U.S. military deserters again flocking to Canada to avoid war

This time they picked the wrong country

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 lies in store for deserters upon their return home. Long was handed over to officials at Fort Carson, Colorado, last August, pleaded guilty to desertion, and is serving a 15-month prison sentence at Miramar Naval Brig near San Diego.

As the community of war resisters in Toronto braces for legal blows, American deserters 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 tonight's 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?"

Ryan Johnson, a deserter from California formerly stationed at Fort Irwin, hopes to get asylum in Canada
Megan Feldman
Ryan Johnson, a deserter from California formerly stationed at Fort Irwin, hopes to get asylum in Canada

IN OCTOBER 2006, Private First Class 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 than the one she'd 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 four-year-old son and two-year-old daughter.

At the same time, Rivera missed her husband and children more than she ever thought she would.

The final turning point came one day in December. 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 claim for reparations in exchange 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. Rivera felt sickened by the girl's cries and wondered what had happened to her and why her mother wasn't there. Long after the pair had disappeared, Rivera couldn't stop thinking about them. Seeing that little Iraqi girl weeping was a watershed moment for her. From then on, 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, learning and saying and doing new things each day that she was missing and would never be able to recapture.

She came home in January for two weeks' leave, and she and Mario took the kids to Texas to visit their families. 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. Deliberating and praying over where to go and how to hide, she let her scheduled flight date out of the United States pass. She knew that 30 days after going AWOL she'd be listed as a deserter, the authorities at Fort Carson would alert law enforcement, and a warrant would likely be issued for her arrest. She didn't want to live as a wanted criminal in her own country, so Canada began to look like a better option. While her commanders searched for her by calling relatives and left messages on her phone recommending she return within the month and receive more lenient punishment, 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.

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