Mary Spicuzza / SF Weekly – 2007-06-22 23:02:20
SAN FRANCISCO (June 20, 2007) — Angel Gomez got the call nearly a year before his high school graduation. A United States Marine Corps recruiter wanted to see him. It was the fall of 2002, and Angel was hoping to go to college, but he agreed to stop by the recruiting office anyway. As they talked about his plans for the future, Angel was struck by what seemed like a staggering lack of options, especially when the recruiter asked him if he could pay for his education.
Angel knew his family couldn’t afford to send him to college. And many of those college scholarship applications say “Must be a US citizen.”
The recruiter was making the hard-sell even though Angel wasn’t yet a citizen — he only had a green card. He told Angel that once he finished boot camp and went to his first duty station, he could get his US citizenship.
Angel was born in Valle de Guadalupe, a town in Mexico’s Pacific Coast state of Jalisco. It was a place that his mother, Antonia, says was full of women and little kids because everybody else had crossed the border. When her children got older, she decided to come to the US, where she hoped they’d have a better chance to get an education. So, in 1993 when Angel was 7 years old, the family hired a coyote to drive him and his 2-year-old brother, Francisco Javier, across the border through Tijuana. His mom, who was pregnant, crossed on foot.
They joined his father, who had a green card, and lived near downtown Los Angeles, in Inglewood, until Angel was in eighth grade. Then they moved to Farmersville, a small town south of Fresno. Angel struggled in high school, but found that he loved a program that prepared students for careers in the medical field.
Then the recruiter called.
Angel thinks the Marine Corps got his home phone number from his high school, a mandatory practice for schools funded under No Child Left Behind unless students or their parents sign a form that they don’t want their personal information released.
Angel wasn’t the best student, and without scholarships, he felt like he didn’t have a choice. So he enlisted, even though his mother tried to stop him. “I knew he was fighting for a better life, but I told him I would prefer him to be poor and have a humble job,” she says. “But he wanted to study, and we couldn’t pay for it.”
He enlisted in July 2003. Two years later, after he’d returned from Iraq, Angel was sworn in as a US citizen. But things were different since he got injured there. Sitting in a wheelchair and wearing a plastic helmet to protect his brain, Angel and his parents faced an immigration official.
“Please raise your right hand,” the official said. Angel couldn’t — he’s mostly lost the use of that arm. He rose his left hand instead and said a soft “I do” at the proper moment.
Angel was finally a citizen, but any hopes of going to college were all but dashed. He had to once again learn how to walk, to talk, and to live on his own.
Pablo Paredes has never met Angel, but he says he’s heard dozens of similar stories: the call from a recruiter, long talks about money for college or citizenship, maybe even an adventurous recruiting video.
From the American Friends Service Committee office just off Market Street in downtown San Francisco, Paredes schedules visits to Bay Area schools to talk with students, often Latinos, about alternatives to military service. In addition to his work as a counter-recruiter, he fields calls from service members as a contractor for the GI Rights Hotline, a network of private nonprofits that provides information about military discharges as well as grievance and complaint procedures.
Paredes worries that immigrant families are especially vulnerable to being intimidated by overzealous recruiters — especially if they speak English as a second language. “The parents will get called, and if they’re a green card parent or an undocumented parent, what’s going to happen is [recruiters may] say you’re going to get deported if your son doesn’t go,” he says.
Paredes enlisted in the Navy in 2000, he remembers being shown a picture of a man in a space suit with a Navy logo on it, and his recruiter telling him that he could end up working for NASA. But the lure of becoming an astronaut faded as he was confronted with the reality of going to war.
In December 2004 he refused to board an assault ship named the USS Bonhomme Richard in San Diego when it was leaving for the Persian Gulf. He applied to be a conscientious objector but was denied, faced court martial, and was eventually sentenced to several months of hard labor and discharged. In 2005, Amnesty International declared Paredes a “prisoner of conscience.”
