Jody Gravett, orphan, Vietnam vet, in trouble

El Capitan high school not as good as Granite Hills

— Jody Gravett's American experience poses some pointed questions about national identity, about responsibility, about what a country does or does not owe the men who risk their lives in its service. But for the moment, Gravett isn't interested in the larger issues, the broader implications of his particular case. He's reconsidering the specifics, certain details, certain memories.

Like the time he came home from his first tour of duty in Vietnam and discovered that his adoptive father had nearly cleaned out his savings account.

"I remember walking into the bank all excited and shit. I thought I'd saved up all this money. Didn't spend a dime while I was in Vietnam. I wanted to come home to something. Now, they'd told me before I left that I had to set up my savings account with a family member, or friend -- someone I trusted -- and have them deposit my paychecks for me. So I set that up with my dad. And I was over there, fightin' and shit. Gettin' shot at, killing. I was getting combat pay, hazardous-duty pay. And every month I kept sendin' the checks home. I thought I had something to look forward to.

"I walked in the bank, filled out a withdrawal slip. I thought I had more than $3000. And the teller says to me, 'Sir, you have $330 in your account.' Well, I guess I caused quite a scene there at the bank. When they finally got me calmed down, they explained it all to me. I went over to my dad's house, asked him what had happened. He just mumbled something about 'expenses.' He wouldn't tell me. I pretty much tore up all the windows in the house. I turned around and walked out. I never spoke another word to him. I turned around and walked out and went back to Vietnam.

"Sometimes I sure wonder why he adopted me. If he adopted me only for what he could get out of me. I think the reason he took all the money was because he thought I was gonna die over there in Vietnam. He thought I wasn't comin' back. But I came back.

"I never spoke to my dad again. But I guess I forgave him. I wish like hell the son of a bitch was still alive so I could tell him that."

Gravett is in a reflective mood. While he sits in Santa Ana Jail, he has a lot of time to think about his past, to try to make sense of all the missteps, rejections, and betrayals that have marked his life.

"Shit happens," he says.

In Gravett's case, a lot of shit happens.

Fifty-one years ago, he was born of an American soldier father and a Japanese mother who left him, literally, on the doorstep of a Catholic orphanage in Yokohama, Japan, when he was three days old. Gravett and the other "half-breed war babies" were segregated from the purebred Japanese orphans. "But I never noticed any discrimination against us. People looked at me and could tell I was different, but I spoke Japanese. I wasn't treated any different. I didn't know anything about prejudice until I came to America. America has some of the most prejudiced people on earth."

When Gravett was 11 or so, an American Navy MP and his wife showed up at the orphanage. Their goal was to establish the first rodeo in Japan. The orphanage had a lot of land. The MP and his wife set up their barn, their stable, their rodeo ground.

"It was incredible," Gravett remembers. "It was just like the movies. Cowboys and Indians! You can imagine what that must have been like for a Japanese kid. It was America! So I started hanging out, working in the barn, cleaning out the stables. I've always been a real hard worker. My dad -- the man who became my father -- noticed my interest. Taught me how to ride. When I was 12 or 13, he and his wife decided to adopt me.

"Well, it was a little more complicated than that. I guess he wanted to adopt me. She picked up and left on Thanksgiving Day. I'll never forget it. I guess they weren't gettin' along real well. I was living with them. And on Thanksgiving Day I'm sittin' in the living room, watching television, and I guess they got into an argument, and he just picked up a chair and threw it at her. I'm sittin' there and the next thing I know is that chairs come sailin' across the room, and my mom is packin' her things and is out the door and I'm thinkin', 'My God, what kind of family is this that wants to adopt me?'

"My dad wouldn't give her the divorce unless she signed my adoption papers. That was the deal they worked out. She wanted the divorce. She signed the papers. The way I see it is that she didn't even really want me."

A few years later, Gravett and his dad moved back to the States. His dad had "itchy feet." They moved first to his dad's native Iowa, which Gravett loved -- "The people there treated me real nice. The year I was there I became a championship wrestler. When I was in Japan I'd picked up some judo and stuff. I knew some moves. They loved me." Then to the Bay Area. Then to El Cajon, not far from where his adoptive mother lived.

The adjustment, however, wasn't easy. "They treated me like shit at El Capitan High School. They had a bunch of prejudiced rednecks there. That's where I learned about prejudice. My dad started keepin' me home from school to help him with his horses, help take care of them. I wanted to go to school, to learn. So I moved in with my mom, started going to Granite Hills High School. It was a lot better there. They weren't prejudiced. I got along real well there. But then my mom and dad started fightin' over me. My dad wanted me back to help him. They fought a lot. And I had these two friends who were gonna join the Army. I was 19 when I was in 11th grade. I'd been held back a year. And these two friends were goin' to Vietnam, and my mom and dad were fightin', and I said to myself, 'Fuck all this bullshit, I'm goin' to Vietnam!'"

Two tours of duty. 101st Airborne. Hue. Quang Tri. Wounded twice. Eight medals -- four Bronze Stars, two Medals of Valor, the Purple Heart, and an Army Commendation medal. And through all of it, no one, not even Gravett, seemed too concerned that he wasn't an American citizen. Gravett thought about it from time to time. He was a permanent resident, but not a citizen. Once he asked his commanding officer if he should go to Hawaii to sort it all out, get his citizenship papers. But his CO said no. He'd done combat duty, been in the line of fire. Once you've done combat, his CO said, you're automatically an American citizen. To Gravett, it made sense.

