Marines Take Out Taliban Kingpin Responsible for Killing, Maiming Troops
HOPE HODGE SECK, MILITARY.COM
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This article by Hope Hodge Seck originally appeared on Military.com, the premier source of information for the military and veteran community.
HELMAND PROVINCE, Afghanistan — A Taliban shadow governor who had planned and executed improvised explosive device attacks on Marines and Afghan soldiers for well over a decade was killed in a precision airstrike just days before Christmas, Marines here told Military.com.
Task Force Southwest, the 300-Marine element that deployed to Helmand province as an advisory force for the Afghan National Defense Forces in April, does most of its work from inside the wire, supporting the local troops who patrol and launch ground attacks. But this recent strike on local Taliban mastermind Qari Fida Mohammad illustrates the impact Marines continue to have on the active fight.
Mohammad, longtime shadow governor of the restive Helmand district of Marjah, was killed Dec. 20, task force spokeswoman Maj. Kendra Motz said.
Standing inside the unit’s operations center, where 11 large flat screens featured detailed live drone footage from around Helmand province, Capt. Brian Hubert explained how the strike happened.
“Through the work of the intelligence sections as well as the operations in here, and coordination with the Afghans as well, we were able to conduct a strike on him a few days ago,” said Hubert, battle captain for Task Force Southwest. “Basically, we’re very familiar with the battlespace now. So when we see the leaders we know are important there, we can kind of do a bead on them.”
The unit started tracking Mohammad with its eyes in the sky. When he was well positioned as a target, the Marines called in two Air Force F-16 Fighting Falcons to execute the strike.
“He was in a vehicle traveling with deputies, bodyguards, and a cousin of his, who was also a sub-commander,” Hubert said. “We took the shot successfully, and [he was] dead on the spot, which was huge.”
Mohammad, who was based in the Taliban hotbed of Marjah, but operated throughout Helmand province, had been well-known to the Marines for years.
Col. Matthew Reid, deputy commander of the task force, told Military.com he had known about Mohammad in 2010, when he deployed to Helmand for active combat operations.
“We’re still not really fully aware of the exact ramifications of taking him out,” Reid said. “It was a pretty big takedown, so we’re pretty happy about it. He was behind a lot of attacks against Marines back in the day — really high profile attacks.”
Hubert said the task force was now tracking the impact of Mohammad’s elimination. Ahead of the strike, he said, Marines had watched via drone footage as local civilians took to their homes, fearful of being blamed and facing violent reprisal if any attack were launched on the shadow governor. Now, he said, newly leaderless Taliban fighters in southern Marjah are acting disorganized and confused, without orders to carry out.
“Supposedly, [Mohammad] also had a lot of intimidation where he killed full families; he was absolutely just a Mafia-style Taliban leader in that area,” Hubert said, adding that he regularly demanded ‘taxes’ from local civilians by force. “Taking him out … hopefully provides the residents of Marjah and the southern end a little bit of a ‘hey, maybe it’s a turn.’”
For the Marines, Marjah is a region full of history. It’s the site of some of the service’s most hard-fought battles in Helmand. Some 50 American troops died in the 2010 joint siege on Marjah, known as Operation Moshtarak. When Marines departed Afghanistan in 2014, Marjah was considered relatively stable; but by 2016 it had fallen back under Taliban control.
Marines are now working to empower Afghan troops from the local 215th Corps of the Afghan National Army to hold the line. When the small task force arrived, the provincial capital city of Lashkar Gah was on the verge of being overtaken by the Taliban, Marines said. Now, with support from the Task Force, the soldiers have restored stability to the town and are beginning to move offensively against the Taliban.
In a shura with Navy Secretary Richard Spencer and Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller on Dec. 23, Helmand provincial governor Hayatullah Hayat said Afghan troops continue to take daily casualties in the fight.
But task force personnel continue to exact a daily toll against the Taliban as well. On a December visit to the operations center, a dark plume of smoke rose from a road on one of the screens — evidence of a precision strike carried out only minutes before.
From the screens, Hubert said, Marines had watched a pair of Taliban fighters carrying weapons dig a hole in a road south of the Marjah district center, intending to emplace IEDs ahead of a trip Afghan National Security Forces intended to make to the center.
Afghan Air Force A-29 Super Tucanos were in the air at the time, and Marines reached out and shared what they were seeing, offering them the opportunity to take out the fighters.
“They couldn’t quite get it, so we stepped in,” Hubert said. “We took the shot with F-16s and killed the two enemy. So now, they’re free to move toward the Marjah district center unimpeded by any kind of enemy contact right now.”
The process of identifying targets and executing strikes is a collaborative one, Hubert explained. Often the Marines will share what they’re seeing and make recommendations to the Afghan troops about how to respond, but leave the decision-making to them. The Afghan troops also play a significant role in the intelligence-gathering: in addition to ground reports, they maintain their own ScanEagle drone, its footage featured on one of the screens at the operations center.
As one target smoldered on the screen, Marines were tracking another: two men traveling up a road, south of friendly forces, one carrying a weapon on his back, concealed by clothing.
“We can see [the weapon] by the shape and size of what it looks like, then we’ll see him take it out,” Hubert explained.
In the course of several hours that morning, the Marines would coordinate the elimination of a half-dozen Taliban fighters.
The recent strike against Mohammad, and the daily strikes on Taliban targets, illustrate the intensity of the fight the Marines are still waging, albeit from a greater distance than they were during active combat in support of Operation Enduring Freedom four years ago.
“I know we want to bring in governance, and I know we want institutional fixes. But right now, this is a fight,” said Reid, the task force deputy commander. “And as Marines, when we’re fighting, we’re going to kill the enemy, and we’re going to kill as many as we can.”
A female sergeant with the British Army’s Special Reconnaissance Regiment is being lauded as the U.K.’s “GI Jane” after reportedly killing at least three Islamic State militants in a town near the Syria-Iraq border after an intelligence mission went awry in September, according to the Daily Star.
The woman — who was not identified in the original Daily Star report — was on a team with Special Air Service (SAS) troops, SRR personnel and an MI6 officer, tasked with arranging a meeting around a female ISIS informant. The informant came forward after she was forced to marry a “prominent terrorist commander,” and she offered to provide U.K. forces with intel on the militant’s location, in exchange for safe passage, Daily Star reports.
After meeting with the informer, the team made their way through an “urban area” to a predetermined rendezvous point, the Daily Star reports, but as they were pulling out, they came under attack by Islamic State militants.
The team dismounted their vehicles and returned fire with small arms; the female sergeant took up a position as a rearguard to cover the vehicles, armed with a Heckler and Koch MP5K — a submachine gun geared more toward delivering a high volume of “f— you and die” in close quarters than precision marksmanship.
“Every time a terrorist appeared she dropped them,” one source told the Daily Star, adding that she kept her teammates apprised of what was happening in the rear with a “running commentary” — which, if I had to guess, probably sounded like this: “I’m up, he sees me — ratatatatatat! — okay, all good, he’s down.”
“She took down at least three terrorists who were very close to over-running her position,” the source continued. “She reacted in the way the special forces are trained to do when they are involved in close quarter battle. She had her colleagues’ backs throughout the firefight and no doubt saved lives.”
The elite SRR was established in 2005 and is the only special forces unit in Great Britain that recruits both male and female personnel from all branches of the military, according to the Telegraph. Tasked with covert surveillance operations, its members and their identities are a closely guarded secret, the Telegraph notes.
Though the unnamed sergeant’s actions have earned her significant praise (and a lot of media attention), she’s not the only woman in Britain’s ranks to go toe-to-toe with Islamic State fighters in recent years. Last January, two female British soldiers — both in their twenties, fluent in Arabic and serving in the SRR — shot their way out of an ambush in Iraq alongside British SAS soldiers, the Daily Star reports.
As for the MP5-rocking sergeant? After the team broke the ambush and made their way back to base, “her colleagues were giving her high fives and calling her Britain’s first GI Jane” — though unlike Demi Moore’s character in the 1997 action flick, she’s real.
Being a professional, she chose to downplay the event, with one source telling the Star that “she made the point women are more than capable of serving on the frontline in special forces units and are just as good as men.”
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Veterans Have An Obligation To Hold Congress Accountable In An Era Of Perpetual War
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For two administrations now, one Democratic and one Republican, America has witnessed a slow-motion ceding of constitutionally allocated war powers from Congress to the president during a time of conflict. Despite much hemming and hawing, countless hearings, and even a few floor votes on repealing the outdated post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military Force, the legislative branch has demonstrated a collective, bipartisan determination that a de facto loss of constitutionally prescribed powers to another branch is preferable to taking a tough political vote. Previously, I have discussed the morally repulsive nature of this determination by America’s elected representatives. What has been largely overlooked is the lesser degree of shared culpability that veterans bear for a tacit acceptance of this status quo.
