‘I never left anybody’ — Fighting for veterans left behind by the country they served
Veterans mustered resources to swiftly bring home stranded Afghan allies and are working together to do the same for deported U.S. veterans.
This article first appeared on The War Horse, an award-winning nonprofit news organization educating the public on military service. Subscribe to their newsletter.
In 2009, as U.S. immigration agents dropped off Laura Meza in Costa Rica, they asked for advice about where they could go for dinner or drinks that evening.
The Army veteran stood more than 2,000 miles from home—from her daughter and parents—and wondered if maybe she could stop agonizing about when she would see her family again long enough to act as the immigration agents’ tour guide.
“Don’t you understand?” Meza remembers answering. “The last time I really lived in Costa Rica was when I was five years old.”
Meza had started strong in the military. She excelled in physical fitness during basic training and was referred by her drill sergeant to airborne school because of her talent for inspiring others—especially among those who struggled with the physical and mental parts of training.
But things changed when she served as a dental assistant in the 561st Medical Company in Vilseck, Germany, in 2003.
“I know something bad happened to me that day in Germany,” Meza tells The War Horse over Zoom, lowering her voice. She gets up to check that her 11-year-old son is still playing soccer outside her house. She returns, removes her glasses, and wipes her eyes. “I used to see him at the chow hall, and he used to want to always talk to me, and he would say hi.”
Her new friend invited her to his barracks room to watch a movie during the day. She recalls drinking only half a beer before waking up. “And then the guy clearly let me know that something happened because he said to me yeah, so did you, you know, enjoy it, you know, that kind of thing.” The man asked her if she remembered anything, she says.
“I felt really bad,” she says. “I feel awful. I felt nasty, dirty.”
Coming from what she calls a “culture of silence for women” that she says permeates her life as a Latin woman, she did not report the 2003 rape.
A few weeks later, in Iraq, Meza confronted mass casualties at Balad Air Force Base. The base, originally called “Camp Anaconda,” was nicknamed “Mortaritaville” because of the plethora of mortar attacks.
She assisted as an oral surgeon sewed up an Iraqi man whose tongue had been sliced “all the way from the front, all the way to the back of it, it was very bloody.” Because she carried a dead baby during a mass casualty at Tallil Air Base in Nasiriyah, Iraq, she says dreams about her daughter dying, as well as other terrible scenes, engulfed her. She uncharacteristically isolated herself from other service members and slept in her own tent, but being alone made things worse.
“I guess that made me fearful, you know?” she says. And while she wasn’t on drugs at the time, she “started tripping a lot” and then “had a lot of issues” related to the rape in Germany.
Soon after, she was medevaced to Germany and admitted to the psychiatric ward, but the medications they prescribed didn’t help, she says.
“In Germany, I think we didn’t even have any therapeutic groups that I remember,” she says. “I think it was just like, ‘We give [you] your meds.”
That wasn’t enough for Meza.
“I was suicidal,” she says. “I wasn’t feeling good. I was angry. I was scared. I was sad. I had so many mixed emotions. I didn’t know how to deal with them. You know, being raped and then thrown into war. It’s just a lot to deal with.”
Treated in the United States at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in 2004 near her home state of Maryland, Meza said she turned to drugs and alcohol to cope with her post-traumatic stress disorder, for which she eventually received full benefits: “There was nothing at that time that I think would have helped me.”
After the police arrested Meza for marijuana possession and attempted robbery, she was shipped to an immigration jail in Texas where, after serving a three-year sentence for the offense, she lost her case and was deported to Costa Rica in 2009.
Costa Rica brought her back to her roots, but it didn’t feel like home. Maryland provided her landmarks, her school friends, her memories of family gatherings. Meza had gotten her green card at age 21—just as she joined the U.S. Army to provide a stable life for her tiny daughter—and it never entered her mind that she would need to refer back to the watery images of her toddler years.
“Do you think I went out when I was five?” she says she asked the agents, sassiness punctuating the fragility in her voice as she tells her story. “I don’t know where you can go. … You know I’m an American.”
She would spend the next 11 years in Costa Rica without her daughter or immediate family, the trauma of her service in Iraq still playing on a reel-to-reel in her mind even as the significance of her veteran status slipped away.
Will Attig—tall, thin with all-American blue eyes and blond hair—faced a similar path. He had deployed to Iraq multiple times, and in 2007, his battalion, the 1-26 Infantry Regiment, earned the title “Hardest Hit Unit Since Vietnam” when they lost more than 31 soldiers in Ramadi and Adhamiyah, some of the worst areas in the war.
