When Jose Comes Marching Home

Phil Anderson

When Johnny comes marching home again, Hurrah! Hurrah! We'll give him a hearty welcome then, Hurrah! Hurrah! The men will cheer and the boys will shout The ladies they will all turn out And we'll all feel gay when Johnny comes marching home. Traditional folk song  

"Many people are unaware that the United States deports military veterans." Margaret Stock, former Army lieutenant colonel and immigration lawyer  

“I can’t believe ‘deported veterans’ is an actual phrase...If you take the oath of service, to me you’re taking the oath of citizenship. It should be easy and even automatic.” Tony Fratto, former White House official in the George W. Bush administration  

Veteran's Day, November 11, is just a few weeks away. The media will be full of trite sound bites about veterans being heroes that have brought us our freedom and kept us all safe. But recent news reports have a story that puts all this maudlin patriotic whoop-la in perspective. This story provides a more honest picture of how we “honor” Johnny (or in this case Jose) when he comes marching home.  

The problem with the overblown veneration of veterans is that it is more rhetoric than reality. We, as a nation, really don't care about veterans when they come home sick or broken. This is clearly demonstrated by the way we have treated war related illnesses in the aftermath of war. When our troops were exposed to cancer causing chemicals (Agent Orange) in Vietnam, the Veterans Administration did not want to accept responsibility for these service related illnesses. The same thing happened with “Gulf War Syndrome” after the first Iraq war. Continuing with the second Iraq war the use of depleted uranium munitions was believed to cause illnesses with service members and civilians. But the government refused to accept the connections. Too often veterans had to fight for recognition that these illnesses were service related.  

In a just and caring society it would make no difference what caused the illnesses. If one of our “heroes,” who had been in a combat zone, had medical problems it would be covered. Medical care would be provided with no bureaucratic hassles. But in reality returning troops are not guaranteed the medical care they need. The visible, undeniable problems (like amputations) get attention but the psychological problems and hard to identify illnesses are too often denied care. If we really cared about the troops, every individual would get the care they need. ALL returning troops would be automatically screened for PTSD. There would be no waiting lists. In addition there would be no homeless or jobless veterans.  

Our lack of caring about veterans is vividly illustrated by our treatment of veterans who are immigrants. The case of Jose Segovia Benitez is an example getting unusual media attention. Jose was born in El Salvador and brought here by his parents when he was three years old. He was a legal permanent resident when he joined the Marines and served two tours in Iraq (volunteering for the second). He was honorably discharged after serving five years. But he came home in 2004 with a brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. He made mistakes, got into trouble with the law, and spent time in prison for drug and domestic violence offenses. In January 2018, immigration agents arrested him after he completed a prison term. Now 38, he’s in an ICE prison awaiting possible deportation while his case went through a series of legal maneuverings. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled against a request to stay his deportation.  

Jose is just one of hundreds, possible thousands, of similar cases (no one knows how many for sure). But all these cases are unjust for many reasons. Being convicted of crimes is the excuse used to deport many immigrant veterans. But the person served time for those crimes. They “paid their debt to society.” Deporting them is punishing them twice for the same crime. Many veterans commit crimes after discharge from the service, but only immigrants face double punishment.  

In addition there is the injustice of being denied citizenship. Immigrants join the military expecting to gain citizenship from their service. This was common practice in the past and many people assume joining the military is an automatic guarantee of citizenship. But it isn't. The George W. Bush administration had a program to make it easier, but it was never automatic and the program is gone. A Migration Policy Institute report says in 2016 there were 500,000 foreign-born veterans living in the country. This is 3 percent of the total 19 million veterans. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, 100,000 military members have become naturalized citizens since 2001. But the numbers really don't matter. All veterans (and all people) should be treated justly. Citizenship is an appropriate and just reward for volunteering to serve.  

But too often the government has reneged on these implied promises. Margaret Stock, a former Army lieutenant colonel and an immigration lawyer, says many green card holders went to Iraq and Afghanistan without becoming citizens. Both the Obama and Trump administrations have been deporting veterans who were convicted of crimes (often minor or drug related). Like war, mistreatment of immigrant veterans is bi-partisan.  

The point of all this, and what the treatment of immigrant veterans shows, is that all the patriotic hoopla about “supporting” the troops and thanking us for our service, is the sales pitch to recruit cannon fodder for the next war. It is the con game to get poor boys to fight a rich man's war. The reality is we don't care about Johnny, Jose, or anyone else when they march home. They have served their usefulness to the war machine and are no longer needed, especially those with medical or legal problems.  

Brandee Dubzic, an advocate for deported veterans, explains it well. Speaking about Jose Benitez she says,   “Here is someone this country is supposed to revere as a hero ...If Jose had died over there, we would all be talking about Jose the American soldier who was willing to give his life for his country. He didn’t die. He just got hurt... I think it’s because he’s no longer useful. I think that’s the story of all deported vets. And then we can throw them away like garbage.”   (Quote from Orange County Register article by Roxana Kopetman, October 13, 2019 as republished in Stars and Stripes)  

As a nation we should be ashamed.