Many Americans seem to misunderstand the necessity of Congress’s role in providing oversight and direction to the military independent of the executive branch. It almost seems as if both the public and Congress assume military leadership would view congressional action in this regard as an unwelcome interference in military operations. Secretary of Defense James Mattis directly contradicted this notion when discussing an AUMF earlier this year before a Senate committee, stating, “I would take no issue with the Congress stepping forward… I think it’d be a statement of the American people’s resolve if you did so. I thought the same thing for the last several years, I might add, and have not understood why the Congress hasn’t come forward with this, at least the debate.”
Mattis and as well as people like past Joint Chief of Staff Chairman Gen.Martin Dempsey’s comments are far from the only examples of military political leaders voicing a yearning for competent legislative oversight on military affairs. Indeed, this tradition goes all the way back to the Founders. At the time of the framing of the Constitution in 1787, close to half of the signatories were veterans of the Revolutionary War. It was that particular group of veterans who were among those who included Article I in the Constitution, which reserves for Congress the right to declare war. It is not a stretch, therefore, to assume that our country’s founding veteran generation had as one of its prerogatives establishing Congress’s central role in national security priorities while consciously keeping unilateral war-making authority out of the hands of the executive branch. This tradition continued even into the Vietnam era. Nearly three-fourths of lawmakers who served in the 92nd Congress from 1971-1972 had military experience. Less than a year later in November of 1973, the War Powers Resolution was passed overwhelmingly over President Richard Nixon’s veto, representing the most profound legislative limitation of executive war powers since constitutional ratification.
What then accounts for the morass in which we find ourselves in 2017, with a war in Iraq and Syria passing the three-year mark absent congressional authorization in the form of a specific AUMF? Why has a military response seemingly become the preferred solution to every foreign-policy problem the nation encounters in both Democratic and Republican administrations? One answer may lie in the dearth of veteran representation in Congress. As of the beginning of the 115th Congress earlier this year, only 18.8% of the composition was veterans.
Another problem may lie in the yawning civilian-military divide in which the public appears comfortable almost totally detaching itself from decisions on war and peace that will have little personal effect. With no draft, less than 0.5% of the population in uniform, and taxes largely cut over the post-9/11 period with the cost of ongoing wars being put largely on the nation’s credit card, almost no tangible pain as a result of military action exists for the average voter. In both problems, readily apparent solutions do not present themselves. Raising the percentage of veterans in Congress will take time, and with the military at historically low numerical levels, there is much less of a veteran pool to draw from. Implementing a draft would be impractical in today’s highly trained volunteer military, and while tax raises to pay for increased military spending may make fiscal sense, they would likely be too indirect for the public to strongly equate with military interventions and therefore draw little response.
The solution lies in veteran action. Traditionally, large veteran organizations such as the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars among others have advocated on Capitol Hill both on issues specific to veterans and those representing the interests of their brethren still serving in uniform. Historically these organizations have provided a voice for the voiceless on active duty due to the nation’s strict rejection of military personnel intervention on matters of policy. Veteran organizations are well-placed to do so as veterans enjoy much of the cross-over social esteem that the military as an institution enjoys. In a recent 2017 Gallup poll, 72% of respondents registered having either “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of trust in the military, a number that stands in stark contrast to Congress’s anemic 12%. It was with great disappointment, therefore, that upon exiting active duty six months ago and examining the legislative priorities of the largest veteran organizations, I found not one mention efforts to encourage Congress to discharge its constitutional obligations toward the public and military through debate and vote on a new AUMF.
Among individual veterans, too, there has been a dereliction of duty. At a recent town hall event, upon asking my district’s congressman how many veterans had called him demanding he take a stand and call for an AUMF vote, he responded that I was the first. This must change. In a country enamored with military conflict that is simultaneously largely detached from its troops, veterans must bridge the gap. They must return to their traditional role of encouraging restraint in military interventions through educating legislators and holding them accountable to providing a check to the executive on matters of war, regardless of what party occupies the White House.
Nathan Smith is a former Army artillery and intelligence officer and veteran of Afghanistan and the counter-ISIS war. He is on Twitter @nate_smith101.
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An Air Force review has found that the branch failed to report “several dozen” service members found guilty of violent offenses to the federal gun background check database, with representatives of the service telling the New York Times that the reporting failure that allowed disgraced airman Devin Patrick Kelley to purchase the firearms he used to murder 26 parishioners in a Sutherland Springs, Texas, church on Nov. 5 “was not an isolated incident.”
In the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting, the Department of Defense determined that Kelley’s 2012 court-martial conviction for beating his wife and infant son should have disqualified him from purchasing firearms, but he was not reported to the FBI for inclusion in the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), the database for firearms-related background checks for private dealers and state outlets. The Air Force review found that since 2002, a whopping 60,000 incidents involving airmen that “potentially” merited inclusion in NICS went unaddressed, according to the New York Times.
“Similar reporting lapses occurred at other locations” besides Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico, where Kelley was stationed, the Air Force said in a statement. “Although policies and procedures requiring reporting were in place, training and compliance measures were lacking.”
Under federal law, anyone dishonorably discharged from the armed forces is prohibited from possessing or receiving firearms or ammo transported across state lines. The 1996 Lautenberg amendment that extends that prohibition to military personnel with domestic violence convictions.
The Air Force has experienced major lapses in reporting serious crimes committed to essential law enforcement databases like NICS for decades. In 1997, a DoD IG report found that the Air Force had failed to report 38 percent of fingerprint cards and 50 percent of criminal case outcomes to the FBI over a six-month period from 1995 to 1996, according to a Nov. 7 Associated Press report; a 2015 follow-up found the branch didn’t report 39 percent of its fingerprint data over a two year period between 2010 and 2012.
The causes of that the gap? “Ambiguous Pentagon guidelines and a lack of interest among the military services in submitting information to an FBI viewed as chronically overburdened with data,” according to the AP report, language echoed in the Air Force’s Nov. 28 statement.
In the wake of Kelley’s rampage and subsequent revelations regarding his troubled history, the Pentagon has been racing to overhaul its background check and criminal reporting procedures. Among the new measures pushed by branch officials, according to the New York Times: a mandate that Air Force Office of Special Investigations personnel “confirm that reportable cases have been entered in the federal database by seeing either a printout or a screenshot from the database.”
“Gear accountability” is a long-standing maxim in the military, and it was probably on the mind of one Marine attack-helicopter pilot when he made an unorthodox landing on Nov. 18 in a public park on Mount Desert Island, Maine, to pick up his lost cellphone.
Jess Witherell, a server at The Thirsty Whale pub, located in the town of Bar Harbor, on the northern side of the island, received an unusual phone call from Hancock Airport in nearby Trenton, according to the Mount Desert Islander. After a group of Marines visited the restaurant for lunch earlier in the day, one of then apparently misplaced their cell phone — and the caller was wondering if a pub employee could pop on over to the nearest stretch of green to drop it off.
When Witherell asked if the Marine would be walking or driving, the caller responded: “We’re landing a helicopter at the ball field.”
For most folks, that’d probably raise some eyebrows, but the staff figured that the helicopter crewman who lost the phone belonged to LifeFlight, an air ambulance service used by the island for evacuations in the case of medical emergencies, according to the Mount Desert Islander. But when pub dishwasher Bryce Lambert arrived at the field, there wasn’t an air ambulance waiting for him, but a AH-1W Super Cobra attack helicopter with a UH-1Y Venom circling overhead.
One of the pilots ran from the helo, met up with Lambert and, in exchange for his phone, “pulled the [velcro] patch off of his jacket and handed it [over]” to say thanks, Lambert told the Islander.
The impromptu landing, while likely entertaining to many, is currently under investigation by the Marine Corps. The aviators belonged to Marine Light Attack Helicopter Squadron 773, a New Orleans-based reserve unit, and were in the area for a training exercise, according to Maj. Andrew Aranda, a spokesman with Marine Corps Forces Reserve Public Affairs.
“Marine Aviators are required to follow strict Federal and Department of Defense aviation procedures so this event is being looked into seriously,” 2nd Lt. Stephanie L. Leguizamon, a spokeswoman with Marine Corps Forces Reserve, told Task & Purpose.