Attig was devastated when, just a few yards away, one of the younger soldiers in his company, Pfc. Paul Balint Jr., was killed by a sniper in 2006. Even though Attig wasn’t on patrol when it happened, he also despaired when he learned that his first platoon sergeant had killed himself while leading other soldiers. Getting the news about I-26 soldier Ross McGinnis—who shoved himself against a grenade, causing fatal wounds, to save four others—affected him further.
When Attig got out of the Army, he brought back a lot of demons. To quell them, he drank—a lot, he says. And he smoked marijuana. It helped.
“We lost a devastating amount of troops by terrible stuff that was tearing through our armor,” Attig says. “Coming back from deployment, we were in rough shape.”
‘You’ve Got to Be Willing to Fight for Your Community Here’
But there, the similarities in Meza and Attig’s stories end: Attig’s community, rather than ostracizing him for bad behavior, pulled him in and offered support and opportunities so he could provide for himself and find direction through a union workforce program called Helmets to Hardhats.
Meza faces punishment for the rest of her life.
When Attig began to understand the discrepancy, he thought about those he served with and the struggles they faced. One soldier in I-26 had to fight to keep his wife from being deported.
He took action.
While American police and court systems have often proved empathetic to alcohol, drug, disorderly conduct, or assault charges that arise after combat service, veterans who aren’t U.S. citizens face being plucked from their homes, jobs, and families, as well as being forced to return to countries they, in many cases, haven’t lived in since they were children. The veterans often don’t know that they aren’t U.S. citizens because of confusing information from their recruiters or other service members.
And the government, though there are policies in place specifically for veteran immigrants, hasn’t tracked who has been deported, and its record for how those veterans’ cases have been handled has been spotty at best. As the Trump administration moved to impose more restrictions as part of its anti-immigration agenda—just as the military ended a new program to help service members become U.S. citizens—even more U.S. military veterans found themselves bounced to countries that had nothing to do with their definitions of “home.”
But just as veterans have flexed their collective muscle to gather resources to bring home Afghans who had helped U.S. forces, they’re doing the same for U.S. veterans who have been deported to other countries. In part because of their work, President Joe Biden has promised to bring some of those veterans home—and the Department of Homeland Security is teaming with Veterans Affairs to review records and provide services.
“I served around the world for my country,” Attig says he likes to tell veterans, as he explains his need to help. “I tell them that they have to be willing to fight for themselves. You’ve got to be willing to fight for your community here.”
Attig serves as the executive director for the Union Veterans Council, a group for union members who have served in the military. Through a series of serendipitous connections—as well as a hard push from Attig—the group is leading a project to provide legal support and lobby for change for deported veterans. The project includes the immigration services at the AFL-CIO and Yale Law School’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic.
The groups have also created a path for deported and unnaturalized veterans to help themselves.
‘What’s a Veteran Rated 100% for PTSD Doing Being Deported?’
Meza is one of perhaps hundreds of immigrant veterans who signed up to risk their lives by protecting their country only to learn that, when they needed it most, their country wasn’t ready to protect them. Many, like Meza, say their post-service criminal convictions stem from a lack of adequate support to reintegrate into the workforce or to address trauma, substance abuse, and other medical issues stemming from their service.
And in Costa Rica, Meza has no access to her benefits.
“What is a veteran that’s rated 100% disability for PTSD doing deported in another country?” she says.
At least 115 veterans were deported or “placed in removal proceedings” during fiscal years 2013 through 2018, according to the Government Accountability Office. But no one knows the exact number of veterans who have been deported or where they are now, according to the same report. That’s because, while U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement have defined policies for handling veterans’ cases, the agency doesn’t “consistently adhere to those policies, and does not consistently identify and track such veterans”—even though they’re required to take special measures with veterans and service members.
Agencies are supposed to look at several factors in a veteran’s case: their overall criminal history, evidence of rehabilitation, and family and financial ties in the United States, as well as their military service and whether they served in a war zone. But GAO found ICE does not consistently follow those policies in the majority of cases—and ICE officials told GAO they didn’t know about the policies.
No one would argue that the deported veterans are innocent: Of 92 deported veterans, 90 had one or more criminal convictions. Of those, 68 veterans had at least one aggravated felony conviction—which can range from homicide to theft to selling marijuana, according to the American Immigration Council.