It’s hard to imagine Paredes was ever a military man. With his hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, he can rattle off countless details about the downsides of life in the armed services: criticisms about the shrinking power of the GI Bill, the Veterans Affairs’ estimate that one-quarter of homeless adults are veterans, and reports that 14 percent of those enlisted are Latinos, yet make up less than 5 percent of the military’s officer corps. “We’re over-represented in infantry and under-represented in officer roles,” he says.
Citizenship for Soldiering
The soft-spoken Bronx native says that recruiters often lie, or at least tell half-truths, about the realities of life in the military. And Paredes, whose mother is Puerto Rican and father is Ecuadorian, is especially worried about recruitment of working-class immigrants and Latinos — whether it’s the Leaders Among Us campaign, the sleek “Go Army” Hummers, or the events featuring DJs from Latin music stations.
He’s heard tales of recruiter abuse targeting undocumented parents where “there’ll be this sort of ‘wink-wink’ action with the recruiter saying if you want to get your citizenship, sign this piece of paper so your son can enlist.” He mentions the Army recruiter who got busted in Tijuana a few years back trying to track down a couple of potential recruits. “What are they doing there?” he asks.
As the war in Iraq grows increasingly unpopular, the US military is struggling to meet its recruiting goals. African-American enlistments in the Army, for example, dropped from 24 percent in fiscal year 2000 to only 14 percent in 2005, according to a 2005 study by David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization.
Meanwhile, the number of non-citizens in the military has risen — there are now about 35,000 “green card” service members, an increase from the 23,000 who were serving in 2000. And more than 32,000 have become US citizens since the Bush administration announced expedited citizenship for members of the armed services in 2002, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services. Altogether, it’s estimated there are about 105,000 foreign-born members of the armed services. And many in the military are pushing to recruit more immigrants.
Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney and West Point professor, argues that immigrants are a critical asset in national defense. She points out that this is nothing new — immigrants have served in the US military since the Revolutionary War. She cites the countless Filipinos who fought for the US during World War II, as well as undocumented immigrants who served with distinction during the Vietnam War. There have also been the “no-card soldiers,” an unknown number of undocumented immigrants who’ve enlisted and fought in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Nobody in the Pentagon Is Complaining about Immigrants
“We take a lot of immigrants now,” Stock says. “And nobody in the military is complaining.” She says that one immigration bill in particular may create a path for more immigrants to enlist, and in doing so assist the armed services as they struggle to find eligible soldiers.
The Development, Relief and Education Act (also known as the DREAM Act or American Dream Act) could each year directly affect 65,000 graduating immigrant students, many of whom are Latinos. It would allow undocumented immigrants who meet certain qualifications — entering the US before the age of 16, having at least five years continuous presence here, and a clean criminal record — to be eligible for citizenship following at least two years of military service.
Most non-citizen service members were born in Mexico or the Philippines, followed by countries like Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Haiti. California contributes far more non-citizen recruits than any other state.
Angel liked being a Marine. He made friends, loved learning to drive trucks, and even felt ready when he got word he was being deployed to Iraq. “I was fine,” he says. “After all the training, I was really confident.”
The Trauma of War
But training didn’t prepare him for everything. During his first deployment, one of his best friends died after being shot in the head with an AK-47. Angel took the death especially hard because his friend had a son. He went numb. “I didn’t care about anything,” he says. “I didn’t care about me or nothing.” When people shot at him, he just shot back. He says that he knows now he was furious over his friend’s death. “It got me really, really angry at Iraqi people, you know, so I didn’t care,” he says. “I was thinking, “Well, if I don’t kill them, they will kill me.'” But, he adds, he only shot at people who had weapons.
When he returned to the US for a few months in late 2004 and early 2005, he was stationed at Camp Pendleton in Southern California. He bought a truck, a silver Chevy S-10, and drove up to visit his family when he could. Before too long, Angel — now a lance corporal — got word that he was headed back for a second deployment.
The blast that forever changed his life happened a month and a half after he returned to Iraq, in April 2005. He was driving during a night mission outside of Ramadi when he got hit by an improvised explosive device. Angel remembers everything, except how he was able to stop his truck without crashing into others in the convoy. There was a lot of blood. He couldn’t feel the left side of his head. His friend and another Marine rushed him to a Humvee, and kept him from touching the shattered fragments of his skull and his brain.