That said, an unexpected trip to a baseball field in an attack helicopter is probably less of a nightmare for a unit commander than having to explain why there’s a phallus-shaped smoke trail in the sky. As for why the aviators decided not to drive? The airport is a half hour’s journey to The Thirsty Whale, Popular Mechanics reports. But by helo, that’s just a few minutes. Maybe instead of a Super Cobra, they should call it an Uber Cobra.
UPDATE: This article has been updated with additional information from Marine Corps Forces Reserve Public Affairs. (11/21/2017; 4:43 p.m. EST)
The UH-60M Black Hawk Helicopter
The Ohio National Guard showcases its newest airframe, the UH-60M Black Hawk helicopter.
Task And Purpose writer James Clark
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At the eleventh hour before it recessed for the summer, the Senate finally got around to some real business: passing a sweeping GI Bill upgrade that extends benefits to more veterans and gives them more time to use those bennies.
The bill — dubbed “the forever GI Bill” by supporters — had been approved unanimously by the House, but its fortunes in the Senate were uncertain after the deliberating body approved a slapdash extension of its voting session into August to consider a bevy of government appointments and a full slate of bills.
closes loopholes that had left some deploying reservists and Purple Heart recipients without any educational benefits. It also increases aid to survivors of deceased service members, restores benefits to victims of for-profit schools, expands the programs that educational assistance can be used on, and — most significantly — allows future service members to use their GI Bill benefits at any point in their lifetimes, doing away with the old 15-year “use it or lose it” limit.
“The passage of the Forever GI Bill shows just how much can be accomplished when military and veterans organizations join forces,” said John Rowan, National President of Vietnam Veterans of America, in a statement.
The new bill, which heads to President Donald Trump’s desk and is expected to be signed into law swiftly, was the product of months of round tables and negotiations between veterans service organizations, non-profits, and politicians across both sides of the aisle.
“This was a truly bipartisan effort led by some amazing organizations and leaders within Congress, all committed to ensuring veterans and their families have the opportunity for a college education post-military service,” said Jared Lyon, president and CEO of Student Veterans of America, in a statement. “I could not be more proud of the team effort that went into making this a reality. This is what collaboration looks like, and this is what leadership looks like.”
Adam Weinstein is a Navy vet and senior editor for Task & Purpose. His work has appeared in Esquire, GQ, Gawker, and the New York Times. Follow Adam Weinstein on Twitter @AdamWeinstein [email protected]
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When President Donald Trump railed against the electromagnetic catapult on the Navy’s brand new USS Gerald Ford and demanded a return to “goddamned steam,” we’re not sure this is what he had in mind.
As part of the daunting and ridiculously expensive task of boosting its 275-ship fleet to 355 hulls in the coming years, the Navy is exploring ways to coax retired and mothballed ships into sailing the open seas again. And while Naval Sea Systems Command Vice Adm. Thomas Moore floated the idea of reactivating a flotilla of Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigates, he also offered a puzzling possibility: the return of the USS Kitty Hawk (CV-63), one of the military’s last conventionally powered aircraft carriers in service when decommissioned in 2009.
“Of the carriers that are in inactive status right now, Kitty Hawk is the one that you could think about,” Moore said in a June 1 interview with DefAero report. “The carriers are pretty old, so I think there’s limited opportunity in the inactive fleet to bring those back, but we’re going to go look at that ship by ship and put that into the mix.”
The first and last carrier of its class, Kitty Hawk has a long and illustrious history. Commissioned in 1961, the 82,000-ton supercarrier’s 18 deployments included six tours in Vietnam War’s, including one during the infamous Tet Offensive; providing contingency operations during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis; supporting U.S.-led coalition forces in Somalia and Iraq in the early 90s; and playing a central role in the early years of the Global War on Terror supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Decommissioned just weeks after her 48th birthday, there’s a good reason the Kitty Hawk earned the nickname “Battle Cat.”
But the Kitty Hawk also has another nickname: “Shitty Kitty,” a term of endearment among many of her former sailors due to the aging vessel’s frequent breakdowns. In Richard Miller’s “A Carrier at War: On Board the USS Kitty Hawk in the Iraq War,” a Navy vet turned photojournalist laid out the carrier’s many problems: “This boat’s old. Old pipes, too many coats of paint, too many welds and re-welds. She’s been around too long. Lots of sailors don’t like her. She’s a pain in the ass to clean and too damned expensive to run.”
While the honor of “Shitty Kitty” is often overshadowed in the media by the 1972 “race riot” between black and white sailors during the carrier’s Vietnam deployment, perpetual maintenance and frequent accidents have remained a pillar of the ship’s identity. One former crewman even characterized the Kitty Hawk in 2017 as “a punishment ship” for less-than-orderly sailors, complete with “its own CDC disease in the form of ‘Kitty Hawk Gastro.’”
With these problems in mind, the prospect of the “Shitty Kitty’s” return to the Navy’s fleet seems trifling compared to the potential return of the Perry-class frigates, which Maritime Executive characterizes as “notoriously hard to sink”:
USS Stark survived two Exocet missiles fired by an Iraqi warplane in 1987, and USS Samuel B. Roberts managed to stay afloat after striking an Iranian mine the following year, despite severe damage. Both vessels were repaired and returned to service. In a live-fire exercise in 2016, the decommissioned USS Thatch absorbed four Harpoon anti-ship missiles; one Maverick missile; multiple Hellfire missiles; one 2,000 lb. bomb; one 500 lb. bomb; and one Mk. 48 torpedo. She stayed afloat for 12 hours (with calm weather, and without fuel or munitions aboard).
But there’s still certainly good reason to wave aside the Hawks’ potential issues. As the War Zone points out, reactivating the supercarrier might prove a useful bridge between the Navy’s current fleet of 10 operation carriers until the USS Gerald Ford is ready for the open seas, both closing the so-called “carrier gap” in the branch’s global deployments, especially with the Department of Defense’s increasing emphasis on fielding more high-tech aircraft to carry out strikes against enemy targets.
But more importantly, reactivating the “Shitty Kitty” might satiate Trump’s demand for a total of 12 seaworthy airbases to project U.S. power across the planet, despite distaste for the vessel among sailors. After all, the four catapults used to assist aircraft on Kitty Hawk-class carriers are all goddamned steam, all the time — just what the Pentagon needs to scare the bejesus out of China.
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It had only been a few weeks, maybe a month, since Jose Camacho had been relieved of his prison shackles and stepped off a U.S. immigration bus into the dusty streets of Ciudad Juárez to set about building a new life south of the border. That’s when an old friend showed up. Not a friend, really — someone he knew. A guy he’d met on the inside. “Let’s get a beer,” he suggested. Camacho didn’t drink anymore, and he told the guy so. But the guy was persistent. Squinting over the guy’s shoulder, Camacho could see someone else in the car, a man he didn’t know, but he recognized the tattoos. This wasn’t an invitation.
“Entra,” the stranger said. Get in. Then Camacho made yet another mistake in a life that had no shortage of them.
“I should’ve never got in the car,” Camacho tells me, recalling the story several years later between drags on an off-brand cigarette, a poor man’s substitute for the Marlboro Reds he can no longer afford.
It’s a hot afternoon in late April, and Camacho and I are at the home of Jose Francisco Lopez, a 73-year-old U.S. Army veteran, who is tending to a wok full of taco meat while a handful of men — mostly ex-military, plus a reservist from El Paso — swap stories about their time in uniform. Spools of concertina wire run along the wrought iron bars that flank the small, square courtyard. All of the houses in this part of Juárez are like this. Every street looks like a row of jail cells. But Camacho isn’t referring to the local architecture when he describes Juárez as being “like prison.” He’s talking about the gang culture, which is deeply rooted on both sides of the border. Here, there’s no escaping your past.
The friend was working for a drug cartel, and he was approaching Camacho with a proposition. Work with us. Camacho, a former Army cavalry scout, had a skill set that was very much in demand. “They knew I had been in the Army because of what I had to do in prison to survive,” he continues, explaining that he had also done a stint behind bars in California for home invasions. He gestures toward the rest of the guests. “Ask any of these guys. If you’ve been in prison over there and you live in Juárez, you’ll get approached.”
At 61, Camacho would be a top contender for the World’s Scariest Grandpa award. He resembles a Danny Trejo character, but with a longer rap sheet and more prison tattoos. Like many career criminals, his resume is inscribed in permanent ink on his body, in a constellation of words and symbols that people who’ve lived the sort of life Camacho has can readily interpret. There are a lot of those people in Juárez. At least one tattoo identifies him as having once been affiliated with a Mexican-American gang aligned with La Linea, the armed wing of the Juárez cartel. On his forearm, there’s an image of an American GI accompanied by the words Vietnam Veteran Recondo.
