By TIM JOHNSON
MEXICO CITY — As a U.S. Marine, Jon Hammar endured nightmarish tension patrolling the war-ravaged streets of Iraq’s Fallujah. When he came home, the brutality of war still pinging around his brain, mental peace proved elusive.
Surfing provided the only respite.
“The only time Hammar is not losing his mind is when he’s on the water,” said a fellow Marine veteran, Ian McDonough.
Hammar and McDonough devised a plan: They’d buy a used motor home, load on the surfboards and drive from the Miami area to Costa Rica to find “someplace to be left alone, someplace far off the grid,” McDonough said.
They made it to only the Mexican border. Hammar is in a Matamoros prison, where he spends much of his time chained to a bed and facing death threats from gangsters. He’s off the grid, for sure, in walking distance of the U.S. border. But it’s more of a black hole than a place to heal a troubled soul.
The reason might seem ludicrous. Hammar took a six-decade-old shotgun into Mexico. The .410 bore Sears & Roebuck shotgun once belonged to his great-grandfather. The firearm had been handed down through the generations, and it had become almost a part of Hammar, suitable for shooting birds and rabbits.
But Mexican prosecutors who looked at the disassembled relic in the 1972 Winnebago motor home dismissed the U.S. registration papers Hammar had filled out. They charged him with a serious crime: possession of a weapon restricted for use to Mexico’s armed forces.
Hammar isn’t the only American accused of questionable gun-related charges at Mexico’s border. Last April, a truck driver who was carrying ammunition through Texas got lost near the border, dipped into Mexico to make a U-turn and was forced to spend more than six months in jail.
It’s been months since Hammar’s Aug. 13 arrest, and his former Marine comrades are livid and dumbfounded, impotent to help.
“It’s heartbreaking. This is a guy who I served with in numerous combat situations, and he was one of the best we had,” said veteran Marine Sgt. James Garcia.
Hammar, 27, joined the Marines and deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq before receiving an honorable discharge in 2007, serving another four years in inactive reserve. In Fallujah, one of the most dangerous cities in Iraq, Hammar’s Marine battalion was hit hard, with 13 killed in action and more than 100 wounded, Garcia said.
“There were days where it was like, dude, I may not make it out of here,” Garcia said. “If it wasn’t the IEDs, it was the car bombs or the suicide bombs.”
In Afghanistan, the Marine unit provided security for President Hamid Karzai, protected election polls and disrupted insurgent cells around Kabul.
Hammar did not have an easy re-entry to civilian life. After recurring bouts of depression, he voluntarily checked into The Pathway Home, a residential treatment center for veterans in California’s Napa Valley, in August 2011 for treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder. He graduated nine months later.
“A big portion of his PTSD is survivor’s guilt. It’s a loss of innocence,” said Olivia Hammar, his mother, a Miami-Dade County magazine publisher. “You’re still trying to process all your friends who didn’t come home.”
After leaving Pathway, Jon Hammar and Ian McDonough spent $1,400 on the used Winnebago, splashed out another $3,000 to outfit it and mapped a route to Costa Rica, hitting surf breaks in Cocoa Beach, Fla., and in Louisiana and Texas along the way to Mexico. Inside the rolling white beast were up to nine surfboards.
“We begged him not to go, specifically because we were worried about his safety in Mexico, but they were fearless Marines and were undaunted,” Olivia Hammar said in an email.
McDonough, a U.S. citizen who’s lived off and on for three years in Argentina, said he and his friend were wary of dangers as they approached the Los Indios border crossing, which links Brownsville, Texas, with Matamoros, Mexico.
“We had enough gas in the vehicle that we were going to make it to southern Mexico before nightfall,” McDonough said. “We weren’t going to stop.”
The issue of the shotgun came up near the border.
“I told him that we probably shouldn’t take the shotgun with us,” McDonough said. “And he said, ‘No, I’m going to get it cleared with customs at the gate.’ So I said, ‘That’s fine. As long as it’s legit.’ ”
The Customs and Border Protection agent said it was all right to take the shotgun, McDonough said, adding that the agent told them: “ ‘All you have to do is register it.’ So they gave us a piece of paper and said, ‘This is your registration. You’ve got to pay this much.’ They gave us the piece of paper to give to the Mexican authorities.”