But as communities around the United States confronted veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, veterans courts appeared around the nation. The first veterans’ court began in Buffalo, New York, in 2008, just after the surge in Iraq. By 2016, there were 461 programs. The goal? Drug or mental health treatment, rather than incarceration. The courts are a way for communities to acknowledge that war changes people, and that communities—the voters who send people to war—can help take responsibility for veterans’ reintegration into society.
One study found that as many as 80% of veterans who used the veterans courts had at least one mental health diagnosis, so the courts formed partnerships and worked with VA to provide treatment.
While he doesn’t advocate criminal activity, Attig says the discrepancy in how the two groups of veterans are treated, often for the same crimes, is unfair: Citizens who serve the United States get help; immigrants who serve the United States get deported.
“You smoke so you can get through the day,” Attig says. “And then they get deported for that.”
‘We Are Committed to Bringing Back Veterans’
In early July, the Biden administration announced that it was taking official measures to help bring veterans unjustly deported back to the United States.
And the Department of Homeland Security announced a partnership with VA to bring home some veterans, ensure all veterans have their earned benefits, and give them access to COVID vaccinations.
“The Department of Homeland Security recognizes the profound commitment and sacrifice that service members and their families have made to the United States of America,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas stated in a press release. “Together with our partner the Department of Veterans Affairs, we are committed to bringing back military service members, veterans, and their immediate family members who were unjustly removed and ensuring they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled.”
The partnership includes a review of policies and procedures, a move to remove barriers to citizenship, and a case-by-case look at veterans and their family members who have been deported.
Biden’s decision springs from years of hard activism by numerous organizations, including the American Civil Liberties Union and politicians like Tammy Duckworth, a veteran and a Democrat from Illinois, as well as by deported veterans themselves, led by Hector Barajas of the Deported Veterans Support House in Tijuana.
Union Veterans Council members first met Barajas at a union meeting in San Diego in 2016, just as the issue started getting more publicity. Barajas grew up in Compton, California, and served in the military for almost six years. But in 2002, he pleaded no contest to a charge of shooting at an occupied vehicle. He served two years in prison and almost a year in detention before he was deported in 2004.
But after years of service to other veterans, former California Gov. Jerry Brown pardoned Barajas, and he became a U.S. citizen.
“If you can give a veteran, deported or not, an opportunity to support fellow veterans, you can see them do great things, like Hector,” Attig says. “He was living on the streets. He changed tons of people’s lives.”
Barajas agreed with the characterization: “That was like my main, my driving force for many, many years,” he says, “just keep going and helping others.”
But it can be hard to convince others to see beyond the politics—to see that the immigration issue is a veterans’ issue, Attig says.
In 2019, Attig and the Union Veterans Council partnered with Barajas and other veterans who had contacted them. Together, they went to a union meeting in San Diego.
“It was the first time anyone realized there was a connection between labor unions and veterans,” Attig says. “All these union presidents—some of them had no idea about veterans stuff—they got to visit with like four veterans that showed up in their uniforms, and it was the most impactful part of the entire visit.”
Afterward, Attig says a union member approached him about the deported veterans issue: “‘I gotta be completely honest, I’ve never really connected with an immigration issue before,’” Attig recalls the union member saying. “‘And I’m a labor guy. This is the first time I get it.’”
Official AFL-CIO support began in March 2021, Attig says, calling it more than icing on immigration-effort cake.
“It was this big historic moment,” Attig says, still excited about having 12.5 million union members on board. “The AFL-CIO gave a full, full, full statement. This says, now, not only it isn’t just the Union Veterans Council working on it, but the entire American labor movement feels that this is a priority for us. It’s kinda more than historic.”
Shannon Lederer, director of immigration policy at the AFL-CIO, describes the UVC collaboration as a “cross-education.”
“Will is trying to bring immigrant issues into the veterans’ circles,” she says, “and he’s helping me bring veterans’ issues into the immigration policies.”
And bridging across issues and making those connections is critical to making real gains for working families, she says.
“We don’t have different unions for migrants,” Lederer says. “Everybody who’s working for the same employer is a member of the union. We need to realize that it’s only through actually coming together as workers across gender, racial, color, national-origin status lines that we’re going to be able to create a fairer landscape for worker organizing.”