Camacho didn’t fight in Vietnam, but he did serve in the U.S. military between 1974 and 1980, first in the Army and then the Navy, and was honorably discharged from both. His DD214 lists his military occupational specialty in the Army as armor reconnaissance specialist (hence the tattoo). He never got a chance to put his combat skills to work in the jungles of Southeast Asia, but he’s spent most of his life after the service applying those skills elsewhere. “Military experience is money in Mexico,” he says.
Camacho kept his mouth shut as the car left the city limits. “I had to agree right away,” he says, “because if you don’t, they’re going to beat you up or probably kill you. Period.” Eventually, the men dropped him off at a compound in the middle of the desert. There, he says, he was paid to teach members of one well-known cartel the weapons skills and small-unit tactics he’d learned in the Army. He tells me he wasn’t the only U.S. military veteran who worked on the compound. (Although Task & Purpose was unable to confirm this claim, more than one source described it as an open secret.)
“Over there, we were wetbacks. Here, we’re gringos.”
Camacho eventually fled the compound and made his way “across the goddamn sierra” back to Juárez. Last year, he heard about a safe house for deported U.S. military veterans in Tijuana called The Bunker and contacted the group that runs it to see if they could help him secure his military benefits, and possibly get him back over the border, where he hopes to spend the remainder of his days in peace. They put him in touch with Lopez, whose house will soon double as the official Bunker in Juárez. Not long ago, the house was, more or less, an actual bunker. Lopez recalls waking up many nights to pitched gun battles being fought in the neighborhood. Sometimes he’d think he was back in Vietnam.
“I wanted to move to Tijuana, but then I heard the Gulf Cartel is there,” Camacho says. “They’d just kill me on the spot if they saw my tattoos.”
Camacho graciously accepts a plate of tacos from our host and then sets it aside, noting that he’s trying to eat healthy. He doesn’t strike me as the clean-living type, but staying physically fit, he explains, is important when you’re a debt collector in Juárez. That’s what Camacho does for work now — he’s a strongman for local businessmen in a city with a notoriously corrupt police force. It’s not a complete departure from his former life, but it’s certainly an upgrade. He lifts up his shirt to reveal a back brace and sighs. “My bones are getting dry,” he says. “There will come a time when I can no longer make money.” It’s hard to rough people up when you have dry bones. It’s also hard to run.
“I stay in one house for three or four months, and then I move. If I see something I don’t like, I boogie,” Camacho says, explaining that he’s biding his time, waiting for the people who still know him from his prison days to die off. “Eventually, they will. I just have to survive that long.”
That evening, Camacho and several other deported veterans gather around a table to discuss their predicament — the first of many such meetings that will happen here. The conversation eventually turns to President Donald Trump’s stance on immigration and his calls to seal up the border. Everyone agrees it’s the right thing to do.
“What if you invited me into your house, and I start fucking your wife, and spit in your food, and rob you?” one guys asks. “What are you going to tell me? You’re going to say, ‘Fuck you, homey. Get the fuck out of my house.’” But by virtue of their service, he adds, veterans merit a different sort of treatment. He compares the military to a street gang that works together to defend its turf from rivals. “Then I fuck up and you tell me I’m no longer welcome on this turf? Hold on, ese, I fought for this turf. My mom lives on this turf.”
I bring up The Wall. Will the migration stop if it gets built? The question is met with laughter. Camacho answers first: “Can they build it miles underground? Can they build it into the sea? Nothing can stop people from getting over. Nothing.” Behind us, Lopez and a few other deportees have begun arranging legal documents on a table for the men to fill out. There’s not a single person in this group who hasn’t broken the law. Some have committed crimes much worse than crossing the border illegally. But they’ve come to The Bunker to try a new approach, and, in many ways, it’s the path of most resistance. Nobody in their situation has ever been allowed to return to the United States.
There are currently three ways for an immigrant veteran who’s been deported following a conviction for an aggravated felony to return to the United States legally.
One option is to appeal the case, but it has to be done quickly. “From a practical point of view, if someone has already been deported and is now in their home country, this is no longer an option,”says Sophia Gregg, an immigration attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia.
Another option is for the deported veteran to secure a pardon, either from the president or the governor of the state they were convicted in. This doesn’t guarantee re-entry into the United States, but it is a necessary step before one reapplies for legal resident status. Only three deported veterans have received such pardons. So far, none have returned to the States.
The other option, statistically more feasible, is to die; all veterans discharged under conditions other than dishonorable, even if they’ve been deported, are entitled to a military funeral and burial with full honors.
In that scenario, the VA will pay $300 toward the cost of returning the body to the United States. Federal law mandates that the ceremony must be performed by an honor guard detail consisting of no fewer than two active members of the armed forces. The casket remains draped in the American flag until “Taps” is played (by a bugler if one is available), and then the flag is meticulously folded into a triangle and presented to the deceased’s next of kin.
Under Trump, those are likely to remain the only options. After all, guys like Camacho are exactly the type of immigrants to whom the president was referring when he said, “We have some bad hombres and we’re going to get them out.” Why would he want them back? Still, Camacho and a growing cadre of deported veterans living Mexico believe they can find sympathy among even the staunchest conservatives in Washington. Because it was also Trump who vowed to “take care of our veterans like they’ve never been taken care of before.”
As a country, we go to great lengths to ensure that military veterans are cared for. We shower them with praise and free meals at Applebee’s. We pay for their college and give them access to free health care. When they get in trouble for minor crimes, we send them to special courts that take into account the hardships they endured in the service. We even spare them the death penalty when they’ve massacred innocent civilians. But for veterans who are non-U.S. citizens, the support stops the moment they’re convicted of an aggravated felony.
The biggest challenge for deported veterans wanting to return to the United States legally is persuading people — specifically, American policymakers — to view them as former U.S. service members who made mistakes (and paid for them), rather than run-of-the-mill undocumented criminals.
It doesn’t help that many have settled in the dangerous border towns of Mexico, where jobs are scarce and crime pays. They have done so not because they enjoy the scenery but because many have family just across the border, and their occasional trips south represent the veterans’ only remaining connection to the lives they once lived. To leave the border towns would mean to give up on the dream of return.
Ironically, however, their proximity to the border has placed them in the crosshairs — at risk not only of being killed in one of the most dangerous places on earth, but of being pressed into service by the cartels, forced into a criminal lifestyle they have long since left behind. Nearly all of the veterans I met in Juárez told me they’d been approached by the cartels. Left to build new lives among the drug traffickers and sicarios that Trump’s wall is meant to keep out, many must rely on skills they acquired in the military and behind bars to survive.
Lopez is the director of the recently established Juárez chapter of Deported Veterans Support House, a Tijuana-based nonprofit founded in 2013 by Hector Barajas, a former Army paratrooper, who was deported to Mexico in 2004 and is now the leading advocate for deported U.S. military veterans worldwide. The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for tracking deportations, has no idea how many veterans of the U.S. military have been deported. Some estimates put the number in the thousands. Barajas says his organization has helped 300 deported veterans scattered across 36 different countries.
Through grassroots activism and social media, Deported Veterans Support House has managed to bring together a small network of nonprofit groups, veterans organizations, and individual volunteers to help deported veterans secure military pensions and benefits, and perhaps one day return to the United States. To date, their efforts have yielded only one notable success story: In 2016, an Iraq War veteran named Daniel Torres was allowed to return to the United States five years after he was deported to Mexico from France. (After the Marine Corps had discharged Torres upon discovering that he had used a fake birth certificate to enlist, he’d tried to join the French Foreign Legion.) But his situation was unique: he had never been convicted of an aggravated felony.
Aggravated felony is a term of art used in U.S. immigration law to describe a broad category of criminal offenses, from violent crimes like murder and sexual assault, to drug possession and theft. A host of petty offenses — filing false tax returns, for example — can also be labeled an aggravated felony if immigration authorities deem the circumstances around it to be evidence of “bad moral character.”
“Sometimes it is simply a misdemeanor plus another petty charge,” Gregg explains. “For example, it can be a petty drug charge plus a petty trafficking charge. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you were moving cocaine in from Guatemala to sell it in Texas. It can be as simple as, you got caught taking a joint of marijuana from one county to another. That could be called ‘trafficking.’”
Meet The Men Of Deported Veterans Support House
Deported Veterans Support House is a nonprofit founded in 2013 by Hector Barajas, a former Army paratrooper, who was deported to Mexico in 2004 and is now the leading advocate for deported U.S. military veterans worldwide. The Department of Homeland Security, which is responsible for tracking deportations, has no idea how many veterans of the U.S. military have been deported. Some estimates put the number in the thousands. Barajas says his organization has helped 300 deported veterans scattered across 36 different countries. Task & Purpose’s Adam Linehan went to Juarez to hear their stories in person.
