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(Tribune New Service) On June 28, Ramon Castro will walk away from Friendship Park on the San Ysidro border — and keep walking.

He’ll head east, Forrest Gump-style, along the border for 1,954 miles and 45 days, until he reaches the eastern end of the U.S. border with Mexico near Brownsville, Texas.

Castro is a Brawley city council member and will join in the twice monthly board meetings via Zoom while on the road.

“My family thinks I’m crazy,” Castro says. But he is letting his feet do the talking, as well as the walking.

Castro, who served in the Marine Corps for eight years and was in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom, is walking the border to focus attention on non-citizen U.S. veterans who have been deported for committing crimes.

Often their offenses are minor drug- or alcohol-related crimes, and may be tied to physical and mental disabilities suffered during their military service — PTSD, anxiety, mood disorders, chronic pain, etc.

When deported, they lose access to the VA medical facilities and benefits they earned and, in some cases, desperately needed.

The walk was planned after the death of 52-year-old Erasmo “Mito” Apodaca on Mother’s Day. Apodaca, a green card holder, was deported to Mexico for a 1998 domestic violence incident.

For more than 22 years, Castro says, Apodaca fought for permission to return to the United States, where he grew up and where his extended family lives.

He died in Mexicali, apparently of a heart attack. Only three days earlier, he had received clearance to start the process of returning to the United States, Castro notes. The upcoming U.S hearing was set for July. It was too late.

“He suffered from PTSD and needed physical and mental health treatment, and he wasn’t able to receive it in Mexico,” Castro says.

Every Memorial Day, Castro and his friends walk 7.5 miles through Brawley to honor departed U.S. military and veterans. As he did this three weeks ago, Apodaca’s death weighed heavily on his mind.

“The idea came up during the walk. I wanted to do something impactful to bring about the change we are seeking,” he says. So the 45-day border trek, “Walk the Line: A March to Bring Our Deported Veterans Home,” is dedicated to Apodaca. “He is the one who inspired it. If he had been helped sooner, and if he had access to V.A. medical care, he might still be around.”

Along the route, Castro will stop and give talks in major towns, visit American Legion posts and walk across the border to tour two Mexico shelters that serve deported U.S. veterans.

“They should all be pardoned because, if not for this failed system, they would be American citizens, and we would not be talking about it. It’s a real embarrassment ... that we just discard them in that manner.”

As Americans, if they committed a crime, they would serve their time and get to start over in the United States upon release, he reasons.

Castro recently founded the American Veterans Homefront Initiative, a call-to-action to the U.S. government to address this issue.

He has three goals: To streamline the process so service members and veterans can become citizens immediately; to halt deportation of American veterans; and to pardon those who have been deported so they can return to the United States.

Several congressional bills have addressed the problem but, to date, have had little success.

Local Rep. Juan Vargas joined California Rep. Mark Takano, who chairs the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, and Arizona Rep. Raúl Grijalva, in February in reintroducing their Veteran Deportation Prevention and Reform Act. Takano called it a disgrace that veterans are falling through the cracks of the immigration system and being deported.

The bill aims to prevent deportation of non-citizen vets, improve the tracking of their immigration proceedings and bring eligible deported veterans back home.

There isn’t adequate tracking for deported veterans who held green cards and were legal U.S. residents, and the number is unknown. Castro says he has seen government estimates ranging from 95 to 300, but he believes there could be thousands. The Department of Defense says 25,000 non-citizens currently serve in the U.S. armed forces.

Castro is undertaking his walk during peak summer temperatures with little time to train. But he is an electrician by trade and lives and has worked in construction in Imperial Valley, so he is confident he can handle the heat. “It’s just a nature walk if you compare it to what my colleagues and other Marines had to do in combat,” Castro says.

He is packing light, taking only water and snacks and wearing a tracking device. A vehicle will follow his route carrying gear and supplies. Other walkers will join him at points along the way.

Castro hopes to average 35 miles a day and arrive in Brownsville on Aug. 11. “I didn’t plan it, but I’ll finish on my birthday. I turn 43 that day.”

One of five major stops en route will be at the Mexicali cemetery where Apodaca is buried. His sister, Norma Apodaca of Alpine set up a GoFundMe account to help her brother’s widow, their young daughter and his three older sons.

She posted: “His number 1 priority was to bring his wife and kids to USA land which he was proud to have fought for. Now his wife mourns her loss, living in their Mexicali, BC home with their 8-year-old daughter. Erasmo was their source of support working here and there in Mexico to make ends meet. ... He never stopped fighting to return back to the U.S.“

©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Visit sandiegouniontribune.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

A mural on the US-Mexico border wall shows an upside-down American flag, a distress signal that the artist said symbolizes the plight of deported veterans in Tijuana. Names of deported veterans are included in the mural.
A mural on the US-Mexico border wall shows an upside-down American flag, a distress signal that the artist said symbolizes the plight of deported veterans in Tijuana. Names of deported veterans are included in the mural. (Dianna Cahn/Stars and Stripes)

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