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Monday, February 4, 2013
Hammar's Time

By Jon Coen

As President Obama scales down U.S. forces in Afghanistan, it marks almost 12 straight years that America has been at war. And while it's easy to forget as fighting has dragged out on faraway soil, it has left an entire generation of military men and women with some problems that need to be addressed. For Jon Hammar, surfing was the best way to deal with what he had endured while serving three tours of duty for the U.S. Marines.

Last summer, the former Marine infantry Corporal and fellow veteran/friend Ian McDonough decided to drive from Miami to Costa Rica. This Central American journey is a tradition for surfers in search of good waves, serenity, and Latin adventure while being self-sufficient in their own vehicles. And anyone who has done it is well aware of "greasing the wheels" to get through borders and checkpoints.

Although Hammar was gone for nearly five months, he never got to Costa Rica. He never made it out of northern Mexico, as a matter of fact. He was held in a Mexican prison for five months over an old hunting shotgun that he had legally bought over the border. Jon Hammar, however, has seen plenty of foreign government dysfunction in his young life and he's not one to play games.

Jon Hammar
Hammar served with honor and distinction in Afghanistan and has found surfing to be therapeutic upon returning.

Fortunately, he was a well-respected Marine. And the thing about war vets is that they're not leaving anyone behind. And although Hammar was not technically a P.O.W., it was the petitioning, noise and letters by his fellow former Marines that got his case national attention and finally saw him released to the US Consulate General in late December.This is Hammar's story:

Tell us about your surfing background.
I'm from Florida. I started surfing at 12 or 13. After high school, I went into the Marine Corps. Since I was on the East Coast for boot camp. I surfed in North Carolina. There's a break right on base at Camp Lejeune. I would surf Topsail Island and went up to Hatteras on a few weekends.

And you did some serious tours with the Marine Corps?
Yeah. All together I did three tours. I did a UDP (Unit Deployment Program) to Japan. My second tour was in Kabul, Afghanistan. And my third was in Fallujah, Iraq.

So you were back living in Florida?
Yeah. I was done with the Marines in 2007. I was living in South Florida. I went to school up the coast, worked on boats. Basically, Miami was always my home base.

And this trip was just to decompress?
Basically I had been to Central America three times. I had always flown down, but this time myself and my friend (Ian McDonough) wanted to drive and get the full experience. I had a route all planned out. I had done the research and read the forums. We drove around the Gulf to the Mexican border. I had a 1971 Winnebago with a 318 Dodge engine. By the time we got to Texas we had back up oil, filters, parts and tires. It was teaching me some mechanics. We had seven boards and camping equipment. The plan was to hop over to the Pacific side. Basically, we were ready to stop at any break and could just stay there for days at a time without needing anything or seeing any people

And you had a gun with you? Tell us about this shotgun.
It was a .410 Sears & Roebuck bolt action shotgun. I had 25 rounds. Basically I was planning on spear fishing for food and if we saw a wild pig, turkey or mapache, which is kind of a raccoon-type animal, I could take a shot at it and eat it. It's an old family gun. We've had it for a while. It only gets taken out in the woods. I don't carry guns -- no rifles or pistols or anything like that.

They wanted me to plead guilty and do 12 years. But what was I pleading guilty to?

-- Jon Hammar, on being caught in the Mexican justice system

At the border, I asked how I would register it for Mexico. The day before I'd spent a couple hours online looking up what's legal. It's legal to have a pistol and a .38 caliber shotgun or hunting rifles. I went to an American customs agent and he kind of led me the wrong way. I paid a fee and filled out some paperwork  which has yet to surface. The whole time I was in jail I was telling my lawyer, "There's a pink piece of paper. Get it and bring it up in court."

At the Mexican border, we handed over the paperwork, opened the back of the camper, and showed them the gun. They started searching the whole vehicle. There was nothing illegal. Then the boss came down.

One of the federal soldiers in charge had a list of illegal weapons and my Sears & Robuck was not on that list. Then they bought us into the office to see if we would pay a "fee." They didn't want to come out and say they were looking for a bribe. And I am tired of playing games with human beings. If no one asks me for money, I am not going to just offer money. I had $50 in my wallet. But if I would have just offered money they could have slapped bribery charges on me. Once you cross that border, Mexico wants you to know you're in Mexico. I call it the "El Jefe" complex.

How did you wind up in prison?
They bought me down to this jail in Matamorros and sat my in the lobby. I figured I'd pay a fine and be done with it. The fact of the matter is that they don't know their laws. The Americans don't know their laws and you're at the mercy of everyone's ignorance. They threw me in the cage for four days. Ian got released. It was my gun and my vehicle. They moved me to the state prison at Tamaulipas and threw me in general population at 3:00 am. It wasn't safe. Ian had been in touch with the American Consulate and they tried to get me out. The Mexican solution to the American Consulate was to put me in solitary confinement. So, I was put in a cell outdoors, chained up.

In total, I had five phone calls with my family in five months. My family went through three different lawyers -- three different lawyers before any of them did anything. Everyone is stepping on everyone else's feet. They tried to keep it out of the press at first. Even I wanted to keep it out of the press.

What was daily life like in prison?
Well, I was in solitary confinement -- in the hole. There were certain speed bumps with the "El Jefe" complex again. You try to get as much food and as much water as you can and figure out how to not go crazy. It almost would have been better if I was guilty. Then I would have been trying to rehabilitate myself. But when you know you're innocent, it's tough.

The reason they even locked me up was about money, extortion. But I'm not a bribing kind of person. I was compliant with the authorities. And my family was like, "Okay, if you're alright, we'll do this the right way."

Jon Hammar
Hammar's surf trip rig.

That's pretty respectable. But I guess it wasn't working?
They refused me a translator a couple of times. Then people start laughing at me in court. None of the paperwork my lawyer was submitting was taken into account. Every time they took me to court and I talked to a prosecutor, it all seemed like a game they were playing. They wanted me to plead guilty and do 12 years. But what was I pleading guilty to?

And how did it finally get to the press?
I didn't know how it leaked. Most of this stuff was going in the US. I was in solitary confinement. I had no idea. It was on Bill O'Reilly and Anderson Coopers' shows. I lot of my Marines veteran friends were finding out about it. I heard there was a petition signed by 27,000 people that went to Congress to get me out. There were a whole lot of things going on.

Then one day the American Consulate showed up. They said, "you're leaving today." I was pretty sick at the time and I knew it was going to take a while. Nine hours later, I got released. I went over the border that night and met my father in Lafayette, Louisianna. I was pretty bad off, so I got to a hospital. I was coming down with pneumonia. I was dehydrated and malnourished with a lung infection and stomach issues. I had a spinal tap and a CT scan. They had me on an IV for a day. We drove back to Miami and I checked into a hospital here for another five or six days.

And how does it feel to be home?
There's a lot that I went through in that five months that I'm not even ready to talk about yet. Some people have asked if I might write a book. I haven't even thought about it yet. I still have to go back to get my camper. The American Consulate has it. I'm looking forward to getting an apartment here, being able to go to my own place and shut the door. I've surfed a few times -- longboarded once and shortboarded once. That was great for me. I love just getting wet. That's something that I have to have in my life.

And what are your feelings toward Mexico after all this?
It would be nice if the U.S. and Mexico could figure out what's legal and what's illegal instead of the constant bribes. You know how people tell you not to feed wild animals, because then they become used to it? That's how it is when you bribe people. It would be nice if we could access Mexico without all that. They should want us to go down, have fun, and buy a Mexican blanket. That's going to help their economy. There are just so many variables.