The deported veterans who have banded together in Juárez include criminals of all stripes. But they rarely discuss their pasts. Their focus now is on the future — “getting back home” — and helping each other survive in the meantime. The mission binds them like soldiers at war. A brotherhood with few allies on either side of the border, they are men without a country.
“Over there, we were wetbacks,” one tells me. “Here, we’re gringos.”
On March 16, 1966, a U.S. Army reconnaissance platoon was moving down a narrow jungle trail in Vietnam’s Long Khánh Province to reinforce a battalion of paratroopers engaged in a massive firefight, when it inadvertently walked into the rear of an attacking North Vietnamese Army formation. The pointman spotted the enemy first and motioned for a grenadier to come forward and initiate a hasty ambush. He didn’t have time to get off a single shot before a barrage of enemy grenades and machine-gun fire began pummeling the platoon from all directions. They were pinned down.
The platoon medic was a man named Spc. Alfred Rascon. Over the course of the engagement, which lasted between 10 and 20 minutes, he was wounded four separate times, beginning with a bullet that entered his hip, rode up his spine, and exited through his shoulder. But that’s not why there’s a school for Army combat medics named after him.
“You have this man who served his country, who went to the Middle East, and now he sleeps on a couch in a house that didn’t even have running water when he showed up.”
Rascon earned the Medal of Honor that day. His medal citation is one of the more exhaustive on record, owing to the fact that Rascon used his own body to shield his comrades from enemy grenades — not once, but a total of three times. One explosion Rascon absorbed was so close it blew his helmet off. But he never stopped fighting. In fact, he refused to be airlifted out of the jungle until he had treated everyone else in the platoon who’d been wounded. He barely survived.
Lengthy as it is, Rascon’s citation does not mention that he had immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was a child. Nor does it mention that he didn’t become a naturalized citizen until after he returned home from Vietnam. And why would it? Those details aren’t relevant to the story. “The men I served with did not even know that I was not a citizen, nor did they care,” he later recalled in an interview. “They just called me ‘Doc.’”
Rascon’s actions in Vietnam won him a spot in America’s pantheon of war heroes, but they also place him among a long overlooked subclass of warriors that has been vital to the military since its inception. Like millions of immigrants before him, Rascon chose to enlist in the Army; however, many others were drafted during Vietnam, as they had been during all of the major wars before that (approximately 18% of GIs who served in World War I were foreign-born). Which is to say, countless immigrants — whether enlistees or conscripts — have bled and died fighting on behalf of the United States.
Even in the all-volunteer era, immigrants have continued to serve in high numbers. In fact, one of the first U.S. service members killed in action in the Iraq War was Marine Lance Cpl. Jose Gutierrez, an orphan from Guatemala who smuggled himself into the United States and was only naturalized after his death. He was one of approximately 3,000 non-citizens who participated in the invasion of Iraq, and one of 10 who were killed within the first month of the war. To some extent, those numbers were by design.
By 2002, with the war in Afghanistan underway and the march to Baghdad on the horizon, it became clear in Washington that special measures would be required to fill the ranks of an all-volunteer military tasked with a massive mission. On July 3 of that year, President W. Bush signed an executive order to provide expedited naturalization for “aliens and non-citizen nationals serving in an active-duty status.”
Previously, non-citizens serving in peacetime were required either to have lived legally in the United States for five years or to have served three years on active duty before they were eligible to apply for citizenship. Bush’s order cut the wait time for post-9/11 immigrant service members down to one day.
Bush was doing what presidents before him have done during virtually every major conflict since the Civil War: Entice immigrants into the military by dangling the promise of U.S. citizenship. Of course, not all immigrants enlist for citizenship. Many are drawn to service for the same reasons citizens are — money and other benefits, job stability, a sense of patriotism, the desire to fight for a cause greater than themselves. Still, the executive order appears to have had an impact. Between December 2000 and February 2003, the number of non-citizens on active duty jumped from 23,000 to 37,000, with thousands more in the reserves.
In the years that followed, a series of additional laws and programs, including one that made it possible for foreign-born recruits to take the Oath of United States Allegiance upon graduating basic training, were implemented. Between September 2001 and 2015, roughly 102,000 immigrant service members and veterans from all generations were sworn in as U.S. citizens.
Given the unprecedented access to citizenship through military service, why have so many veterans been deported? That question was the focus of a July 2016 report by the American Civil Liberties Union. Entitled “Discharged, Then Discarded,” it blamed the issue on “bureaucratic bungling” and “government indifference.”
“The federal government’s failure to help naturalize immigrants serving in the U.S. military has led to the deportation of untold numbers of veterans, all of whom were entitled to become citizens because of their service,” read a statement from the ACLU that accompanied the report.
“Deported veterans were in the United States legally and sustained physical wounds and emotional trauma in conflicts as far back as the war in Vietnam,” the statement continued. “Once they returned from service, however, they were subject to draconian immigration laws that reclassified many minor offenses as deportable crimes, and were effectively banished from the country.”
The “draconian immigration laws” the ACLU was referring to are the result of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, which among other things greatly expanded the definition of “aggravated felonies” to encompass a range of offenses, including some misdemeanors that previously would not have led to deportation.
Life as an immigrant in the United States only got more precarious from there. By 2013, Obama had deported more people than any other U.S. president in history, at a rate of about 400,000 a year, and so far under Trump, ICE arrests are up nearly 40 percent. Still, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement insists that it takes military service into account when determining whether or not an immigrant’s crimes should qualify as a deportable offense.
ICE “respects the service and sacrifice of those in military service,” agency spokesman Thomas Byrd said in a statement to Task & Purpose, adding that such cases are “authorized by the senior leadership in a field office, following an evaluation by local counsel.”
He also noted that ICE views military service as “a positive factor that should be considered … when deciding whether or not prosecutorial discretion should be exercised.” Nonetheless, he said, “applicable law requires ICE to mandatorily detain and process for removal individuals who have been convicted of aggravated felonies.”
“They knew I had been in the Army because of what I had to do in prison to survive. … Ask any of these guys. If you’ve been in prison over there and you live in Juárez, you’ll get approached.”
The ACLU report sparked widespread media interest in deported veterans. Soon, American journalists were flocking to Tijuana. Veteran motorcycle clubs arrived from the States with food and supplies to stock The Bunker. Volunteers, including off-duty employees from the Department of Veterans Affairs, began caravanning in on the weekends to help the veterans file for pensions and other benefits remotely. The ACLU even agreed to provide free legal assistance to deported vets who it thought stood a fighting chance of securing appeals or government pardons.
Meanwhile, in March of this year, Rep. Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona introduced a bill, The Veterans Visa and Protection Act of 2017, that would prevent noncitizen service members and veterans from being removed from the United States unless they were convicted of a violent crime. The bill would also require the Department of Homeland Security to establish a program to permit eligible deported veterans (ones who have not been convicted of violent crimes) to return to the United States.
“They made a mistake, and many citizen veterans have made those same mistakes upon their return,” Grijalva tells Task & Purpose. “Are we setting up a special status for a group of deportees that no other deportee has? Yes, because they do have that special status. Serving in the military is special.”
To date, the bill has been co-sponsored by 48 members of the House, all Democrats.
“The majority of these guys were deported because of crimes related to addiction,” says Alexander Heaton, director of the Veteran Action Coordination Committee, which is lobbying members of Congress to sign the bill. “So, really, this is a veterans health issue. Many got in trouble while self-medicating because of things that had happened to them in the service. But getting that through to Congress has been really difficult, because a lot of them just see it as another immigration issue.”
All of the congressmen Heaton approaches want to know why the deported veterans didn’t get their citizenship in the military. It’s a perfectly reasonable question, and one that Heaton is uniquely qualified to answer. Born in the United Kingdom, Heaton became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2008 while serving the Marine Corps.
“I only found out that I could be naturalized through the military by my interpreter in Iraq,” he says.“It’s not something that is mentioned to you, because once you get to the fleet, everyone assumes you’re American. You have to initiate it yourself and you have to follow up on it yourself. You know how military paperwork is — if you want it done right once, you have to submit it three times.”
Efforts on both sides of the border to draw attention to deported veterans appear to be paying off, albeit slowly. Last month, Barajas and two other veterans living in Mexico received full pardons from California Gov. Jerry Brown, making it possible for them to re-apply for legal resident status.
