How being a Marine helped teach veteran 'intellectual courage'
Karim Delgado will often joke that he is "institutionally ineffective" and has never lasted long within systems of hierarchical authority.
The U.S. Marine Corps would appear to be the last place for Delgado, but he says his time with the military challenged his intellectual courage just as much as his physical courage.
Growing up in Carol City, Florida, Delgado recalls it feeling like another world. There was a sentiment among his friends of neighbors that the rest of the United States didn't care about Carol City, so Carol City shouldn't care about the United States.
"It was a pretty just desperate very low-income community that itself was kind of this vestigial remnant of the segregation experiments in South Florida," he said.
As a teenager, Delgado described himself as a "punk rock kid" and anti-authority. But he would eventually grow tired of the way of thinking, coming to the conclusion that his friends' hatred of the U.S. government was really just an extension of how they felt about their parents.
At 17, just two years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, Delgado decided to indulge in the ultimate act of rebellion: total conformity.
"I joined the Marine Corps, partially to get out of there," he said. "Also … I grew up without a father, and so my mom thought it would be a good experience for me to spend some time around men."
Delgado enlisted as a combat correspondent, working on humanitarian missions in Japan, Thailand and the Philippines. He spent the rest of his active-duty service in New York City, where he represented the Marine Corps for media outlets and helped organize events like Fleet Week. He later enrolled at Columbia University through the GI Bill, majoring in philosophy.
At this point in his life, Delgado wrestled with the guilt of not feeling like a "true Marine," because he never saw combat and was never sent to Iraq or Afghanistan.
But Delgado soon got that chance — not as a military servicemember, but as a civilian.
About two years into his degree, Delgado received a call from an acquaintance asking if he was interested in producing documentary-style videos for the U.S. Army Special Forces teams in Afghanistan.
Delgado ultimately spent six months in Afghanistan, developing relationships with Special Forces troops and local Afghans. He naïvely assumed his philosophy major would provide him with the emotional armor against the tragedies of war.
He couldn't have been more wrong.
"If anything, I was way weaker than anybody else, because I had all these ideas about the condition of humanity and everything on my mind," Delgado said.
Delgado said his relationship with the war was mostly through footage he'd rewatch over and over again through the editing process. It wasn't healthy.
He remembers seeing men and boys, not much younger than him, shooting at him and the rest of his team members. Even though they were a threat, he couldn't help but feel empathy for them.
"They looked no different than I did, if anything, they were a little younger than I was when I joined the Marine Corps, not knowing what I was getting myself into," Delgado said. "They didn't know why they were shooting — so I couldn't blame them."
Trying to figure out who was really "responsible" for the tragedies he was witnessing was impossible, Delgado recalls. He decided he could only blame the "human condition," which was an unsatisfying and unsettling answer. After all, the "human condition" can't be taken to court.
After graduating from Columbia, Delgado briefly taught high school in Texas as a member of Teach for America.
It was another system where Delgado realized he was "institutionally ineffective." He recalls that his emphasis on critical thinking got him into trouble, and he was eventually dismissed.
Then, a friend invited Delgado to spend some time in Oregon to unwind. To his surprise, he ended up meeting his wife and starting a family in the Beaver State.
Today, Delgado operates The 649 bar on the corner of Southwest 185th Avenue and Farmington Road in Aloha.
It's through the business where Delgado and his wife, Kiley Delgado-Warren, support their community and promote causes they care about.
At the height of the pandemic, they organized up a soup kitchen at their business, where folks who had the means could give whatever they had on hand. They also donated to the Equal Justice Institute, the Black Resilience Fund and other "mutual aid" organizations after the murder of George Floyd sparked protests against racism and police brutality last year.
Delgado and Kiley are also active in Beaverton progressive politics, hosting events for newly-elected city councilor Ashley Hartmeier-Prigg.
Delgado and his wife also keep a free fridge in front of their house in Hillsboro as part of the Beaverton Food Project, for anyone in the community who needs fresh food or supplies.
"I definitely don't consider anything we're doing as generous or charitable," he said. "I think the things we do are tiny stoppages against structural injustices and inequalities that are either ignored or mismanaged by our government or society at large. They're literally the least anyone in our position could do."
Editor's note: This story originally appeared in our 2021 Salute to Veterans special publication, inserted into newspapers the week of Nov. 8, 2021. Find a digital version of the full publication on our website. This profile of Karim Delgado is sponsored by MorningStar Senior Living of Beaverton.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.