In Canada once more, U.S. Troops fleeing a war
Courageous Men & Women Desert their Evil Empire
by Judy Keen, USA Today
TORONTO — Patrick Hart came here in 2005, when he couldn't face a second deployment to Iraq. A U.S. Army sergeant with almost 10 years of active duty, he would rather stay in Canada forever than return to a war he thinks is wrong.
Hart, 36, knows that some people think he is a traitor, but he has no regrets. "I've bled for my country, I've sweated for my country, I've cried myself to sleep for my country — which is a lot more than some people who are passing judgment on me have done," he says. "I would rather go sit in prison than go to Iraq."
Deportation, court martial and prison are imminent threats to Hart and about 200 other U.S. Troops seeking sanctuary in Canada. Despite being members of an all-voluntary military, some oppose the war in Iraq so strongly they are willing to leave their country behind — much like Americans of an earlier generation who crossed the border in the 1960s and '70s to avoid serving in Vietnam and built new lives here.
Some of the draft dodgers and deserters of the Vietnam era, most of them now graying Canadian citizens, are helping the young deserters fight legal battles and find work and housing.
"They understand," Hart says.
In Canada today, the political climate and immigration policies are less hospitable for the new deserters than during the Vietnam era. The conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper refuses to give asylum or refugee status to those U.S. Troops seeking sanctuary here, although Parliament on Tuesday will debate a bill that would let them stay.
Charlie Diamond was 23 when he fled to Canada from Connecticut in 1968 to avoid going to Vietnam. By then, the war was unpopular in both countries. Americans were marching in the streets in protest and young men were burning their draft cards.
Now 64 and a Canadian, he is reciprocating for the welcome he found here.
"I want my country once again to be a refuge from militarism," says Diamond, who has joined others who refused to fight in Vietnam — they prefer the term "resisters" — in the War Resisters Support Campaign.
Canada did not support the American invasion of Iraq, and polls show that most Americans also believe the war was a mistake. Today's deserters enlisted "in good conscience," Diamond says, "thinking they were defending America when in fact the whole thing was a lie."
Young men who left the USA to avoid serving in Vietnam were widely accepted by Canadians and a network of fellow war opponents who helped them find shelter and jobs. Under Harper, Canada's government has tightened immigration policies, and every Iraq deserter who has applied for refugee status has been turned down. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney says that "being a deserter from voluntary military service in a democracy does not, in any way, meet the … definition of a refugee."
In March, Kenney proposed more limits: Immigration appeals for people from countries with good human rights records would be heard only by the Federal Court, ending deserters' chances of winning in lower courts, and failed claimants would be deported in a year instead of the current four years.
Most of the Iraq war deserters in Canada are in hiding, says Michelle Robidoux, spokeswoman for the War Resisters Support Campaign. The group is in touch with more than 40 of them. Two others were deported, tried and sentenced to prison in the USA. Some returned home voluntarily.
More than 50,000 Americans old enough for military service came to Canada to avoid the draft and the Vietnam War, says John Hagan, a Northwestern University sociology and law professor who was among them and wrote a 2001 book, Northern Passages, about the exodus. About half remain in Canada today, he says, despite President Carter's 1977 amnesty offer, which applied to draft dodgers but not deserters.
U.S. military officials have little sympathy for those who abandon their posts.
"Desertion places an undue burden on the unit, it sets a poor example for others, but worst of all it cuts to the very root of military virtue — mutual support and confidence," says Air Force Col. Kenneth Theurer, chief of the military justice division.
Few soldiers desert or go AWOL, says Army spokesman Wayne Hall, but those who do take part in "self-centered acts that not only affect the soldier but also in a time of war may put other soldiers' lives at risk. Soldiers serve in an all-volunteer Army because they chose to."
Since the Iraq war began in 2003, the Army has convicted 693 soldiers of desertion and 2,657 of being absent without leave. From fiscal 2003 through 2008, the Marine Corps had 6,448 deserters. From fiscal 2003 through March 29 the Air Force had 260 deserters. From 2003 through the end of March, 9,869 people deserted from the Navy.
The War Resisters Support Campaign — formed when Jeremy Hinzman, an Army paratrooper, deserted in 2004 and went to Canada — raises money for deserters' legal bills, holds rallies and collects signatures of support across the country.
It's a deeply personal cause for many of those who refused to go to Vietnam. Working with Iraq deserters "breaks your heart," says Bill King, 63, a musician and producer who came to Canada in 1968 to avoid being sent to Vietnam. "You flash back to when you were that age."