He blacked out and when he came out of his coma 15 days later, he was back in the US, in a hospital on the East Coast. Angel, who’d lost about one-third of his skull and some badly damaged segments of his brain, was then transferred to the VA polytrauma rehabilitation center in Palo Alto, one of four facilities of its kind in the country.
He’s been fighting to get better ever since. “Everything that I’d learned in all my life was blank, was just erased,” he says, tracing his hand along the thick, crescent-shaped scar that stretches up the left side of his head. “And so, I had to start all over.”
“Volun-told” to Return to Combat
While sitting across the aisle from Angel on a bus headed for the Palo Alto VA early one recent Monday morning, his friend Cpl. Jason Poole talked about his first impressions of the newer arrival. Poole, 24, was a green card Marine from England who suffered serious brain injuries from a 2004 blast after he was “volun-told” to go back for a third tour of duty in Iraq. He, too, has since become a citizen.
“He didn’t say anything,” Poole says of Angel.
“I couldn’t talk!” Angel retorts.
“He wore a helmet,” Poole says with a smile.
It’s the helmet he was wearing when he was sworn in as a citizen in July 2005, after his mother asked a VA staff member if Angel was eligible. Antonia, 53, says she knows that as a citizen Angel has more rights, but she’s against anyone joining the military to get citizenship. She says she “loves this country,” although she’s not a big supporter of the war in Iraq. “I’d just like all those poor kids that are fighting over there to come home,” she says. “I don’t know what they’re fighting for.”
Kerri Childress, the Palo Alto VA communications director, handled much of the paperwork for the family. Angel says he “was still really messed up” back then, but remembers Childress asking him if he wanted to become a citizen. At first, he couldn’t understand what she was saying, but he smiled and nodded “yes.” He remembers people coming to his room to take a picture of him. Somebody recorded his fingerprints. And he remembers the date. “That’s all I know,” he says with a shrug.
When asked how he feels now about being a citizen, he said it’s not much different from before, except for maybe one thing: “I can vote.”
It’s a common belief that San Francisco, if not the entire Bay Area, is such an anti-war region that hardly anybody joins the military here, but there are recruiting stations scattered everywhere from downtown to Daly City.
The Work of Recruiters
At a bustling Army recruiting station on Davis Street not far from Fisherman’s Wharf, Sgt. 1st Class Mark Wilder says that each of his eight recruiters talks to between 80 to 100 people per week and are meeting their goals — in part because “the job market sucks here.” The demographic of San Francisco recruits is similar to that of the city, he says, a mix of men and women — many in their late 20s. But it’s different than, for example, Daly City. “We station a lot of Filipino recruiters there,” Wilder says.
He says that the military is trying to help make it easier for green card soldiers to get citizenship, and he’s a big advocate of immigrant soldiers.
“Back in World War I, World War II, they would say, ‘I’m establishing myself,'” he says. “They would rush down and join.”
An incident one afternoon last month at the Davis Street station perhaps showed why the military is turning to more foreign-born soldiers. Wilder, the station commander, had to turn away a persistent applicant who didn’t meet enlistment criteria. The man was a US citizen but reportedly had a seriously checkered criminal past, and Wilder accused him of “wasting the time” of one of his recruiters by repeatedly lying about it.
Margaret Stock, the West Point professor, says that spotty criminal records are one of many reasons a lot of American-born men and women can no longer qualify for the armed services. Others include obesity, health problems, and a history of drug use. Rather than lowering standards to accommodate citizen recruits, she says the armed services should reach out to more non-citizens. “The Pentagon is very practical,” says Stock. “Non-citizens do better in the military.”
Indeed, a 2005 study conducted by the Center for Naval Analyses, Non-Citizens in Today’s Military: Final Report, found that non-citizens do extremely well in the military, and are less likely to drop out than citizens.
