid reason for deportation and three years into his sentence at Soledad State Prison, ICE came knocking.
By 2009, an immigration judge ordered De Leon back to Mexico where he hasn't lived for over 50 years. He's living in Tijuana today in a one room apartment after spending his first few weeks homeless and on the streets. With no friends or family and certainly no veterans benefits, his sister fears that his type-2 diabetes isn't being taken care of.
"I got no choice," he told a local TV station Fox40 back home. "I have to stay here but I'm doing the best I can."
His story is sad enough and you would think that there aren't many like him, but you'd be wrong. Once back in Mexico he met Hector Barajas, a former paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne who told De Leon there were dozens like them. In 2013, Barajas started a safe house for veterans from the United States that are deported to Mexico.
“We believe none of these men should be left behind," he said. "We talk about supporting the troops, let’s keep supporting these men. Treat these men with honor.”
One in six veterans who served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq suffer from a substance abuse issue. Those veterans who seek treatment for PTSD report alcohol-use disorders to the tune of 60 to 80 percent, according to the National Center for PTSD.
De Leon, Barajas and their friends are victims of cracks in a complicated system. Justice For Vets is an organization that works to help veterans that end up in the courts because of drug and alcohol abuse. They work with veteran treatment courts that require mandatory treatment and court appearances to help incentivize veterans to get clean and sober. But immigrants aren't eligible if they break the law. They're simply deported.
"I’ve been told the only way I can return is dead. So, if dead is the only way I can return, I would like to be buried with my friends in the Catholic Cemetery in Madera, California," De Leon said.
"Why would they honor us only when we die? They’re going to give an American flag to our families and say, 'Thank you for your service to your country,'" Barajas said. "If you want to honor our men, let them get their treatment. Let them live with their families."