Jon Hammar saw combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, but his most brutal foreign experience was in Mexico.
In August, the 27-year-old former Marine corporal was incarcerated by Mexican authorities in Matamoros for trying to register an antique shotgun with customs agents. Foolishly, Cpl. Hammar followed instructions given to him by U.S. Border Patrol agents in Brownsville, Texas. He registered the gun with them and brought the paperwork to the Mexicans to get their stamp of approval to carry the gun through the country. Hammar and a friend were driving a Winnebago, hoping to have a nice surfing vacation with some hunting on the side.
Even though the Mexican authorities clearly saw Hammar was trying to follow the rules, they seized the Winnebago and locked the corporal up in the notoriously corrupt CEDES prison anyway. There he was threatened by other inmates and told by guards that he could buy his way out of the hellhole by paying money to the “right people.”
Hammar’s parents, who live in south Florida, immediately contacted the State Department and were told to be patient. And so they were. Three months later, Hammar was still incarcerated and had not even seen a judge, and things were becoming increasingly desperate.
That’s when his parents gave up on the State Department and contacted the media.
When the story crossed my desk, I found it hard to believe. Cpl. Hammar had served his country honorably, returned to the U.S. with post-traumatic stress disorder, been treated for nine months in California, and simply wanted a vacation after his ordeal. It was obvious he was being held on bogus charges, and the State Department seemed impotent. When we asked Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for a comment, she refused to say anything about the case. A few of her deputies visited Hammar in prison, but the official line was nothing more could be done.
Sen. Bill Nelson and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen raised a stink about the situation, but things continued to deteriorate. Mexican authorities actually chained Hammar to his bed. Another inmate sent a picture of that out to the media.
In mid-December, the Fox News White House correspondent asked press secretary Jay Carney about the case. President Barack Obama’s spokesman looked perplexed and said he did not know anything about it. As unbelievable as that sounds, I believe Carney was telling the truth. And by telling one truth, Carney indicated another truth: Neither Obama nor Clinton had come to the aid of an American combat veteran who was being abused by Mexican authorities.
Disgusted by our apathetic government, I took the case directly to the government of Mexico. On national television, I bluntly told the new Mexican presidente, Enrique Pena Nieto, that if he did not release Hammar by Christmas, I would lead a boycott of Mexican tourism and products. The next day, Hammar was released after a Mexican judge ruled there had been no intent to commit a crime.
The ordeal cost the Hammar family tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and untold emotional damage. Thankfully, the corporal did arrive home to south Florida in time to have a nice Christmas with his family.
But this story is a cautionary tale for any American traveling outside the country. If you get into trouble, you will be essentially on your own, even if you are a combat veteran. Our leaders in Washington are basically bureaucrats with short attention spans. If they couldn’t work up the energy to help Jon Hammar, they are not going to help you.
True leadership means helping those who are powerless and sincerely need help. That takes time and energy. President Abraham Lincoln set aside one day a week to answer calls for help from the folks. The current administration would not answer a desperate call for months.
As for Mexico, it remains a corrupt country hostile to the rule of law. Let the buyer beware.
• Veteran TV news anchor Bill O’Reilly is host of the Fox News show “The O’Reilly Factor” and author of the book “Pinheads and Patriots: Where You Stand in the Age of Obama.”