Marine combat veteran recounts 'crushing' deportation to El Salvador

“I love America. I would fight for it again. I won’t turn my back on it. I really need it not to have its back turned to me,” the combat veteran said.
Jose Segovia Benitez.
Jose Segovia Benitez.U.S. Marine Corps

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By Daniella Silva

A Marine combat veteran who served in Iraq and was deported to El Salvador this week said he would fight for America again and hopes his country would not turn its back on him as he grapples with life in a dangerous country he has not known since he was three years old.

Jose Segovia Benitez, 38, told NBC News Friday that he felt very unsafe and his spirit was “at its tipping point” as he deals with life in El Salvador, a country where he feels like a complete foreigner.

“I love America. I would fight for it again. I won’t turn my back on it. I really need it not to have its back turned to me,” he said. He feels unsafe leaving the home where he's staying amid front page stories of brutal murders.

“It’s very crushing,” he said, adding his mind was turning to “worst case scenarios.”

Segovia Benitez’s rib cage is tattooed with a large Statue of Liberty and he has USMC tattooed across one arm. He said he does not speak Spanish fluently.

The combat veteran was deported and landed in El Salvador on Wednesday while his lawyers and supporters fought for him to be allowed to stay in the country.

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Segovia Benitez served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1999-2004 and was deployed to Iraq, military records show he received multiple awards and decorations during his service.

But when he returned from combat, Segovia Benitez said he suffered from PTSD and a traumatic brain injury and was unable to get the help and treatment that he needed.

“I was messed up in the head. I felt I should have died in Iraq and that guilty feeling that I’m not supposed to be here,” he said.

While Segovia Benitez previously had legal status, he was ordered to be removed from the country last year after serving several years in prison for drug and domestic violence-related convictions, according to immigration authorities. He had applied for citizenship, but the process was not finalized.

Segovia Benitez said he was very remorseful for what he had done and prays for the people he had hurt and their families.

“I feel remorse, I feel sadness for those people I hurt,” he said. “My heart goes out to those families."

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Segovia Benitez said he felt the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs had “failed me” and he was never given proper treatment for his condition and was forced to wait for help.

He also faced the stigma of having mental health issues, he said.

“You want to be a normal kid, you want to be a normal young man,” he said. “Waking up every day with this feeling, the sweats, the helplessness the hopelessness. All that is part of my everyday life and I have been dealing with it.”

The combat veteran said he played with G.I. Joe toys as a child and always knew he wanted to serve the country.

Being a Marine was “the best decision I made still to this day no matter what the outcome,” he said.

“I thought I was American from the heart and I still feel that I am an American,” he said.

Segovia Benitez said he went to sleep Tuesday night with the notion he would be meeting with his lawyer the following day, but then he was woken up by immigration officials who told him to get dressed.

He said he realized the meeting with the lawyer was not going to happen “when I’m in chains and heading to” an Arizona airport.

Segovia Benitez had previously been detained in California and was being held in Arizona while his deportation was given a brief stay for his lawyers to file additional paperwork on his behalf.

His lawyer did not know he was going to be deported until the lawyer showed up at the detention center where Segovia Benitez was being held on Wednesday and discovered his client had been forced to leave the country hours earlier.

In a statement Thursday, ICE said Segovia Benitez had “repeatedly violated the laws of the United States.” An immigration judge ordered him to be removed from the U.S. in Oct. 2018 and a subsequent appeal with the Board of Immigration Appeals was denied, the agency went on to say.

Two stay requests with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit were also denied, according to ICE.

His convictions include corporal injury to a spouse, for which he received an eight-year sentence, assault with a deadly weapon, false imprisonment, narcotics possession, conspiracy to commit a crime and driving under the influence, ICE said.

The Department of Veterans Affairs referred NBC News to the Department of Homeland Security for comment.

Segovia Benitez's supporters and attorneys have argued that he served his time and his country and should not have to face “exile” from the only country he’s ever really known.

“He definitely served in some arduous combat deployments, if anyone has earned the right to pay their debt to society and move on with their life it is him,” said Carlos Luna, president of Green Card Veterans and a supporter of Segovia Benitez.

Thomas Sanchez, one of the attorneys helping Segovia Benitez’s case, said in a domestic violence case against Segovia Benitez, the jury was not allowed to hear any information related to his military service, severe PTSD or his traumatic brain injury. He said he believed Segovia Benitez’s inability to afford a lawyer led him to be convicted of felonies for what should have been misdemeanor charges.

Segovia Benitez’s attorneys were working to reopen his immigration case and are seeking post-conviction relief for his convictions, Luna said.

Segovia Benitez said he was “humbled” by the support he had been receiving and his lawyers’ efforts.

“They’re still putting up a fight and this is not over, as hopeless and helpless as I feel at times due to my condition,” he said. “Depression is getting the best of me some of these days.”

He said it hurt him to be away so far away from his family, including a son and granddaughter in San Diego. He hoped he could return to the U.S. and be with them and get treatment for his conditions.

“I’m trying to move forward. I want to be normal again, I want to get therapy, to get help,” he said. “I think it would be the best thing that could ever happen to me, just to be able to go back to the place that I call home.”