• The Few, The Brave, The Blind

    by Erika Fiske

    The few, the brave, the Marines. Those words paint a picture of trim men in uniform, standing at attention by the American flag. Brave men like Rafael, who left home at the age of seven and made his way into a strange country to begin a better life.

    Until he was dishonorably discharged, that is.

    I ran into Rafael on a Tuesday morning at Window on the Bay. The 53-year-old homeless man with short brown hair and a mustache was sitting on a low, wooden fence. But something wasn’t right about him. Then I saw the eyes.

    Rafael is blind.

    His story began in Leon, Mexico, where a small boy grew tired of beatings by an abusive father and struck out on his own. After hitchhiking across America, he settled on the streets of Chicago, where an alcoholic homeless man took him under his wings.

    Until he was 14, Rafael did whatever he could to make a few pennies, from cleaning windshields, to selling gum to shining shoes. Then, on one cold winter day, his drunk friend died, and Rafael was on his own.

    At the age of 18, Rafael joined the Marines— a dream come true. After more than four years, he was about to be sent to Iraq when his dream shattered. “They caught me,” he said.

    Because of his illegal entrance into the U.S. at age seven, Rafael was dishonorably discharged. With the $40,000 he saved as a Marine, the young man opened a restaurant in Palm Springs, CA, bought a house and then added a landscaping business with his new partner.

    The partner stole everything. At 24, Rafael was bankrupt. Over the next several years he did construction work in several cities, wherever he could find work.

    Then, during a trip to Mexico in the 1980s to visit a son, his wallet was stolen. Rafael went to the Texas border to get a waiver when he found himself in conflict with two border officials. “They were laughing at us and making fun of us,” he said. “Then they pushed me.”

    It didn’t end well for Rafael. He was banned from the country for 10 years. But after four years, the former Marine decided to return to America. He crossed the Arizona desert over a six-day period, but once again he was caught.

    “I told the immigration officer that I wanted to see the immigration judge,” Rafael said. He wanted to explain what happened to his papers. Instead, he was locked up for months at the Otero Processing Center in Chaparral, N.M.

    “There were 4800 people from all over the world in there,” he said. “I never got to see the judge.”

    Rafael said he and the others were housed in two, huge buildings with large, bright ceiling lights on all the time. He said they never really got out in the sun and had nothing to do all day. He thinks the horrible lighting damaged his eyes.

    A few days before he was finally scheduled to see a judge, Rafael was questioned about what brought him to the center. Since he committed no crime, he was taken to San Francisco and released. He was on his way back to the Palm Springs area when he could go no further— because he could no longer see.

    For three months the former Marine has tried to get help with his eyes, but said he was told he’d have to be a local resident for a year before the free clinic in Seaside could help with his surgery. He’s been diagnosed with cataracts and requires laser surgery. Now he has an appointment on April 30 at Natividad Medical Center.

    Rafael said he tried to apply for SSI, “but I was denied because this is not a chronic sickness,” he said. Rafael carries a large envelope of paperwork with him from Social Security. He said he’ll appeal, but all that takes time he doesn’t have.

    In the meantime, Rafael has been given shelter at night by I-Help, a program that offers shelter, food and support for single men. But he worries that he’s about to reach the time limit for using the program and will be back on the streets.

    Rafael does have a phone, so I asked him for his number. He put the phone right up to his eyes and shaded his eyes with his hands. He still couldn’t read the number.

    I tried to imagine this man as a proud Marine, standing at attention, saluting the American flag— the flag of the country he served for more than four years.

    And then I watched him struggle to read the words and numbers on his phone in the bright sunlight. “May I help you with that?” I asked. He lowered the phone into my hand, and I took down the numbers.

    As our conversation ended, Rafael heard a familiar voice, and joined a friend on the path, heading in the direction of nearby restrooms.

    Rafael is proud of his past – working hard since he was seven, starting businesses, serving in the Marines. He would like to work and be a leader again, instead of being led. But he needs his eyes.

    If he could just see again.

    posted to Cedar Street Times on May 25, 2012

    Topics: Homeless Chronicles

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