'Human nature question'
Jeffry House, a lawyer who represented Iraq deserters before Canada's highest court, came here in 1970 after he was drafted for service in Vietnam. He believes the arguments he made in court are valid: "A soldier ought not to have to participate in an illegal war, even a soldier who has joined up voluntarily."
At their first meeting, House says, Hinzman said he joined the military because he wanted to defend his country, but called the Iraq War bogus. "That's a word we would have used," House says. "I started to think, you know what? This guy is right."
Gerard Kennedy, a Member of Parliament, is the sponsor of the bill that would make U.S. troops who had a "crisis of conscience" in Iraq eligible for Canadian citizenship. "There's a basic moral, human nature question here," he says. "Do we always, under all circumstances, want our military personnel to follow orders or do they have some rights?"
Kennedy believes most Canadians agree with him. Non-binding resolutions urging that U.S. military deserters be allowed to stay in Canada were approved by Parliament in 2008 and 2009. A 2008 poll found that 64% of Canadians favored giving deserters a chance to become permanent residents of Canada.
Toronto lawyer Alyssa Manning, who represents about 20 U.S. troops, says judges often are receptive to evidence that those who come to Canada face tougher punishment by the U.S. military when they return to the USA. But Harper's government, she says, is "adamantly and actively opposed to the war resisters being able to stay in Canada."
That's ominous news for Phil McDowell. He joined the Army in 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and served in Iraq for a year. A few weeks after he was discharged in 2006, he was notified that he would be sent back to Iraq under the Army's "stop-loss" policy — an involuntary extension of his active-duty service. He rejoined his unit, but he couldn't go back to Iraq. He came to Canada instead.
It was a wrenching decision, one McDowell, 29, at first considered "an outrageous thing to do." But he had soured on the Iraq war: There were no weapons of mass destruction there, as the Bush administration had claimed, and McDowell hated the way average Iraqis were treated by coalition forces, as well as the reports of abuse of Iraqi inmates at Abu Ghraib prison by U.S. troops.
"No matter what, I was not going back to Iraq," he says.
McDowell found the War Resisters Support Campaign online and sought its help when he arrived. He regrets missing family weddings and funerals, but he has a job installing solar panels and says he could make his life here, even if it means never going home to Rhode Island.
He's also "absolutely" prepared for deportation and prison, he says. To McDowell, those who came to Canada instead of going to Vietnam are a source of reassurance that "something's going to work out. … Life goes on, and they're a good example of that."
Kimberly Rivera feels the same way. She went to Iraq with her Army unit in 2006. Three months later when she was home on leave, she decided she couldn't return. In 2007, she came to Canada. Rivera, 27, who is from Mesquite, Texas, lives here with her husband, Mario, and their three children. She has received two deportation notices; those are being challenged in court.
Rivera says it's hard to live with the knowledge that some people think she's a coward. Coming to Canada "was very, very hard. Not only am I giving up everything that I know and love — everything — but there's a possibility I would never be able to go back."
If she's forced to return, she says, "I've prepared myself mentally to take whatever punishment they have in store for me."
Different eras, same choices
Dennis James never went back. He was drafted in 1969 and moved to Canada when his medic training shifted to rifle drills to prepare him for deployment to Vietnam. If he were to return, even now, he would have to report to military officials and face desertion charges, he says.
Like many Americans who stayed in Canada after Vietnam, James, 64, says its "atmosphere of welcoming and respect for people" made him feel at home.
James is deputy clinical director of the addictions program at Toronto's Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and is not active in politics. Even so, when he's asked whether he feels a kinship with the former U.S. troops who have come here to avoid Iraq, he replies, "I do."
Others from the Vietnam era are helping Iraq deserters. Tom Riley, 63, is from Baltimore but was living here when he received his induction notice in 1970. He refused to report for duty.
Today, the longtime social worker feels an obligation to help troops who don't want to fight in Iraq, and they're eager to hear his story. "It's quite interesting for them to know that there was a former generation that made the same choices," Riley says.
Carolyn Egan, 60, president of the Toronto Steelworkers Area Council, came here in 1970 with a partner who was ducking the draft. She believes men and women who refuse to fight in Iraq "had the courage to say no" to an unjustified war, she says.
Diamond, a Quaker who works with Toronto's homeless, hopes his adopted country "will have the courage to do what we've historically done. … I see what war and violence does. It's made the United States a very ugly country. I don't want Canada to go that route."
If Canada accepts this generation of deserters, it will be because of the efforts of Diamond and others who refused to go to Vietnam, says Jesse McLaren, 31, a doctor who belongs to the War Resisters Support Campaign.
The older activists, he says, "add historical and moral force to the campaign."
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