Critics accuse the Pentagon of creating a mercenary military, and yet another category of work that citizens will no longer do. Some liken it to the decline of the Roman Empire, saying that the ideal of the citizen-soldier will give way to private contractors and foreign fighters. Nonsense, says Stock, who insists “it won’t end up being jobs that Americans don’t want. It will be a higher-quality force.”
A Filipino recruiter who works with Wilder in the Army’s Davis Street office, Sgt. Rey Bagorio, is arguably one of those immigrants creating “a higher-quality force.” Bagorio is praised by his boss as a success story — a professional “hard worker” who “takes good care of himself” by going to the gym every night.
Bagorio was born on Sept. 11, 1981, in Manila, where he says his family lived in a small house, a “homemade type of deal.” At age 7, he moved to Hawaii with his mother (who was sponsored by his grandmother) and thought the United States felt like “heaven.” He had uncles and cousins in the Philippine army, and he decided to enlist after high school. After a Marine Corps recruiter in Hawaii told him to wait outside until he got back, an Army recruiter stationed at the neighboring office invited him inside and offered to let him watch a video while he waited. He watched in awe; it was the first time he saw someone rappelling off a helicopter, and Bagorio decided to enlist in the Army the following day.
He spent about a year in Iraq and another six months in Afghanistan as a mechanic for the 101st Airborne Division, until he tore his ACL in his knee and was brought back to the US for surgery. Bagorio, 25, saw very little combat and none of his friends were killed, but he doesn’t want to go back to Iraq.
Bagorio says it only took him about nine months to complete the application process and become a citizen. He was sworn in at the Masonic Center in January, and is now working to sponsor his new bride, Cherrie, a childhood sweetheart from the Philippines, so that she can move to the US and join him in August. “Finally, now I can say I’m a Filipino-American,” he says.
Angel has progressed more than anyone expected, but he still struggles — and perhaps always will.
During a recent session with a speech pathologist, he worked on crosswords and problem-solving puzzles. There he sat reading off the clues, like “to narrate a story.” She tells him it’s a four-letter word, and that a narrator is the person who’s talking. He sits, stroking his chin with his left hand, a pencil resting between his fingers. Then he leans in, staring at the paper.
He got another word, showing that the first letter of his mystery word was a “T.”
“So, now you have one more piece of information for this one,” she tells him.
“Oh, man,” he says, clasping his right hand in his left. “I get really … ”
“Don’t get too frustrated with it,” she tells him, as they agree he can do it as homework.
A few days later, he’s still annoyed he couldn’t figure out the word: tell.
On a recent trip to the mall, he had trouble recalling his shoe size. But he’s still set on moving forward. “For me, I need to get more better,” he says. “I want to be almost the same. I’m not going to be the same … I just want to get better.”
In many ways, he is better already: He can move again, and doesn’t have a tracheostomy tube anymore. His speech has improved. He’s graduated from wheelchair to walking with a cane, which he relies on less and less. Still, the right side of his body remains weak. Angel is learning to write with his left hand, and often tucks his right into the pocket of his jeans or lays it across his lap when he’s sitting. He no longer needs the helmet, which he wore for a year and a half and, thanks to a prosthetic piece of skull.
It’s hard to predict how much Angel’s brain will be able to heal. While it’s estimated that about 20 percent of veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered some form of Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI, his injury was especially severe. And he was hit on the left side, meaning his language and speech have been especially affected — not to mention his math and logic skills. But he refuses to rule out the possibility that he may make it to college — which was the reason he joined the military in the first place.
It could have been worse. According to the Department of Defense, more than 126 green card service members have been killed while stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan; 93 of them got citizenship only after they died. (US Citizenship and Immigration Services has made it easier for families to apply for posthumous citizenship.)
Angel may get frustrated with himself, but he says he’s not angry at the Marine Corps because of what happened to him. He still hangs a bright red, yellow, and blue Marine Corps blanket and a flag from the wall of his new apartment. Still, if another young Mexican immigrant asked him about enlisting in the military, either to get money for school or citizenship, he says he’d simply tell them that “it’s not for everyone.”
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.