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An upside-down American flag — a national distress signal — is painted on the south side of the U.S.-Mexico border wall near San Diego as a symbol for the plight of deported veterans.
An upside-down American flag — a national distress signal — is painted on the south side of the U.S.-Mexico border wall near San Diego as a symbol for the plight of deported veterans. (Dianna Cahn/Stars and Stripes)

(Tribune News Service) — On June 28, U.S. Marine Corps veteran Ramon Castro left Friendship Park at the Tijuana border, and kept walking to draw national attention to deported military veterans. On Wednesday, he is scheduled to arrive at the eastern end of his destination near Brownsville, Texas.

For 45 days, the Brawley, Calif., councilman has trekked along the Mexican border, averaging five to six hours of walking a day, but sometimes as many as 15 hours.

In Yuma, Ariz., he endured temperatures as high as 120 degrees with stifling humidity.

He hiked through sand storms, lightning, monsoon-like downpours and trudged across the muck and mud left behind. Castro nursed blisters and a foot injury from thorns that penetrated the thick rubber soles of his shoes.

Toward the end of his journey, ankle bone stress fractures were so painful, he had to wrap his ankles each morning before continuing.

Castro nearly stepped on a snake, was threatened by "multiple gangbanger dogs" intent on protecting their territory and had close encounters with a tarantula, spiders and other wildlife.

Having served in the Marine Corps for eight years and participated in Operation Iraqi Freedom, the electrical contractor is no stranger to adversity.

"My suffering is temporary," he reasons, contrasting it to the hardships of non-U.S. citizen veterans who were deported for committing what often were minor crimes involving drugs and alcohol or linked to emotional trauma related to their military service.

Castro recently founded the American Veterans Homefront Initiative, a group that has three primary goals: stopping deportation of American veterans; letting those who have been deported to return to the United States; and streamlining the process that allows immigrants serving in the military to become U.S. citizens.

Has his trek accomplished its purpose? Yes and no, Castro says.

"We've been able to focus a lot of attention on this situation," Castro said by phone when he took a brief break Sunday near Zapata, Texas.

Plus, throughout his multiple border stops and five forays into Mexico to visit with deported veterans, he and members of his organization have reached out to those in need, helping with paperwork for V.A. benefit claims and requests to return to the United States.

They even aided a veteran in dire need of medical attention, who received an emergency humanitarian visa so he could be admitted to a hospital in El Paso.

"He was all alone in Mexico. He had no money, and he couldn't work," Castro says. Now in his 70s, the veteran was existing on a paltry $100 a month benefit from the U.S. government and charitable handouts.

From a political standpoint, Castro is quick to admit his march to bring deported veterans home has had little success.

There was a flurry of excitement on July 2 when the Biden administration pledged to take steps to bring home U.S. veterans who had been unjustly deported, along with their immediate family members, and ensure they received their rightful benefits.

The number who have been deported remains unclear because there is no official tracking system. However, estimates run from hundreds to a few thousand.

With no executive order having been signed, though, Castro views the administration's promise as lip service. He points out that deportations of veterans have occurred since the president's announcement more than a month ago.

Plus, Castro maintains that executive orders only are secure during the current president's term. The real solution lies in new laws: "We're asking for legislation that provides permanent relief for deported vets."

Several bills have been introduced to address the issues but remain holed up in committees. "The Democratic majority has done nothing to advance the bills. ... Politicians are very hesitant to touch this right now."

While active-duty members of the military are eligible to apply for citizenship, the process needs to be streamlined so they become citizens upon completion of their service.

Castro admits there was one point after reaching Texas when he thought of quitting his arduous walk. "But my integrity was on the line."

His journey sidekick, Oscar Suarez, who handles the trip's logistics, decided to drive him back home to Brawley for a brief visit with his wife and children, then immediately back again to pick up where he left off.

"Seeing my family recharged me," Castro says.

The walk is set to conclude Wednesday in Boca Chico, Texas, followed by a 6 p.m. media conference at Veterans Memorial Park in nearby Brownsville. It happens to be Castro's 43rd birthday.

How will he celebrate? "By hugging my family," Castro says of his wife and three youngest children, ages 15, 12 and 7, who plan to meet him there.

What's next for him? "This is now my life's work, and I will continue to do as much as I can," he vows, ticking off several crucial issues affecting veterans — homelessness, medical care, mental health, suicide and support for families of veterans who commit suicide.

Even after he returns to work, Castro plans to spend his evenings and weekends trying to address these concerns. "This is going to continue for the rest of my life."

©2021 The San Diego Union-Tribune.

Visit sandiegouniontribune.com.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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