Enlisting wasn’t really Ruben Azevedo’s idea. It was his buddy’s. After the towers fell on September 11, they felt patriotic. So they became marines.
Azevedo ended up loving the service, even after 14 brutal months in Iraq through 2004 and 2005, after Falluja and after Najaf. “I loved being in,” Azevedo says. If it were up to him, he’d still be a marine. But it’s not. Shortly after returning from Iraq, he broke his back in a car crash. He was subsequently honorably discharged. It was 2006.
“After I got back from Iraq,” says Azevedo, “I was pretty messed up in the head.” One night a few summers later, in 2008, police stopped the car he was riding in. He recounts the story. His friend, who was driving, was charged with driving under the influence. During the arrest, Azevedo yelled at the officers and ended up with his own charge: disorderly conduct. It didn’t seem to be too big a deal.
But a few months later, in August, a team of ICE agents surrounded his house. “They were in SWAT vehicles,” Azevedo says. They had come to deport him.
The marine was baffled. When the Azevedo family emigrated from Portugal in the 1980s, they’d settled first in California and then in the small rural community of Twin Falls, Idaho. They’ve lived there ever since. It’s classic small-town America, population 25,000, the land of big trucks, country music and camping.
In middle school Azevedo met Idaho native Brittnie Bjornn. They fell in love and later married. The junior high school sweethearts have been together for 18 years, more than half Azevedo’s life. He’s 30.
Azevedo tried to do the right thing. He turned himself in. Surely, he thought, there was some mistake. He was held for a day, he says, in “a little cubicle with a bunch of Hispanic people.” Everyone else spoke Spanish. He doesn’t. ICE officials scoffed, he says, when he told them he was a U.S. marine and Iraq combat vet.
He used his phone call to contact Brittnie, who brought in the documents to prove it. Before he was released, Azevedo says, he had to sign various court papers.
It was confusing because he’d applied for citizenship before but had never heard back from the U.S. government. He hadn’t expected any problems, given his combat service to the country, his American wife and the fact he’d lived in the U.S. since he was a baby.
When he was in Iraq, he and “a bunch of other guys” even took a course offered by the military that walked service members through the naturalization process and helped them file their paperwork. The documents were supposed to go to immigration processing centers specially designated for military applicants. Azevedo says neither he nor any of the others heard back.
After the surprise ICE detainment, he applied again. He hasn’t heard anything. At the same time, Azevedo hasn’t hired a lawyer, shrugging off the idea. Would they really pluck him from Idaho and send him to Portugal?
“If they want to deport me, they can sure as heck try,” he says. He’s pragmatic and down-to-earth, but it’s also clear he thinks the whole deportation-proceedings mess is silly. “I’d like to see ’em try.”
When Big Pac-Man found Azevedo on Facebook shortly after the incident, he tried to warn him. “He doesn’t get it yet,” Barajas says. “These guys, ICE, are serious. They don’t care.”
He throws up his hands. “I can only do so much. These guys! If they don’t want to listen, well, you can lead a horse to water….”
For all the younger combat vets, there are also old ones. Hector Manuel Barrios is almost 70. Black-and-white snapshots from Vietnam show Barrios as a strapping young man of 24, trim and well muscled. One is a portrait of him slyly confident in a combat helmet. Then he’s shirtless, sitting outside what might be barracks. In another, Barrios sits on a bench with three other soldiers, clutching a German shepherd puppy. Three of the four look unsure, but Barrios, one hand resting lightly across the dog’s heart, is grinning for the camera.
Barrios’s mustache is small and neat. So is the one-room apartment in Tijuana’s seamy Zona Norte, where he now lives. His shoes are tucked carefully beneath his bed, a twin mattress sagging on a metal frame. A single bare bulb, dangling from an extension cord, reveals peeling walls. A tattered postcard taped to the door frame bears the emblem of the 1st Air Cavalry, a bright yellow shield inlaid with a horse’s head. In the corner of the room is a small TV. Its picture shimmies and jumps.
It’s hard for Barrios to feed himself. On one of his ID documents, the small box for U.S. citizen is checked off with two faded Xs, stamped in old typewriter ink. On others he’s listed as a legal permanent resident. He makes a few dollars a week hunched and hobbling around a small taco stand. In 2001 he was deported after an arrest at the U.S. border for transporting marijuana in a car. Now he’s a heroin addict. It’s hard for him to talk about Vietnam: His gravelly voice ebbs and flows and cracks.
Sometimes Big Pac-Man visits. “He’s not only my tocayo”—Spanish for “namesake”—“he’s my brother in arms,” Barajas says. Sometimes he tears up, gets emotional. “It’s the ultimate betrayal. If he died in combat, he would have been an American hero.”
Barajas throws an arm around the elderly man’s frail shoulders, giving a hearty squeeze. Barrios grunts. Each time they’re together, Big Pac-Man insists on a cell phone picture. The Hectors huddle together on the weary bed. More fodder for the social-media networks. Each time, for photos Barrios breaks into a habitual grin. It transforms him. The old man is instantly, suddenly, temporarily that same guy in the photos from Vietnam: brave, strong, limbs unencumbered, spine strong despite everything. His eyes are cheerful and gleaming.
When Big Pac-Man first arrived in Tijuana, he was scrambling for a job. No big shock: The entire city is scrambling—it’s the definition of Tijuana. He joined the great human tide, seeking something meaningful to do. He found it in an old-folks’ home, where he tended to faltering seniors in their last days. One can imagine what the conditions in a Tijuana retirement hospital might be. Big Pac-Man engaged his military discipline and walked into the smell and sorrow every day. There he found he had a real talent for helping others.