In the meantime, Barajas’ project, the Deported Veterans Support House, which has received a lot of media attention over the last few months, serves as a shelter and a resource center for deported veterans who need assistance.
“Let’s say [someone has] a law firm, and they say to me, ‘I want to volunteer my time to help bring [lawyers] to deported veterans,’” Barajas says. “And within our database, we might have somebody that needs help and we can share this.”
This is how Ivan Ocon became connected with the UVC project.
‘When You’re Young, You Don’t Think About Citizenship’
Many immigrants who join the military, including Meza, say they were left thinking they would become automatic citizens when they joined. They didn’t understand they needed to do anything to become naturalized citizens.
Ocon came to El Paso, Texas, from Juarez, Mexico, when he was seven. His family then relocated to Las Cruces, California, where he spent most of his life as a legal permanent resident. At 19, he joined the Army.
“When you’re young, you don’t think about citizenship and say, ‘I’m legal, permanent resident,’ or whatever,” Ocon says. “So to me, I was already a citizen. I was in the United States, and I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to serve my country.’”
In the Army, he was given no direction about how to process his paperwork, he says. His chain of command, which didn’t know how to advise Ocon, sent him to the Judge Advocate General’s Corps, a judicial organization that works on military matters.
“I was thinking, ‘Well, there’s lawyers, military attorneys,’” he says. “‘They’re going to know stuff like this.’ But when I went there, they said, ‘Oh, we don’t know anything.’ You had no direction, no explanation about how you were going to go about getting the citizenship.”
After serving at Fort Lewis, Washington, with the 542nd Maintenance Company, Ocon studied land-based military operations in Japan before being stationed in Korea with the 2nd Infantry Division, and then at Fort Irwin with the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment-Blackhorse. In 2003, he deployed to Jordan to protect the king as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
He returned from Jordan in time to see his daughter born, but when the Army tried to assign him funeral detail, a job he had performed before deployment, what was supposed to be the happiest moment of his life became one of the most miserable: He wanted to be back in the action.
“I don’t want to do it anymore because, I mean, war itself doesn’t bother me,” Ocon says he told his leadership. “When you have to present a flag to the families, that’s a whole other issue right there.”
Ocon turned to drugs. He was discharged from the Army after seven years—and two reenlistments—in uniform when he was tested positive for marijuana.
“So I turned to alcohol and drugs and everything once I got out to cope, and I was having problems, sleeping, sleeping disorders, nightmares, just a little bit of everything, you know?” he says. “So that was my escape—drugs, alcohol.”
In May 2006, he was charged with aiding and abetting his brother in a kidnapping. He wasn’t involved in the crime directly, he says, but when he understood what was happening, he didn’t report his brother. “I should have stopped him at all costs, ” Ocon says. “At all costs.”
He was sentenced to 10 years in prison but got out in nine years for good behavior.
Almost as soon as Ocon got out of prison, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents took him to an immigration jail in Texas, even though he had served a full sentence for the crime. He fought deportation for 10 months but lost due to “lack of moral character.” When he tried to highlight his military service, he says the district attorney for immigration “just pushed it to the side and said, ‘Your service doesn’t matter. Good luck in Mexico.’”
In 2016, Ocon entered Juaréz, Mexico, with a small duffel bag of clothes and $500. He knew no one and never stopped fearing for his life, especially after his cousin was shot and killed in 2018. Watching the lives of family and friends unfold on Facebook has been hard, he says, but nothing compares with the lost relationship with his daughter, who is now a teenager.
“I got three army achievement medals,” he says. “I got three army commendation medals. I got about five certificates of achievement. I got the Korean national defense service ribbon. I got the global war on terror ribbon. I got a National Defense Service Ribbon, an overseas ribbon, and an Army Service Ribbon. I mean, I got nine medals and basically, they didn’t mean anything, you know?”
Ocon’s brother, a citizen, was allowed to remain in the country after his jail sentence.
In recent years, the situation has grown worse for immigrants who join the military: As President Donald Trump took office, he asked the Defense Department to eliminate military naturalization resources and created barriers to prevent expedited citizenship for service members, according to the Defense Department. (One barrier, the requirement to serve at least six months on active duty or a year in the National Guard before applying for citizenship, was recently struck down by a federal judge.) From 2016 to 2020, 30,000 service members became U.S. citizens, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. In fiscal years 2018, 2019, and 2020, about 4,500 service members were naturalized each year, compared to about 7,000 in fiscal year 2017 and more than 9,000 in fiscal year 2016 because of changes in Defense Department policies. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services closed international immigration offices, barring the way for service members serving overseas to naturalize after completing basic training. The military also booted at least 40 immigrants out of the military.