As soon as the Winnebago lumbered over the bridge and they handed over the form to Mexican agents, trouble began. The two spent several days in custody, separated from each other. Mexican authorities eventually freed McDonough, perhaps because of his Argentine residency, and he walked back to Brownsville.
On Aug. 18, Mexican prosecutors leveled serious charges against Hammar. Curiously, it wasn’t the type of shotgun that broke Mexican law. It was the length of the barrel, which the formal citation said was shorter than 25 inches, although a discrepancy has emerged over how the barrel was measured.
“It’s a glorified BB gun,” Olivia Hammar said.
Indeed, Mexico’s criminal groups routinely wield AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles, high-powered .50-caliber sniper rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and other potent weaponry. If Hammar had any intention of causing mayhem, using his great-grandfather’s proud firearm would have been like Daniel Boone and his muzzle-loading Tick-Licker fighting a modern U.S. Marine.
Back in April, the Dallas truck driver, Jabin Bogan, carrying 25,000 pounds of ammunition in his 18-wheeler, said he got lost in El Paso en route to a delivery in Phoenix. When he lurched to a stop at the Mexican border, asking to turn around, a Customs and Border Protection agent told him it was impossible. He was told to enter Mexico and make a U-turn. He had no passport and couldn’t speak Spanish.
The ammunition was openly displayed on nine pallets in the truck, most of it of a caliber unsuitable for the AK-47 and AR-15 rifles favored by Mexico’s cartels.
Mexican prosecutors charged him with crimes that could have brought more than 25 years in prison.
“My son was not trying to deliver no drugs or no guns to nobody,” Bogan’s mother, Aletha Smith, told an ABC-TV affiliate in Texas.
Through pressure from members of the U.S. Congress, Bogan was freed Nov. 23, and he returned to a tearful reunion in Dallas with his family.
While his ordeal was difficult, Hammar’s has been worse.
Once Hammar was sent to a state prison in Matamoros, mixed in with the general inmate population, late-night phone calls began to his parents in Palmetto Bay, Fla.
“They said, ‘I have your son. We need money.’ I said, ‘I’m going to call the (U.S.) consulate.’ They said, ‘The consulate can’t help you.’ Then they put him on the phone. He said, ‘Mom, you need to pay them,’ ” Olivia Hammar recalled.
Over subsequent calls, the extortionists offered a Western Union account number and demanded an initial payment of $1,800.
Frantic, the Hammars contacted U.S. diplomats, who helped get their son out of a general cellblock into solitary confinement. They didn’t pay the extortion. Nor did they speak to the news media until now.
“He was housed in a wing controlled by the drug cartel,” said Eddie Varon-Levy, a Mexican lawyer hired by the family.
Varon-Levy said that Hammar, if convicted, could receive a sentence of anywhere from three to 12 years in a federal prison.
Making matters worse is the nature of Hammar’s confinement, a matter that’s drawn the attention of Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., the chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Hammars’ local representative.
“His family has described a very disturbing situation that includes their son being chained to a bed in a very small cell and receiving calls from fellow inmates threatening his life if they did not send them money,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “The family also says that the jail where their son is being held is controlled by the dreaded and brutal Zetas drug cartel. The family wants their son back home, and I will do my best to help them."
For all the toughness instilled by the Marine Corps, friends say Hammar is a gentle soul.
“Hammar doesn’t take meds. Hammar doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink. Hammar doesn’t do any of that. He surfs,” McDonough said. “If you meet Hammar, you have to like him. He’s always there for you. If you need something, he’ll literally give you everything.”
So far, Hammar’s parents have gotten little help from U.S. diplomats.
“They take a real hands-off approach. Unless your life is at threat, they aren’t going to do anything,” Olivia Hammar said.
For Garcia and dozens of other Marines who’ve learned of Hammar’s plight, it’s hardly conceivable not to take action.
“He doesn’t deserve this,” Garcia said. “We never leave a brother behind. We never leave a Marine behind. We have to do something.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @timjohnson4