Gravett finished his second tour, came back to the States, and entered into civilian life as best he could. "Only sometimes I'd have dreams about Vietnam, about being attacked and shit. It wasn't too bad. I didn't come back as messed up as a lot of kids. I think that's because of the orphanage, which was a situation of pure survival. I had to learn how to survive. And I'd already been through a lot of emotional shit by the time I got to Vietnam. My old man would come home real drunk and just beat the shit out of me. It got so that I'd just hide in my room when I heard him come home, I was so scared. But I got bigger and I started to fight back, and after a while he didn't lay a hand on me. A lot of the guys over in Vietnam were kind of spoiled in comparison to me. They couldn't cope. Didn't know how. I'd already learned how to cope."

Gravett settled in Lakeside. Started to work construction. Got married. Two kids. Divorced. In 1991 he got in trouble. He was arrested for possession of eight ounces of methamphetamine with intent to sell. He did his time. Six months and 20 days.

"I was hanging around with the wrong people. I wasn't an addict or anything, but I used the stuff to help me work. A lot of guys who work construction use it. When the cops arrested me, they kinda laughed and asked, 'You work construction?' They work you hard here in Southern California. Probably they work you harder and faster here than in any other part of the country. Start a development, finish it, and move people within a year. It's tough."

The initial bust might not have added up to much if Gravett, in late June 1997, hadn't decided to burn some trash in the backyard of his Lakeside home. When his neighbors saw the smoke, they called the fire department. And when the fire department got there, they called the sheriff. And when the sheriff got there, he asked Gravett, "Did you know that growing marijuana was a felony?"

Three plants, one male, two female, landed Gravett in jail again. But this time, Immigration and Naturalization (INS) was coming around, asking prisoners where they were born and what their citizenship status us. Gravett, a grandfather, a decorated Vietnam vet, was not, after all, an American citizen. He was a permanent resident with two "aggravated felony" raps and, according to the INS, was therefore subject to deportation to Japan.

"Now, I know I wasn't born in America. I was brought here. I wanted to come here. I made this country my own. I served my country in Vietnam. I admit that I did wrong. I don't deny that. I'm willing to serve my time. But the funny thing is that there were all these Americans, born here, who ran away to Canada because they didn't want to serve in Vietnam. They ran away from their own country. And after the war, President Ford grants them immunity. They're welcome to come back and be American citizens. And now, just because I didn't have the right paperwork, because I'd been given bad information by a CO in Vietnam, the INS wants to send me back to Japan. You tell me, what kind of crazy shit is that?"

It's the kind of crazy shit that causes John Quinn, Gravett's immigration attorney, to sigh and clear his throat. Quinn, a former Marine, gets emotional about Gravett's case. He sees it as a situation in which Gravett has been snared by blind political whim.

"Right now America wants to get tough on crime and get tough on immigrants. Since 1988, Congress has been broadening and broadening the definition of 'aggravated felony.' In 1996 they passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigration Responsibility Act that mandated the automatic deportation of any non-naturalized person who has been convicted of an aggravated felony. Jody has two such convictions. The 1996 law removed judicial discretion in individual cases.

"While it's fine to pass laws on crime and immigration, it's another thing when you see what happens when these laws are applied. You get situations like Jody's. Here we have this guy, a grandfather, for cryin' out loud, who not only served his country well in Vietnam, but who served very, very bravely. Neither of his crimes were violent. We're talking eight ounces of meth in 1991 and, six years later, three marijuana plants. He's not a threat to American society. I've talked to his neighbors. They've told me he was a good guy who was very much involved in his neighborhood. But INS can't see it that way. The INS works with the laws they've been given. They don't care about his past, his childhood, how he fought in Vietnam. They look at the law. The law says deport him. That's what they're going to try to do.

"It's important to understand that right now he's being held for who he is. He's not being punished. He's being held for his immigration status. Although the INS is trying to 'expedite' these matters, Jody's case could theoretically drag on indefinitely. Everyone who looks at this case, even the prosecutors, shakes their head. It's unfair and it's unjust. It's my job as his attorney to pry the law apart, to show how and why it's unjust. We'll see how it goes."

While Quinn prepares his arguments, Gravett waits in Santa Ana Jail, where he was transferred after a stay in a probation camp near Alpine. The jail, he says, is fine. It's a new facility. A brand-new high-rise.

"The most difficult thing," he says, "is the waiting. Not knowing what's going to happen. I have a lot of time to think about things. You know, the way I heard it, I was pretty much just dumped on the front door of the orphanage. Nobody knew who I was or where I came from. It was hard there, but they tried to teach us to help each other out. If another kid needed help, you tried to help him. I've tried to do that in my life, but it hasn't always worked out the way it should. I worked real hard for my dad. I cleaned up so much horse shit. And then there was that thing with the money. The only thing I wanted from him was an explanation. I wanted to know why he did it. And now he's dead and I guess I'll never know, and I'll never get to tell him that I forgave him.

"I went to Vietnam to help my country out. I fought real hard for my country. And now, in the end, my country turns around and says, 'We don't want you anymore.' I just don't understand it. And it seems like all my life I've been asking 'Why?' "

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