The Bunker of the Deported Veterans of America is located on 3rd street, near Parque Teniente Guerrero, on top of Baja Gym. Dark steps behind an iron door next to the gym's entrance lead you to two green doors and an open space. One of the green doors has a handwritten sign that reads “Bunker: Support House of the Deported Veterans of America. Director Hector Barajas.”
I knock on the door a couple times until I hear “Pasale.”
In the corner of a large open room, behind improvised desks, sit two veterans on their computers. A map of Mexico and a bunch of Army certificates decorate this corner they use as office space. The rest of the room has all the necessities for basic living. A loud fan barely helps allay the summer heat. A large American flag next to a smaller Mexican flag act as curtains for the sliding glass doors that lead to a balcony with no railing.
This is Spc. Hector Barajas’s home, a veteran who served in the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne division from 1995 until 2001. Barajas shares his home with fellow deported veterans. Veterans can stay at the bunker while they find a better situation. Alex Caballero, a former Marine (1998-2007), is calling the place home for now.
“I see this house as the hub for all the deported veterans around the world,” says Barajas, “because this is where we've been doing a lot of the advocating, raising awareness, protests.... We are also working on an actual list of who are the deported veterans; these are numbers that the VA or Homeland Security doesn't have.”
Barajas estimates that there are between 3000 and 50,000 deported veterans around the world. He estimates that there’re more than 1000 in Baja California.
“The problem is that when you get deported, you think you are the only one. I talked to a guy that got deported to Jamaica, so I connected him to other veterans that have been deported there. We're forming virtual bunkers around the world. If someone gets deported in Tamaulipas, I help him connect with other veterans in the area. I tried to get these guys motivated, to raise awareness of their situation and where they are at and to get organized.”
Besides connecting veterans with one another, Barajas works to get benefits for them and to get them back home.
“Benefits are going to be easier to get; going back home is going to be more difficult. If they made me sign something that says I could go home and get none of my benefits, I would do it right now. If they tell me to jump from 100 airplanes, I'll serve a year in Iraq if I have to. I would do whatever it takes to go home.”
Like most deportees, a crime was committed for the system to notice them.
“A crime shouldn't take away your citizenship,” says Barajas. “I served a three-year prison term for a discharge of a firearm on to a vehicle…. I paid my debt to society.”
Alex Caballero claims he was unaware that he was part of a scam for Schwarzenegger's campaign as he presents me with a mountain of evidence and law jargon. Both, Caballero and Barajas call California their home. Barajas moved to Compton when he was seven years old; Caballero has lived all over California since he was two.
I ask them what comfort of home (besides family) they are missing and if there's something I can bring them next time I come back from San Diego.
“Family comes and visits the guys — for some is every week, others a month or so,” says Barajas. “You know what I miss, Church's Fried Chicken, KFC is not the same here. Church's hot and spicy is my favorite, the chicken over here doesn't taste the same at all.” — Hector misses a simple commodity, and since there's a Church's Chicken just across the border, I'll be bringing him some hot and spicy.
Alex in the other hand misses something that I cannot provide. “Just the freedom itself, the general feeling of being part of America, being around what you know, your family and friends.”
Alex also misses Mountain Dew and In-N-Out burger, an order I can handle.