U.S. Military Deserters No Longer Find Solace in Canada

Just five feet tall, with a baby strapped to her chest and a soft, faltering voice, Kim Rivera is anything but soldierly. Yet two years ago, she was a private in the War on Terror, guarding a gate with an M4 rifle and frisking Iraqi civilians at a base in eastern Baghdad.

Now, on a Wednesday evening in January, the 26-year-old mother of three stands in a room in frigid, snow-covered Toronto. Auburn hair that's pulled back in a low ponytail frames her fair-skinned face and round blue eyes. She places a hand on her bundled baby as she faces some 100 people seated on folding chairs in the modest apartment building's community room.

Rivera clears her throat and unfolds a sheet of paper.

Kim Rivera — awaiting news on her stay of deportation — rests while her husband, Mario, tends to their baby, Katie, at their Toronto apartment.
Ian Willms
Kim Rivera — awaiting news on her stay of deportation — rests while her husband, Mario, tends to their baby, Katie, at their Toronto apartment.
Lee Zaslofsky, a Brooklyn-born Vietnam deserter who runs the Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign, protests the deportation of American deserters.
Ian Willms
Lee Zaslofsky, a Brooklyn-born Vietnam deserter who runs the Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign, protests the deportation of American deserters.

"I was fighting your kind for killing my kind," she begins, reading a poem she wrote last summer and dedicated to the people of Iraq. "I was fighting for your liberty; I was fighting for peace." She pauses and takes a deep breath. "But in reality, I was fighting to destroy everything you know and love."

The audience listens in silence. Some nod. A few wipe tears from their eyes. They are peace activists and professors, fellow American Iraq War deserters in their 20s and American hippies in their 60s, Vietnam draft dodgers and Canadian mothers.

They're all rooting for Rivera, red state warrior turned peacenik deserter. They're hoping and praying that by some lucky chance or the benevolent hand of a politician or judge, the young mother will escape the deportation order that has been issued here and the court-martial that awaits back home.

Three years ago, before Iraq and Canada, Rivera's dreams of going to college and developing a career had faded. She'd spent five years working at Wal-Mart in her hometown of Mesquite, Texas, met her husband in the store's food court, and had her first two children. After several years of living with relatives and struggling to save for their own apartment, Rivera saw the Army as the only way out. Through the military, she could make more than $10.50 an hour, plus get health insurance and higher education.

She enlisted in early 2006. When she signed the contract, she thought of the war in Iraq as a remote and necessary evil. She was raised to praise the Lord and respect her country, and if that meant ridding the world of terrorists while allowing her and her family to get ahead, so be it. Yet after three desolate months in Iraq, consumed by homesickness, missing her children, and disgusted by what she saw of the war, she deserted while on leave in 2007 and fled with her family to Canada.

But the Canadian government ordered her to leave the country by January 27 or be deported to the United States, where there was a warrant for her arrest. Desertion, according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, carries penalties of up to five years in prison, a dishonorable discharge, and, in wartime, a potential death sentence.

As the first known female soldier to walk away from the war in Iraq and fight for residency in Canada, Rivera has become a poster girl for a new generation of war deserters and, in particular, the small colony of American deserters who are living in Toronto and hoping they'll get to stay there.

More than 15,000 soldiers have deserted the Army since 2003, and most are thought to be living in the United States, keeping a low profile and trying to avoid a traffic ticket or anything else that would alert authorities to their presence. Army spokesmen stress that just 1 percent of all soldiers desert and that the problem is not large enough to warrant pursuing them for prosecution. Still, desertion rates have nearly doubled, rising from 2,610 in 2003 to 4,698 in 2007, and military records show a crackdown on deserters since the war in Iraq began. In 2001 and 2007, for instance, roughly 4,500 soldiers deserted each year. But while in 2001 only 29 deserters were prosecuted, in 2007 that figure was 108.

The War Resisters Support Campaign estimates that several hundred deserters live in Canada. Of those, just around 40 have come forward to file asylum claims. The others, living under the radar without legal status and likely waiting to see how their peers' cases pan out, have little to stoke their hopes.

Although an estimated 25,000 draft-dodgers and deserters migrated from the United States to Canada during the Vietnam War, the notion that Canada will absorb today's deserters as it did their predecessors is dead wrong. The Canadian government — led by conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper — has so far rejected all of the deserters' requests, and the soldiers referred to as "war resisters" by their supporters are awaiting review from the country's federal courts to determine their fate.

The case of Robin Long, a soldier from Boise, Idaho, who last summer became the first deserter to be deported from Canada, provides a preview of what may lie in store for deserters upon their return home. Long was handed over last August to officials at Fort Carson, Colorado. She pleaded guilty to desertion and is serving a 15-month prison sentence at Miramar Naval Brig near San Diego. More recently, Cliff Cornell, a deserter from Arkansas who lived in British Columbia since leaving his unit four years ago when he was ordered to Iraq, opted to return to the United States in February after exhausting his legal options. American border agents arrested him and sent Cornell to Fort Stewart, Georgia, to face charges. Meanwhile, a former soldier from Cleveland, Ohio, named Andre Shepherd went AWOL from his base in Germany and is requesting political asylum from German authorities. His case will test a 2004 European Union measure that requires member countries to grant asylum to soldiers resisting unlawful wars and, if it succeeds, will likely result in a flood of American deserters arriving in Germany.

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