Several days after he received word of his pardon, Barajas flew to Juárez for the official opening of a second Bunker — the one at Lopez’s house. Additional Bunkers are planned for Monterey and Jamaica. Barajas has every intention of returning to the States if he’s allowed to — he was raised in Los Angeles, and his daughter still lives there — and the decision could be made within the next several months. Still, he says, he won’t stop “fighting for his brothers” until all of them come home.
Once a week, Ivan Ocon, a 39-year-old U.S. Army veteran, takes a bus ride into downtown Juárez to buy sheets of cured leather from the only shop in town that will sell them to him. He’s not sure why the others won’t. Maybe it’s his gringo accent, or the prison tattoos, or the baggy plaid shirts he likes to wear buttoned all the way up to the top.
Ocon grew up just north of the border, in Las Cruces, New Mexico. He has broad shoulders and a slight paunch, the sort of physique men develop when they lift a lot of weights in prison.
Ocon became a craftsman during his time behind bars: Nine consecutive years in federal penitentiaries in Colorado and Texas, followed by a 10-month stint in an immigration detention center on the outskirts of Houston. He specializes in handmade leather wallets and belts, which he adorns with intricate designs. Leatherwork is how Ocon made his commissary money in prison. He honed his skills as an illustrator by drawing pictures for his daughter, whom he hasn’t seen since she was 3 years old. She’s 15 now.
“The cartels are waiting for you. They know you’re desperate. They know you’ve spent time in prison. … if they pick you up, there’s three ways it can go. They’ll either kill you, recruit you, or kidnap you and hold you for ransom.”
These days, Ocon’s workshop is a converted storage closet in his grandmother’s house, a tiny, one-bedroom concrete dwelling behind a spike-tipped wrought-iron gate on a sun-bleached street in Juárez. Ocon moved in a year ago, after he was deported from the United States. The neighborhood is safe, he says — “There have only been a few killings.” At night, he sleeps on the couch.
But he doesn’t sleep much — not since he began receiving threatening Facebook messages. They came from an account he thought belonged to a woman interested in hooking up, but that later turned out to be a fake profile run by gang members. They had seen Ocon on the local news talking about the plight of deported veterans, and pegged him as a rich man. The messages demanded money — a lot more than Ocon could afford — and included photos of his family. He deleted his Facebook account and tried not to think about it.
“All I can do is try to be more careful,” Ocon says. “But at the end of the day, I’m a soldier, and I’m going to have to do what I have to do.”
How Mexican Cartels Target Deported Veterans
Living in Juárez, Mexico, places deported veterans in the crosshairs — at risk not only of being killed in one of the most dangerous places on earth, but of being pressed into service by the cartels, forced into a criminal lifestyle they have long since left behind. Nearly all of the veterans Task & Purpose met in Juárez said they’d been approached by the cartels. Left to build new lives among the drug traffickers and sicarios that Trump’s wall is meant to keep out, many must rely on skills they acquired in the military and behind bars to survive.
Between 1997 and December 2003, Ocon was, in fact, a soldier. He served as a generator mechanic in the U.S. Army. His workshop is crowded with mementos of his time in uniform: A wooden box he bought in Japan filled with regimental coins, pictures from his deployment to Jordan in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, a plaque mounted with a pair of crossed tomahawks that was given to him at the end of his tour in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division.
“For a job well done,” it reads. “We wish you well in pursuing your future. Hope you can make it without your soju. Good luck from the motorpool.”
Also on the wall is a framed photograph of Ocon’s cousin, who was killed in a drive-by shooting in Las Cruces in the early 90s. He was 15, a gangbanger. His killers belonged to a rival crew. Ocon turns somber telling the story. They were best friends, he explains — just a couple of Mexican kids growing up poor in a small American town.
Like many kids from crime-infested neighborhoods, Ocon didn’t need to join the Army to learn how to shoot a gun, and he didn’t need to go to war to see combat. But the military offered a noble departure from the streets. And there was another bonus, as the recruiter pointed out: Serving his adopted country could be a fast track to citizenship. Although it didn’t quite work out that way, Ocon knows he’s partly to blame.
“I started asking about citizenship after I got back from Korea,” he says. “I went to JAG and they were like, ‘We don’t know nothing about that.’ They couldn’t even tell me where I needed to go, or what I needed to do. So I just went back to doing my job, just being a soldier, not really thinking about it.”
In 2006, Ocon was involved in a kidnapping in El Paso. The details are hazy, but somehow the 16-year-old nephew of a certain drug dealer wound up on the other side of the border, and the kid’s family got a series of calls requesting money. One of those calls was traced to Ocon’s phone. While he denies playing a role in the abduction, a jury convicted Ocon of aiding and abetting in a kidnapping — “because I didn’t report my brother” — and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
A decade later, in early 2016, Ocon stepped off a U.S. immigration bus in the Mexican city of Nuevo Laredo, with $80 to his name. His skin was paler than it had ever been. His muscles were soft. For the previous 10 months, he had been confined to a cell in an ICE detention center 23 hours a day. Sometimes weeks would go by before the guards would let him outside. It was worse than prison, he says. Much worse. He arrived in Mexico with shoes but no shoelaces, which worried him because he knew that his first few minutes on the ground were crucial, and that he’d have to act fast.
Ocon isn’t the only deported veteran who told me that stepping off the immigration bus was one of the most terrifying moments of his life.
“The cartels are waiting for you,” one told me. “They know you’re desperate. They know you’ve spent time in prison. So you’ve got a small window of time to get out of town and get where you’re going. Because if they pick you up, there’s three ways it can go. They’ll either kill you, recruit you, or kidnap you and hold you for ransom.”
Ocon managed to squeeze on to the first bus bound for Juárez. Not all of the deportees were so lucky.
On the morning before the official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of The Bunker in Juárez, three rows of neatly stacked papers sit atop a plastic table in Lopez’s backyard. These are the first of many forms that will need to be filled out as the deported veterans begin the process of trying to secure medical benefits, pensions, and, ultimately, permission to return to the United States. For now, Lopez’s home is serving as the local headquarters for the operation. Lopez settled here in 2004 after serving nine years in a Texas prison for the crime of possessing “five hundred grams or more” of cocaine, according to court documents.
“We need to be together and be a group,” he says as he folds pamphlets that will be given to guests at tomorrow’s ceremony. His hands move slowly, as if underwater. “We need to fight for our rights. That’s the only way we’re going to get it done.”
Lopez’s family immigrated to Wichita Falls, a small town in north Texas, when he was a teenager, and he was drafted into the U.S. military in 1967 at the age of 23. According to his military records, Lopez served with the Army’s 15th Transportation Battalion for a year in Vietnam, from 1968 to 1969. He hardly spoke English. “I done everything,” he says. “Sometimes I did rescue missions in the helicopters. Sometimes I was a driver. Sometimes I went with the infantry. Whatever they tell me to do.” He thought his honorable discharge from the Army made him a U.S. citizen until he found out he was being deported back to Mexico. Because he didn’t have money to fight his case, ICE agents took Lopez straight from prison to Juárez, the nearest border town.
Lopez left behind five children in Texas, all U.S. citizens. Some of them he hasn’t seen in more than 20 years, and he doesn’t know how many grandchildren he has. “I want to get back so I can find my family,” he says. “I want to see them and hug them.” The walls of his house are decorated with pictures he’s painted, of birds, of desert landscapes, of the Virgin Mary. He’s talented enough to make a meager living as a painter, but art is also his therapy. There’s no VA facility in Mexico; no monthly disability checks in the mail. He tells me he’s still haunted by his experiences in Vietnam.
One of the two bedrooms in Lopez’s house has been converted into a shelter with bunk beds and cots for vets down on their luck. Before The Bunker in Tijuana was moved to a building donated by the city, Barajas ran a similar shelter out of his apartment. This is one of the more vital services the organization provides. Few deported veterans are able to find jobs when they arrive in Mexico. Some, like Marine Corps veteran Mike Evans, didn’t even speak Spanish when they stepped off the immigration bus.
Which helps explain why I confuse Evans for a volunteer from the States when he strolls into the Bunker. “What’s up, man,” he says, pulling me in for a bro hug. “Mike.”
Ocon introduces Evans as his neighbor. They first met several days ago on the street, by chance. Evans was stunned to discover that there were other U.S. military veterans living in Juárez. For the past eight years, he thought it was just him. “You guys have plans tonight?” he says. “I’m DJing at La Bodeguita. Come by. It’s gonna be sick.”
Sporting a shirt too small for his musclebound torso and a generous amount of hair gel, Evans, 39, looks, acts, and sounds like a cast member on the “Jersey Shore,” albeit with a slight Southern accent. There’s an explanation for this: He was adopted by an American university professor and spent his childhood in Columbia, South Carolina. Which makes him a citizen, right? Nope. Not in 1984. Instead, Evans, who had the rare privilege of choosing his own first name when he was 6 years old, was granted resident status through amnesty. “Later, when I applied for citizenship,” he says, “it fucked me.”
