FILE PHOTO: Ramon Castro, a U.S. Marine veteran, holds the American flag as he takes part in the “Walk the Line” walk at the U.S.- Mexico border, to call for the return of war veterans who were deported to Mexico, in Sunland Park, New Mexico, July 21, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

When U.S. military veteran Ramon Castro began meeting deported veterans living along the U.S.-Mexican border, he knew that, but for a piece of paper proving his citizenship, he could have been one of them.

The Brawley resident, now in the middle of a 2,000-mile trek across the length of the frontier, hopes 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 U.S., his family has sprawled across both sides of the desert borderlands for generations. 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.

FILE PHOTO: Hector Barajas (L) and Ramon Castro (R) military veterans, take part in “Walk the Line” at the U.S.-Mexico border, to call for the return of war veterans who were deported to Mexico, in El Paso, Texas, U.S., July 21, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

The behavior never landed Castro in serious legal trouble – a privilege he knew his fellow service members who weren’t citizens did not share.

“Were it not because I’m an American citizen, I might just be one of those deported veterans,” he said.

Castro, now a City Council member in Brawley, started his march last month at Friendship Park, south of Border Field State Park.

According to published reports, he plans to keep walking until he reaches the easternmost tip of the border, around Aug. 11, 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 U.S.

“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 and editing by Leslie Adler)

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