By Jose Luis Gonzalez
EL PASO, July 23 (Reuters) - When U.S. military veteran Ramon Castro began meeting deported veterans living along the U.S.-Mexican border not far from his home in Southern California, he knew that, but for a piece of paper proving his citizenship, he could have been one of them.
He's now in the middle of a 2,000-mile (3,219 km) trek across the length of the frontier to draw attention to the plight of U.S. veterans sent back to their countries of birth, some as a result of infractions like drug use that Castro said are associated with mental health struggles.
Between 2013 and 2018, about 250 veterans were deported or placed in deportation proceedings, according to a Government Accountability Office report. Advocates say the total number of deported veterans may be far higher.
Although Castro was born in the United States, his family has sprawled across both sides of the desert borderlands for generations and he lived briefly in Mexico as a child, he told Reuters in an interview on Wednesday about 20 miles east of El Paso, Texas.
Castro served two enlistments in the Marine Corps, including a deployment to Kuwait during the Iraq war.
After his discharge, he said memories lingered of missiles hurtling at him. Castro turned to alcohol as a coping mechanism, and soon found himself in bar fights.
The behavior never landed Castro in serious legal trouble - a privilege he knew his non-U.S.-citizen fellow service members did not share.
"Were it not because I'm an American citizen, I might just be one of those deported veterans," he said.
Castro started his march at Friendship Park in San Ysidro, California, and plans to keep walking until he reaches the easternmost tip of the U.S.-Mexico border, near Brownsville, Texas.
A few days after Castro began the journey, the Biden administration announced a new initiative aimed at allowing some deported veterans to return to the United States.
"We are committed to bringing back military service members, veterans, and their immediate family members who were unjustly removed and ensuring they receive the benefits to which they may be entitled," Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in a statement.
Along the border, Castro puts one foot in front of the other.
"Our veterans are waiting and they need us," he said. "These are the guys who put their butts on the line and we abandoned them." (Reporting by Jose Luis Gonzalez in El Paso, Texas, and Laura Gottesdiener in Monterrey, Mexico; Writing by Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Leslie Adler)
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