Evans served four years in the Marine Corps and was discharged honorably in 2000 without citizenship. “I just got so frustrated with the process, I stopped trying,” he says. In 2005, after a period “of fucking off and getting into trouble in El Paso,” he completed and filed all the naturalization paperwork and was approved. Two weeks before he was scheduled to take the Oath of United States Allegiance, Evans was named as an accomplice by a drug dealer who’d been arrested for selling ecstasy several years before. There was evidence. Evans was sent to prison for four years. In 2009, while in the midst of fighting his case, he was abruptly deported. His sister rushed to the immigration detention center and arrived just in time to give him an English-Spanish dictionary before he got on the bus.
At the height of the turf wars between the Sinaloa and Juárez drug cartels, Juárez was just as kinetic as anything American troops have faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. The battles waged daily in the city’s streets featured all of the familiar tools of carnage: sniper rifles, grenades, car bombs, machine-gun fire. Gunmen would slice through weddings and birthday parties just to send a message or mark turf. Many mornings revealed headless and mutilated bodies strung from bridges and light posts. Twenty-six hundred people were murdered in the city the year Evans arrived, barely enough money in his pockets for a tiny room downtown, which he furnished with an air mattress and two milk crates (one for a chair, the other for a table). In 2010, Juárez ranked as the murder capital of the world. That same year, El Paso, which sits just beyond a narrow sliver of the Rio Grande — walking distance, if you have an American passport or a visa — boasted the lowest crime rate of all major cities in the United States. Evans could see El Paso from his window.
The turf wars have subsided, but the cartels still exert varying degrees of control over nearly every facet of the city. Extortion is rampant. People are still wary of hanging out in groups. Most of the bars and clubs remain off-limits to “civilians” after dark. There’s still no shortage of violence — Mexico is currently second only to Syria on the list of world’s deadliest conflict zones — but the killings in Juárez have become more focused, less indiscriminate. One former cartel member, a U.S. Army veteran, tells me the war now is over what drugs are being sold. The Sinaloa cartel recently introduced crystal meth into the local market, triggering retaliation from the more “old school” factions that see the highly addictive drug as disruptive.
“Meth is not a good business model,” says the veteran, whom I’ll call John (he asked not to be named). “If you get someone hooked on coke, you’ll have a customer for life. But with meth, they’ll probably be dead in five years. So now they’re going after the meth heads, shooting up the places they hang out to send a message.”
“I had to agree right away, because if you don’t, they’re going to beat you up or probably kill you. Period.”
John had served with the 3rd Infantry Division in Ramadi with a colleague of mine, who put us in touch. We meet for dinner in Juárez one night. When I ask him if he’s ever seen other U.S. military veterans working for the cartels, he tells me the same thing Camacho did: He had, and that some of them — “White guys, black guys, Mexicans” — commuted in from the other side of the border. John, a U.S. citizen, used to be one of those guys. He lives in El Paso. “After I got out of the Army, I started coming to Juárez on the weekends to party, do coke,” he says. “And I just got sucked into that life. It was dark.” He recalls an internal feud that nearly resulted in his execution, late night convoys through the desert, and the brutal beating he was forced to undergo before being allowed to leave the cartel. I ask him how long it’s been since he quit. He pauses to do the math. “Six months,” he says. “November.”
Most of the deported veterans I meet in Juárez refuse to speak on the record about the cartels for fear of being labeled a “snitch,” but many have stories that go something like this: Someone they had met in prison or in an immigration detention center looked them up after they’d arrived in Juárez and asked if they’d like to put their military experience to work for a cartel. A few, like Camacho, weren’t given a choice. Interestingly, their specific military backgrounds — whether they had been, say, an infantryman or an admin clerk — were irrelevant. It was the fact that they had been trained by the U.S. military that made them appealing as potential recruits. That and the assumption that they were desperate.
“I was approached one time by a guy, since he knew that I’d been in the military, to purchase weapons for the mafia,” Juan Salazar, a 50-year-old former Army medic, tells me, volunteering that he had been deported in the 90s after getting busted with 50 pounds of marijuana in Texas. “I definitely denied, because once I had made a mistake and got deported, I realized that I had failed to protect the country from all enemies foreign and domestic. I still feel that is my duty even if I’m here. Because all of my friends and family are still over there. It’s still my duty to defend them.”
Cesar Orihuela, 33, echoes a similar sentiment in his truck as we drive through downtown Juárez en route to La Bodeguita for Evans’ DJ show. “Yeah, I’ve been approached,” he says, his eyes fixed on the road. There’s a giant tattoo of an American flag on his forearm. He continues: “But doing that is like turning your back on your country. Nobody put a gun to your head and told you to join the military. Then after you make a mistake and you get sent to Mexico, once you get here, doing something like that is like siding with the enemy. It’s just something you don’t do. Personally, I don’t like it here.”
Orihuela’s family moved to El Paso from Juárez when he was 8. He was an all-star pitcher in high school — with a 96 mph fastball — but he put aside his dreams of going pro to join the Air Force in 2002, “because of what happened on 9/11.” He deployed to Pakistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom early on in the war. Later, I come across a 2004 story about Orihuela published in Airman Magazine, which compares him to a “juggler in a circus,” juggling military service, college, and baseball. The article explains that Orihuela had made it to the last round of tryouts for the Chicago White Sox the year before. It also notes that he had just applied for U.S. citizenship.
Orihuela was deported three years ago. “I got an assault charge,” he says. “My brother had just been killed by a gang on this side of the border, and I had anger issues. The police over here wouldn’t help us. It destroyed my whole family. That’s when my sister got in trouble, too.” He tells me he was arrested for beating up a member of the gang outside a bar in El Paso; however, Task & Purpose found court documents listing the aggravated felony conviction that resulted in his deportation as a sexual assault. Orihuela served three years in prison, and was still fighting his case when they put him on an immigration bus and drove him to Juárez. In 2014, his appeal of the sexual assault conviction was denied by the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit in Texas.
Now, Orihuela works as a barber. A few of the guys he served with in the Air Force occasionally visit from Texas for a haircut, but otherwise he’s on his own. The barbershop is located downtown, on gang turf. He says he hands over 30% of his wages in extortion payments, and that he has to cover up his American flag tattoo when he works — not because he’s afraid of being targeted as a tourist, but because stars are the symbol of a rival crew. “The older people in the neighborhood know it’s a U.S. flag, and assume I’m probably just visiting from Texas or whatever,” he says. “But the younger kids, man, that’s who you’ve got be worried about. They don’t think like that. They just react.”
Close your eyes and imagine a bar in Juárez. Now, imagine the opposite: this is La Bodeguita. Tucked into a shopping center on the edge of one of the city’s more affluent neighborhoods, the bar draws a decidedly hipster crowd. It’s packed when we arrive just before sundown. Evans is manning the turntables — tongue out, one hand on his headphones, the other tinkering with a techno version of Ed Sheeran’s “Shape of You.” His eyes light up when we walk through the door, a group of U.S. military veterans. Just a few days ago he thought he was the only one. Barajas is sporting his old red beret from the 82nd Airborne. A Vietnam War service ribbon sits front and center on Lopez’s hat. Everyone, including Ocon, is wearing the Deported Veterans Support House t-shirt, which is emblazoned with a small American flag. It’s clear the other patrons don’t know what to make of this strange militia.
Evans selects his last song and jogs over to the bar. There are bro hugs all around. Beers and tequila shots are ordered. Everyone seems to dig the music. It’s a house mashup of Edwin Starr’s “War.” The chorus lands like a karate chop: War, huh, yeah / What is it good for / Absolutely nothing. I seem to be the only person who notices the irony. “I told you this place was sick,” Evans says, throwing an arm over my shoulder. It dawns on me that I’d never even bothered to ask him if he even wanted to return to the States, so I do now. “When I first got here, it felt like a life sentence. But this” — he nods towards the crowd — “this is my home. I had to fight really, really hard to be happy here. You just don’t let that kind of happiness go.”
On the morning of April 22, the Bunker is a hive of activity. The ribbon-cutting ceremony is scheduled to begin at noon. Local reporters make their rounds, pulling the deported veterans aside one at a time for interviews. A pack of bikers in black leather jackets covered in military patches roll in from New Mexico. Three volunteers, all veterans and employees of a VA facility in Arizona, pull up with a carload of bottled water, hygiene kits, and sleeping bags, which they unload into the living room. Several women tend to a spread of chicken and rice. Ice-cold Fantas are distributed. Everyone is intensely focused on their tasks, as if worried that the months of preparation that went into this day could be completely undone by one wrong move.
