Death of a deported U.S. Military Veteran
Hector Barrios—an elder and honorably discharged U.S. military deported veteran—passed away on the morning of April 20 in Tijuana, Mexico. He was 70.
Barrios was born in Tijuana on June 4, 1943. In 1961, at the age of 18 Barrios emigrated from Mexico to the United States. He settled in the Los Angeles area and lived peacefully for six years as he learned the language of his adopted country and amalgamated into the local Latino community.
In 1967 Barrios received a letter that would forever change his life and tear his memories between three countries. He had received a draft notification from the Selective Service System—he was drafted. Rather than disregard his draft selection or flee the United States, Barrios enlisted in the United States Army. In 1968 he was sent to Vietnam with the 1st Cavalry Division, which is one of the most combat decorated divisions in U.S. Army history.
While in Vietnam, Barrios would experience the anxiety, constant fear, and the daily sight of the destruction of war for 11 months. He was injured in combat both physically and mentally, and in a private interview, Barrios described his experience in Vietnam with these words: “It was a year—everyday incoming fire—fighting, you did not know you were going to make it back home. It changes one’s life – it changes everything, I came back crazy.”
Like many Vietnam veterans, Barrios came back home suffering from the symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Unfortunately, there was no official diagnosis or treatment for PTSD during this time and many veterans turned to self-medication to hide the pain of combat, and the fact that they had fought in an unpopular war that American society wanted to forget. Barrios became one of them, and with no proper support structure from the U.S. government, Barrios became voiceless and his own personal addictions became a dark cloud over his life which would not end until he took his last breath.
Attempting to heal his wounds, Barrios searched for decades for help but found few resources and guidance. Eventually, he would be convicted of a felony drug crime and deported back to his home country of Mexico. Without any medical care from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), and cut off from any earned Social Security benefits, Barrios did his best to scratch out a living in Tijuana. He worked in restaurants over the years to survive without ever knowing his eligibility for the treatment that he had rightfully earned.
I had a chance to meet Barrios several times in 2013 through a mural project that I created with deported veterans in Tijuana, called the Deported Veterans Mural Project. Well liked, respected, and sought after for counsel by fellow deported veterans, he was the oldest of them all, and had become a respected elder within the community.
With the help of an advocacy organization, Veterans Without Borders, Barrios gathered the courage to contact the VA and file compensation claims more than 40 years after being traumatized by the Vietnam War. With the well documented VA claims backlog, Barrios was forced to wait for years for a decision.
Unfortunately, on April 20 Barrios died—his mind had finally found a quiet refuge from the images of war. Sadly his death did not occur in the country which he had fought and sacrificed his sanity for—it was in a small, modest house in Tijuana.
The irony of Barrios’ death even further highlights the injustice of deporting veterans, for the only way that he could have gotten back to the United States was to have his remains interred in a national veterans cemetery in San Diego. While alive he decided against this, and his last wish was to have his coffin escorted by his fellow deported veterans, his brothers in arms and plight.
Hector Barrios was laid to rest in Tijuana, Mexico, accompanied by those closest to him—the deported U.S. veterans living banished at the border.
Amos Gregory is an artist, activist, and disabled U.S. military veteran. He is the founder of the San Francisco Veterans Mural project in San Francisco, co-founder of the Deported Veterans Mural Project in Tijuana, Mexico, and co-founder of the Puerto Rico Veterans Mural Project in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Mr. Gregory’s work encompasses giving voice to voiceless communities in the United States and abroad. His writings can be found at www.amosleegregory.com
Find more information on the Deported Veterans Mural Project here.