Attig’s group would need a hard legal edge to take on their biggest goals.
So Attig brokered a partnership with Yale University’s Veterans Legal Services Clinic in February 2021.
“It’s one of the things I get giddy about,” he says. “Because it’s like I just said, ‘Hey, we need to have this option.’ And somehow we pulled it off.”
Yale law students can join the clinic for credit and represent the veterans, typically on veterans’ benefits cases. But Attig’s request changed things.
“The thrust of our work was really interviewing and screening several deported veterans about their possibilities for return,” says Yale law student Casey Smith. “Through those individual screenings, we did learn more about the current laws that constitute a bar to naturalization for a deported veteran and things like that.”
The clinic was assigned Ocon’s case, followed by Meza’s.
Working intimately with individual cases, Attig was able to confirm a handful of the common barriers facing deported veterans.
“Often the criminal activity that our clients have become involved with at some point in the past is related to ongoing effects of service,” Smith says. “One of the most striking things to me while doing deported veterans advocacy has been how the law about crimes of violence doesn’t necessarily recognize the ongoing effects of service for someone who’s coming back from war.”
Some of the veterans had been deported under criminal laws that no longer bar someone from becoming a U.S. citizen, she says. On September 22, the clinic filed a petition for naturalization for Ocon, whose criminal offense no longer bars him from becoming a U.S. citizen.
“Now that the administration has highlighted the plight of deported veterans as a high priority, we hope that [immigration] will live up to that commitment by speedily processing [Ocon’s] case and others like it,” Smith says.
The AFL-CIO got involved in the project by advising the students about their different advocacy efforts.
Attig had ideas about doing more.
He realized there were only so many veterans he could help directly, so he asked Smith and other clinic students to help with a memo that would outline the ways the different groups could work together. In June, they wrote guidelines to help both deported veterans and the people helping them—unions, lawyers, and other advocates—in the cities and states they lived in before they were deported.
“If you’re an organization that wants to support bringing veterans home, it tells you how to find resources in the local area,” Attig says.
The memorandum drafted by the UVC, the AFL-CIO, and the Veterans Law Clinic outlines all possible avenues veterans can take to naturalize legally. It has not been officially published yet but can be accessed by contacting Union Veterans Council or the Yale veterans clinic. With enough groundswell, this document may be available soon for lawyers across the country, Attig says.
He believes the memo could help as many as two-thirds of the veterans find their ways home by providing a simple, usable document.
‘Immigration Can Be Complex at Times’
For deported veterans and immigrant service members who feel confused by the citizenship process, UVC project participants offer some advice:
“If you are not a U.S. citizen yet, ask your [noncommissioned officer] or ask somebody to put you in contact with the right folks to make sure that this happens,” Barajas says. “Immigration can be complex at times. So if you say the wrong thing, you could be deported.”
Ocon advises service members and veterans to be as informed and proactive as possible about naturalization, as well as to verify persistently that the process goes to its very end.
“They should be raising awareness about it in the military,” he says. “They should have a class.”
Getting to know the helpers—the people who have been through the process, who are going through the process, or who are helping others become citizens or come home—also can also make things easier, Smith says.
Smith suggests contacting the ACLU, the Yale veterans clinic, and other lawyers and clinics that have helped deported veterans. Veterans should look for help with the immigration resources in the places where they lived when they were deported.
“Contacting a congressional representative to seek their assistance and highlight deported veterans’ issues more broadly can be a good way of helping,” she says.
Attig and Lederer recommend contacting or perhaps joining certain labor unions that can put deported vets in touch with the right legal counsel.
“But how can you serve your country and get deported?” Meza can’t stop asking the question. “That’s the greatest way to show your love for your country.”
During basic training, Meza led 60 women. At night she would gather them all to pray, she says. She stayed behind with women who struggled, even if it meant she accomplished tasks slower.
“I felt so confident. I felt all the army core values being selfless, helping people. I never left anybody.”
United Citizenship and Immigration Services – Naturalization Through Military Service
Yale Law School Veteran Legal Services Clinic
Unified U.S. Deported Veterans
Deported Veterans Advocacy Project
This War Horse investigation was reported by Jennifer Orth-Veillon, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Ben Kalin, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar.