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.
"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.
As the community of war resisters in Toronto braces for legal blows, deserters from California, Connecticut, Texas, Oklahoma, New Jersey, and Florida continue to rely on the help of Canadian antiwar activists and American Vietnam-era draft dodgers.
The War Resisters Support Campaign, led by New York-born Vietnam deserter Lee Zaslofsky, organized the rally for Rivera and two other Toronto resisters facing deportation. A member of parliament is here to speak, as well as a local city councilman and various deserters and activists. All watch, silent, as Rivera attempts to describe the emotional and philosophical about-face that led her to abandon her unit and flee to Canada. It's an internal sea change she often finds difficult to articulate. So tonight, less than a week before her scheduled deportation date, she relies on the last stanzas of her poem.
"I was becoming something that wasn't me, that I didn't stand for as a person," she says, choking up. Then she makes a plea: "Canada, I am here. Will you take the time and the heart to understand what I am now fighting for, with words and not a gun?"
In October 2006, Private First Class Kim Rivera deployed to Iraq with the 704th Support Battalion out of Fort Carson. She arrived at Forward Operating Base Loyalty in eastern Baghdad to find a different war from the one she expected. Instead of driving a truck, she was guarding a gate. Instead of doing "lots of rebuilding," as she'd thought the Army would be doing, most of the troops seemed to be dedicating their time to raids on civilian homes. She didn't like the way a lot of guys acted when they returned from patrol.
"We tore their house up!" she recalls one soldier saying, jocular and triumphant. She observed that he seemed pretty happy about it. "Hell fuckin' yeah!" he replied. "They prolly killed my buddy."
Rivera began to imagine what it would be like if foreign soldiers broke into her apartment in the middle of the night and dragged her and her husband, Mario, out of bed in front of their 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.
Before she left for Iraq, she and Mario's money crunch had forced them to shuttle between their parents' homes. Their money problems caused fights and left her feeling stressed about her family back home. At FOB Loyalty, Rivera got in trouble with her commanders for talking too much to Mario on the phone, though one night the habit may have saved her life. One mortar explosion after another rocked the base while she was talking to her husband. When she returned to her bunk, a sizable piece of shrapnel lay on her pillow.
In December 2006, an Iraqi man walked through the gate with a little girl, and Rivera moved to frisk them. She assumed the man was coming to file a reparations claim for damage caused by American forces. Rivera stopped dead when she turned to the girl. The child looked to be the same age as her daughter, Rebecca. The toddler screamed and wailed inconsolably, her cheeks streaked with tears. Long after the pair had disappeared, Rivera couldn't stop thinking about them. She couldn't shake the feeling that everything was wrong. The bloodshed. The loss. The fact that her children were on the other side of the world.
She came home in January for two weeks' leave. Rivera had trouble sleeping. Every time a car door slammed, she'd flatten herself onto the floor. Her mother-in-law, Reyna Rivera, recalls her having panic attacks and crying on the floor, begging God for a way to avoid another stint in Iraq. "She wasn't stable enough to handle that, and she shouldn't have been there in the first place," Reyna says. "To think of her going back — my God."
Mario, searching for options online, came across the website for the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto. He called Zaslofsky, the coordinator, who told him the organization would help provide legal aid and temporary housing. The idea at first struck Kim Rivera as ridiculous. They didn't know a soul in Canada. At the same time, she couldn't bear the thought of going back to Iraq.
She and Mario loaded the kids into their Geo Prism and drove north. On February 18, 2007, they reached Niagara Falls and drove over the Rainbow Bridge. It was a gray, dreary day as they made their way across the river gorge. Dark storm clouds gathered behind them, but as they emerged on the other side of the bridge in Ontario, the sun came out. Rivera took it as a sign that they did the right thing.
It's late January, and the past few days have brought grim news to Lee Zaslofsky's small office on the fourth floor of a brick building that houses unions and peace organizations. Along with Rivera, two other deserters living in Toronto have been denied residency and are scheduled to be deported by the end of the month. To add insult to injury, Immigration Minister Jason Kenney was quoted on the news complaining that the "bogus refugee claimants" were clogging up the courts. Zaslofsky's group has declared the last stretch of January "Let Them Stay Week" and is holding nightly rallies and advocacy events as well as pushing around-the-clock phone calls to the immigration ministry and the Prime Minister's Office requesting the government reconsider its view that desertion does not merit shelter in Canada.
On this overcast afternoon, Zaslofsky, a mustached 60-something with bright blue eyes and thinning brown hair, sits at his desk, typing furiously. The wall behind him is papered with posters. One, an image of a soldier with his back turned, reads, "Stop the deportations now" and "War resisters welcome here." Another advises, "Cut and run. In an immoral war, it's the thing to do." Amid the fliers are several photographs. One shows Jeremy Hinzman, a paratrooper from South Dakota who served in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. In 2004, after eight months in Afghanistan and with orders to deploy to Iraq, Hinzman fled north with his wife and year-old son to become the first deserter of his generation to seek political refuge in Canada.
The deserters have become a tight-knit community, enjoying weekly dinners at a Chinese restaurant, keeping tabs on one another's court cases, and celebrating the babies born to resisters and their spouses. To Zaslofsky, the young men and women have become his surrogate children. Hunched at his computer, he reads a recent email from a soldier at Fort Knox.
"I've been having some problems with what my military does and while I've put in for conscientious objector status, it will most likely get denied, leaving me in a real bad spot," the soldier writes. "I can't talk to my buddies because, well, simply put, they hate me for what I'm trying to do. I was wondering what the process of political refuge entails and whether it's advisable to do this."
Given the grim political climate, what will Zaslofsky tell the man?
"I'll advise him to call," he says. "You never give up hope. We're not discouraged; we're angry." Indeed, as he speaks, his face grows red and defiant. "We have a Rush Limbaugh government here. This isn't how Canada is supposed to be."
The political landscape was different when he deserted in 1969. Zaslofsky was drafted after graduating from the State University of New York at Stoney Brook. He reported for basic training, but when news of the My Lai massacre broke, he asked his sergeant major for an explanation of the slaughter of more than 300 unarmed civilians. "In war, bad things happen," he recalls the man telling him. In January 1970, he drove into Canada. While President Richard Nixon struggled to keep a lid on the antiwar protests roiling the States, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau welcomed American deserters by the thousands.
It's unclear whether today's deserters will be affected by the fact that President Obama says the Iraq War was illegal. Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco who has been active in the peace movement, says Obama is unlikely to make war deserters a priority. "I can't imagine he'd consider amnesty or anything until the war has wound down sometime in his second term," Zunes says. Even if Obama agrees with the resisters, it remains a crime to desert one's comrades in a time of war.
Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, says desertion constitutes a punishable crime for good reason. "AWOL and desertion are crimes that in a time of war put other soldiers' lives at risk," he says. "Not only do these crimes go against Army values; they degrade unit readiness." Hall questions why soldiers would enlist voluntarily and desert only after receiving orders to deploy.
The fact that large numbers of Americans fleeing the war in Vietnam were running from a compulsory draft while today's deserters are turning from the consequences of their own choices has earned these new deserters a scarlet letter in the minds of many Americans. Rivera has been called a "parasite" and a "traitor" in comments posted to her blog, and Zaslofsky says he frequently receives letters from across the United States that call the recent deserters "pussies" and cowards.
Yet Zunes and other sociologists point out that many of the Iraq War deserters come from impoverished backgrounds. "What we're looking at now is a poverty draft," Zunes says. "A lot of people from rural areas or inner cities simply don't have job opportunities or money for college, and the Army promises that."
Unlike their counterparts during Vietnam, many of today's resisters were raised in conservative swaths of rural America. Take Joshua Key, who grew up in a trailer in the tiny town of Guthrie, Oklahoma. A burly welder with tattooed arms, the 30-year-old grew up admiring his grandfather, who fought in the Korean War. By age 12, he was shooting snakes with AK-47s and Glocks, and ten years later, he joined the Army after struggling to support his wife and children on his earnings from KFC. He recalls his wife saying, "You get 'em, Josh, before they get you. Even if it's a kid. They're terrorists too." Key never dreamed that after a tour in Iraq, he'd be living in self-imposed exile, the author of a book titled The Deserter's Tale, his autobiography as told to Canadian writer Lawrence Hill.
Ryan Johnson, a slight, bearded 25-year-old from California's Central Valley who looks more like an organic farmer than a soldier, says he enlisted because he was tired of working factory jobs at places like Frito-Lay and couldn't afford college. His mother, a homemaker, and his stepfather, a UPS driver, kept yellow-ribbon bumper stickers on their cars and voted Republican.
Another difference in the deserter generations seems to be their level of combat experience. John Hagan, a sociologist at Northwestern University and the author of Northern Passage, a book about the migration of Americans to Canada during Vietnam, says 80 percent of the 25,000 draft-aged men who fled to Canada bailed after receiving draft notices and never actually fought.
Most Iraq War deserters now in Canada served for at least two years. Patrick Hart, a former sergeant from New York who served with the 101st Airborne Division, was an active-duty soldier for nearly ten years and did one tour in Iraq. Dean Walcott of Connecticut served the Marine Corps for nearly five years and did two Iraq tours. Phil McDowell of Rhode Island joined the Army after the September 11, 2001, attacks and fled to Canada in 2006 because he received stop-loss orders to return for a second tour of Iraq.
To Zaslofsky, the Iraq War deserters are even more courageous than he and his peers were. "In a way, I value them a lot more than my generation," he says. "We had this vast antiwar movement to support us and inform our decisions. They don't have that. They've come to this individually, not because of some mass political indoctrination."
Joshua Key's uneasiness about the Army's presence in Iraq began in the first months of the war in 2003 as he served with Fort Carson's 43rd Combat Engineer Company in Ramadi. His platoon would raid one to four houses each night in search of insurgents or evidence of terrorism, but night after night, all they found were tidy, middle-class homes filled with terrified families, he writes in The Deserter's Tale. As his unit stormed through Iraqi homes, he recounts, they'd shout at the inhabitants to "Get down!" and "Shut the fuck up!" in English, then knock the men to the ground, often beating them before hauling them off for transport to a detention facility. "We tore the hell out of those places," Key writes, "blasting apart doors, ripping up mattresses and ripping drawers from dressers. From all our ransacking, we never found anything other than the ordinary goods that ordinary people keep in their houses." He also tells how the soldiers — him included — would steal from families during the raids, making off with knives, jewelry, gold, cash, and, once, a television.
Parts of the book read like scenes out of Apocalypse Now. One chapter tells of an Army specialist who liked to release aggression by body-slamming corpses in a shed, while another describes members of Key's unit coming upon the bodies of dead Iraqis near the Euphrates River and kicking their severed heads around like soccer balls. Perhaps most traumatic for Key was watching, helpless, as a young Iraqi girl he'd befriended while guarding a hospital was felled by M16 gunfire from an unknown location. All this, he writes, led him to conclude that the American military "had become a force for evil, and I could not escape the fact that I was part of the machine."
When Iraq War deserters began arriving in Canada in 2004 and 2005, their lawyers filed claims for refugee status based on the Geneva Conventions and the fact that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees handbook says a deserter is entitled to asylum if he has refused to participate in a war judged to be unlawful by the international community. But Alyssa Manning, the attorney representing at least a dozen of the deserters, including Rivera and Key, explains that the Canadian courts have declined to consider the legality of the Iraq War in their rulings, finding that unless the asylum seeker is a high-ranking officer, whether the war is condemned by international law is irrelevant.
In most cases, instead of pursuing refugee claims, Manning is applying for permanent residence based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. So far, the immigration ministry has denied all of the requests, and Manning has requested judicial review. Three of her petitions for judicial review have been granted, and more are pending.
Most of the deserters are able to work pending the resolution of their cases. Key does welding. Johnson picks up carpentry projects, and before she had her third child, Rivera worked nights at a bakery. Many of the deserters are estranged from their families, who disapprove of their decision. Rivera says she hasn't spoken to her mother since she left Texas. She and Mario checked their phone messages when they arrived in Ontario to hear her mother saying that if Rivera didn't turn herself in, she'd call the police and report Mario for kidnapping Kim and the kids. According to Mario's mother, Reyna, that's just what she did. Rivera's mother, Cathy Miller, didn't return phone calls for this article, but Reyna says that for months, she received calls from Mesquite investigators asking about Mario and a kidnapping allegation.
For Ryan Johnson, losing his family has been the hardest part of coming to Canada. His mother is so ashamed of her son that she tells friends he's still serving in the Army and deployed overseas. "My grandfather died last year," Johnson says. "He was one of the people who pretty much raised me, and he stopped talking to me because of the decision I made. A lot of my family has disowned me."
January 23 is cold and overcast, and only four days remain before the Riveras are scheduled to be deported. Manning, their lawyer, hasn't yet heard from the federal court about a stay of deportation, and all they can do at this point is pray. On this chilly morning, Kim has awoken with a head cold. Christian and Rebecca are chasing each other around the living room of the family's two-bedroom apartment on the upper floor of a cramped high-rise.
"Stop that," Kim tells them. "Mommy's sick." She shakes her head. "Who knows what's going to happen to me in the next few days, and I'll be sick on top of it. Great."
She rises from the couch to dress and run errands. She'll strap the baby to her chest and go to the pharmacy to pick up Mario's medication for high blood pressure. She tries to take good care of her husband. She's well aware of the fact that they are in this situation because of her, and while she doesn't regret joining the Army, she says, "I needed the experience to open my eyes." Sometimes when she looks at her husband, she is amazed. "I can't believe I found someone to love me through all of this," she says. "It's amazing. I mean, we've known each other since we were 17, and he stuck with me through everything. Not even my parents could do that."
While she cooks eggs in the kitchen, the phone rings. Mario, sitting at the computer, picks it up. His eyes widen as he listens.
"Oh, that's great. Wait until I tell Kimberly," he says.
He listens and nods, then hangs up. He calls to his wife, who appears holding a spatula.
"So unfortunately, Alyssa called about the stay...," he tells her.
Kim's breath catches. "Uh-huh?"
"We didn't get it," he says, trying unsuccessfully to disguise his grin.
"Are you messing with me?" Kim says.
Her husband laughs. "We got it."
"For how long?"
"Maybe through June. We don't know."
Kim exhales, her shoulders relaxing a bit. "All I can say is, thank God."
Mario nods. "That buys us a few months," he says. "But we're not out of the woods yet."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss New Times Broward-Palm Beach's biggest stories.