Fredy Gutiérrez, a Colombia-born Vietnam war veteran, drew national attention in November when he threatened to hang himself from a South Florida expressway overpass — overwhelmed by immigration problems and medical issues.
Gregory Duque, a veteran born in New York whose father is Colombian and his mother Cuban, says he has thought about suicide. A police record and a lack of support from family and friends have kept him chronically depressed. Life took a turn for the worse when Duque’s girlfriend kidnapped their daughter and took her to Colombia.
“I felt suicidal,” said Duque during a series of recent interviews.
“I felt like every door had been closed,” said Gutierrez during a recent interview at the Miami Springs office of his immigration attorney, Michelle Sánchez.
The tribulations of Duque and Gutiérrez underscore the absence of a long lasting support system for veterans, particularly those with disabilities, police records or immigration problems. Some of these veterans have resorted to desperate measures. Hundreds have committed suicide this year alone.
Some may think that once veterans have completed their service in the armed forces, particularly if they served during wartime, the government will assist them for life.
But the reality is far different. Veterans have a range of services at their disposal — but often those services are temporary or even nonexistent if there was a dishonorable discharge.
Some veterans resort to desperate measures, threatening — and sometimes fulfulling — suicide.
“We are losing way too many veterans every day,” said retired U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. Antonio “Mico” Colmenares, director of the Florida Veterans Foundation and director of the City of Miami Veterans Services Office.
Two weeks ago, volunteers set up 1,892 American flags at the National Mall in Washington representing the number of veterans who have committed suicide since Jan. 1 — essentially 22 suicides per day.
“A lot of disabled vets and a lot of people who are on disability need to have sponsors,” said Duque. “Sponsors to help them, not so much financially, but maybe emotionally. Sometimes the government can’t help. When the government fails, the people have to step up to make a difference. We’re too good of a society to let these things happen.”
Colmenares echoed Duque’s feeling.
“As a community, as a society we have got to embrace the veterans and try to do what we can to try to help them,” he said.
A look at the backgrounds of Gutiérrez and Duque illustrates the ordeals of troubled veterans.
Gutiérrez, 59, arrived from Cali, Colombia, with his family when he was 11. Because they arrived with immigrant visas, they received green cards.
Gutiérrez joined the U. S. Army in 1971 after attending Miami Senior High,
He served six months at Da Nang Air Base in Vietnam and was sent home after he was injured in an accident.
After an honorable discharge, Gutiérrez began experiencing medical problems, including what he now believes was Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Gutiérrez was convicted of domestic violence after assaulting his wife in 1977. He received a prison sentence and served 3 ½ years. Years later, he was convicted of growing five marijuana plants at his home. Gutiérrez said the weed was for personal use to calm his PTSD anxieties.
Gutiérrez’s problems were compounded in 2000 when immigration authorities discovered his criminal record and sought to deport him since he is not a citizen.
All these issues, particularly the threat of deportation, came to a head shortly after his father died in October.
Gutiérrez decided suicide was his only option. In early November, he climbed onto a ramp off of Interstate 595 and Florida’s Turnpike in Broward and threatened to kill himself. Authorities succeeded in talking him down after several hours.
“The immigration problem was really the one that did not let me rest,” said Gutiérrez. “If they deport me to Colombia, I wouldn’t know what to do. It is a place I don’t know.”
Sanchéz, Gutiérrez’s immigration attorney, said his case is on appeal and he is not in imminent danger of deportation.
Duque, 52, says he joined the Army when he was 19. After boot camp, he went on to become a combat medic in Boston in 1982. Had he stayed in the service, he likely would have made it a career. Instead, he overstayed an authorized leave in Miami and ended up in trouble. Duque’s arrival in Miami in the 1980s marked the start of a rollercoaster journey through life. He worked a variety of odd jobs, eventually carving a niche for himself as a jewelry maker.
Things turned sour when Duque’s relationship with the mother of his daughter ended and the woman took the infant to Colombia. Duque unsuccessfully tried to get her back. The episode left him feeling that no one cared.
Today, he has an aggravated battery conviction and several arrests on his record. He has bounced from job to job, currently working and living on a south Miami-Dade farm.
Despite his problems, Duque persists in his quest to gain permanent help for veterans.
“We need a system for people to turn to when they’re in desperate straits,” he said.