By this point, I’ve come to realize that the members of this group are bound not just by their military service but also by a desire to prove to themselves, their families, and the country they served that they’ve learned from their mistakes. That’s the point of this whole operation. Until jobs and security are restored to Mexico, nothing, not even a giant wall, will keep droves of Mexicans from crossing the border illegally. That option has always been available to these men, too. But they’re done breaking the law. If and when they return to the States, it will be not as criminals, but as U.S. military veterans who embody the qualities, good and bad, implied by that distinction. Or at least that’s the hope. “I’ll wait eight years, nine years, 10 years,” Ocon tells me.
Ocon’s mother, nephew, and sister arrive from Las Cruces just before the ceremony begins. His daughter refused to come. It’s been 12 years since he’s seen her.
“They keep in contact a lot, but she has a really negative opinion of Mexico,” says Ocon’s sister, Claudia Ocon. “She’s afraid that she’d come down here and not make it out alive.”
Claudia, a behavioral health treatment coordinator for children in foster care, gets emotional talking about her brother’s situation. She talks about growing up poor, one of five siblings raised by a single mother, and describes Ocon’s decision to join the Army as an attempt to make a better life for himself. It’s clear that she looks up to her older brother. “It’s heartbreaking to see him living in these conditions,” she says, her eyes glassing over. “You have this man who served his country, who went to the Middle East, and now he sleeps on a couch in a house that didn’t even have running water when he showed up.”
A row of news cameras focus on Barajas, adorned in his signature red beret and old dress blues, as he addresses the small crowd that’s gathered in the courtyard. He points to a folded American flag that he brought from Tijuana for the ceremony. “Until the last man comes home, this flag will not leave this place,” he says, pausing to fight back tears. “Thank you for being here.” To his side, Ocon and Lopez stand rigid like soldiers in formation. A table behind them displays photos of the guys from their days in uniform. There’s also a shrine to all of the deported veterans who have died or gone missing “in exile.” Barajas’ wife says a prayer, in both Spanish and English. Then Barajas presents the folded flag to Lopez and Ocon and the men exchange slow salutes, just as they would if they were conducting a military funeral.
When I got out of the Army, I promised myself that I wouldn’t be one of those veterans who always talks about their military service like it was the best time of their life. Which meant that whatever I did next had to be an upgrade. The day I left Fort Campbell for good, I packed all of my old uniforms, medals, and souvenirs from overseas into a box and haven’t opened it since.
In the back of my mind, I’ve always known that being able to do that was a luxury. Not everyone can just do a few years in the military and then ride their honorable discharge to a more comfortable life. Not everyone comes home to a safe and loving community, as I did. Sometimes they go home to the opposite, or nothing. Old habits resume. Bad influences resurface. Brothers get arrested. Brothers die. Citizenship paperwork gets neglected. I finished my bachelor’s degree on the Post-9/11 GI Bill and it’s been more than a decade since I’ve been in handcuffs, but I’m no more of a veteran than those guys. All of us served the same nation, one that proudly supports the people who defend it with their lives. But as a society we also recognize that those people aren’t perfect. They fuck up. And when they do, they go to prison like everyone else. Unless they have a green card. In that case, we’ve decided prison isn’t enough. Why?
Orihuela takes his lunch break and the three of us walk to the edge of the Rio Grande. Barajas and several other deported veterans are there waiting for us. Each of us pays four pesos to get through the turnstiles and onto the bridge, which arcs high over the empty river. At the top, we pause for a minute to take photos at the line separating Mexico and the United States, and then proceed down toward Texas. The bridge terminates at a set of doors that only I c
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On April 11, acting DODIG Glenn Fine notified the House committee’s chairman, Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz, in writing that the Pentagon had initiated an investigation to determine “whether [Flynn] failed to obtain required approval prior to receiving any emolument from a foreign government.”
Flynn was fired from his position as national security adviser to President Donald Trump in February after revelations he misled the White House, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his pre-inauguration contacts with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. His tenure as chief security adviser to the president was the shortest in modern political history.
Flynn, through a lawyer, has vehemently rebuffed allegations of wrongdoing. “Notwithstanding his life of national service, the media are awash with unfounded allegations, outrageous claims of treason, and vicious innuendo directed against him,” Flynn’s lawyer said in March, as the former sought immunity in exchange for congressional testimony. (His request was denied.) “He is now the target of unsubstantiated public demands by Members of Congress and other political critics that he be criminally investigated.”
Well, with good reason! According to documents released by HOC’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, was warned by Pentagon officials as early as October 2014 “not to take foreign government-sourced money without ‘advance approval’ from the Pentagon,” the Associated Press notes. Yet Flynn reportedly continued to take on foreign contracts without clearing his connections with the appropriate channels.
“These documents raise grave questions about why General Flynn concealed the payments he received from foreign sources after he was warned explicitly by the Pentagon,” Cummings said in a statement. “Our next step is to get the documents we are seeking from the White House so we can complete our investigation. I thank the Department of Defense for providing us with unclassified versions of these documents.”
The letter comes just days after both Chaffetz and Cummings announced that Flynn “may have broken the law” by receiving payments from foreign groups.
Let’s remember for a second that, during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last July, Flynn made a big show out of grilling then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton about her mishandling of classified information as Secretary of State. “Lock her up, that’s right!” Flynn chanted along with the crowd. “Damn right, exactly right… And you know why we’re saying that? We’re saying that because, if I, a guy who knows this business, if I did a tenth of what she did, I would be in jail today.”
Karma’s a bitch, Mike — and according to these documents, you should have known better.
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In the early hours of April 25, 1980, President Jimmy Carter made a sober announcement to the nation: An attempt by U.S. military forces rescue the 52 staff held hostage at the American embassy in Tehran since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, had ended in a catastrophic failure without even engaging the enemy.
According to Carter, equipment failure aboard several of the eight RH-53D Sea Stallion helicopters launched from the USS Nimitz led the president to abort the mission. But during the strike forces’ withdrawal, one of the Sea Stallions collided with an EC-130. Five airmen and three Marines were killed in the ensuing explosion.
“There was no fighting; there was no combat,” said Carter. “We were all convinced that if and when the rescue operation had been commenced that it had an excellent chance of success … To the families of those who died and who were wounded, I want to express the admiration I feel for the courage of their loved ones and the sorrow that I feel personally for their sacrifice.”
The botched rescue operation is widely credited with costing Carter re-election in a crushing defeat to former California Gov. Ronald Reagan during the 1980 presidential election. (Mark Bowden, the journalist best known for the story that became “Black Hawk Down,” authored a remarkable timeline of the operation of Operation Eagle Claw in a 2006 issue of The Atlantic).
But as our friends at Soldier Systems point out, their sacrifice was not in vain. In fact, it led to the development of the modern special operations capability we know today.
In May 1980, the Joint Chiefs of Staff commissioned a Department of Defense’s Special Operations Review Group to evaluate the underlying causes of the botched rescue mission, examining every stage from planning and organization to mission command and control. Led by former Chief of Naval Operations Adm. James L. Holloway III, the so-called Holloway Report concluded that the “ad-hoc nature” of Eagle Claw’s organization and planning created too much room for error.
“By not utilizing an existing JTF organization,” Holloway and his fellow senior military officers wrote, “the Joint Chiefs of Staff had to start, literally, from the beginning to establish a JTF, create an organization, provide a staff, develop a plan, select the united, and train the force between the first mission capability could be attained.”
Within a few years, the Holloway report catalyzed not only a sweeping reorganization of the Department of Defense but the creation of the United States Special Operations Command, a unified command apparatus to ensure that a lack of inter-service communication didn’t yield another unforced error for special operators downrange.
Despite the perception of Operation Eagle Claw as a failure, the sacrifices of those eight American servicemen were not in vain. The botched mission “pointed out the necessity for a dedicated special operations section within the Department of Defense with the responsibility to prepare and maintain combat-ready forces to successfully conduct special operations,” as airman Luke Kitterman wrote Monday.
Without that failed mission, we likely wouldn’t have elite units like Delta Force, Army Rangers, Navy SEALs on the front lines of the Global War on Terror. Those eight servicemen may have died without firing a shot, but without them, U.S. special operations wouldn’t be what it is today.
Jared Keller is a senior editor at Task & Purpose and contributing editor at Pacific Standard. Follow Jared Keller on Twitter @JaredBKeller [email protected]
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