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

This time they picked the wrong country

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 Texas 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. Her fair-skinned face and round blue eyes are framed by auburn hair pulled back in a low ponytail, and she places a hand on her bundled baby as she faces some 100 people seated in folding chairs in the middle-class apartment building's community room.

Rivera clears her throat and unfolds a sheet of paper.

Kim Rivera, the first female Iraq War deserter to seek refuge in Canada, waits for a streetcar in Toronto
Megan Feldman
Kim Rivera, the first female Iraq War deserter to seek refuge in Canada, waits for a streetcar in Toronto
Lee Zaslofsky, a Brooklyn-born Vietnam deserter who runs the Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign, protests the deportation of American deserters
Megan Feldman
Lee Zaslofsky, a Brooklyn-born Vietnam deserter who runs the Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign, protests the deportation of American deserters
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

"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. And since she and her husband were both overweight and she was certain that she could shed the necessary pounds faster than he could, she began talking to recruiters.

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 praise 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.

Just as with her decision to enlist, that gamble hasn't paid off the way she'd hoped. The Canadian government ordered her to leave the country by January 27 or be deported to the United States, where there's 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. Nevertheless, while desertion rates have held steady since the late '90s, military records show a crackdown on deserters since the war in Iraq began. In both 2001 and 2007, for instance, roughly 4,500 soldiers deserted each year. But while in 2001 only 29 deserters were convicted, in 2007 that figure was 108.

The War Resisters Support Campaign estimates that several hundred deserters are living 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. While 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. As the cases make their way through the Canadian court system, Rivera is among the first wave to face impending deportation, and a host of others are expected to follow in the coming months.

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?"

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.

   

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. Zaslofsky's group has declared the last stretch of January "Let Them Stay Week" and is holding nightly rallies and advocacy events.

On this overcast afternoon, Zaslofsky, a mustachioed sixtysomething with bright blue eyes and thinning brown hair, sits at his desk, typing furiously. The wall behind him is papered with posters. One advises, "Cut and run. In an immoral war, it's the thing to do." Amid the flyers 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 one-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 near the office, 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, and he doesn't want any of them put in jail. "We have a Rush Limbaugh government here. This isn't how Canada is supposed to be," he says defiantly.

The political landscape was different when he deserted in 1969. Zaslofsky was drafted after graduating from the State University of New York at Stoneybrook. He reported for basic training but was disturbed by the stories he heard from soldiers returning from Southeast Asia. When he received orders to go to Vietnam, he filed for conscientious objector status and was denied. 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 was welcoming America's deserters by the thousands.

Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, emphasizes that desertion is 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 only later, once receiving orders to deploy, change their minds and cite political or philosophical reasons for deserting. The fact that large numbers of Americans fleeing the war in Vietnam—33,000 in 1971 alone—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 not only call the recent deserters "pussies" and cowards who abandoned their brothers in arms, but also fools who enlisted deliberately only to shirk their duty.

Some sociologists point out that unlike the draft-dodgers and resisters who fled north decades ago, many of whom were well-educated and had been able to put off the draft for several years by attending college, most recent deserters come from impoverished backgrounds and joined the military because it was the only way they could find to get an education and an above-minimum-wage job.

"What we're looking at now is a poverty draft," says Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco who has been active in the peace movement. "A lot of people from rural areas or inner cities who simply don't have job opportunities or money for college—and the Army promises that." Unlike their counterparts during Vietnam, who were often politically liberal and opposed the war to begin with, many of today's resisters were raised in conservative swaths of rural America. The majority of the dozen or so young resisters at the Toronto rally, for example, had begun their journeys as eager, patriotic recruits, only to undergo wrenching changes of heart.

Take Joshua Key, who grew up in a trailer in the tiny town of Guthrie, Oklahoma. A burly welder with tattooed arms, Key, 30, grew up admiring his grandfather who fought in the Korean War. By age 12, he was shooting snakes with AK-47s and Glocks, and 10 years later he joined the Army after struggling to support his wife and two children on his earnings from KFC. 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.

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. Now, while the Army's Hall maintains that most deserters are junior troops who leave their units early in their military careers for personal, not moral or philosophical, reasons, the Toronto deserters don't fit that description. Most 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 10 years and did one tour in Iraq, while Dean Walcott, of Connecticut, served the Marine Corps for nearly five years and did two Iraq tours. Unlike soldiers in Vietnam, who only did one tour unless they re-enlisted, today's troops are deployed multiple times, which is making for a new, more battle-tested type of war deserter.

Regardless of differences between the deserter generations, today's deserters in Canada have a similar unwillingness to fight in an unpopular war. To Zaslofsky, they 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, his autobiography as told to Canadian writer Lawrence Hill. Drawn from his recollections and with little or no corroboration from other soldiers, the book is a haunting chronicle of the mounting disillusionment that led him to desert. 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 shows 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."

QUESTIONS ABOUT THE legality of the Iraq War were an integral part of the initial case for deserters pursuing asylum in Canada. When they began arriving 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.

"When they were first coming, the idea was that the war itself was illegal so they shouldn't have to fight in it," Manning says. "Jeremy Hinzman's 2004 refugee claim was based on that, but the refugee board, the federal court, and the federal court of appeal refused to consider that." Key is the only one still waiting on a pending refugee claim, since he and Manning are arguing that he merits asylum not because the war itself is illegal but because he was ordered to commit acts—such as the house raids—that have been condemned by the international human rights community.

In most of the cases, instead of pursuing refugee claims, Manning is applying for permanent residence based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. That requires showing that the deserters would face hardship if they returned to the United States to apply from afar. 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. If the federal court reviews a case and finds fault with the decision, rather than reversing it, the court's ruling signals a chance to start the process anew and maybe get a different outcome.

"This is a really hard fight, because every time you get a victory it's only a partial victory," Manning says. In addition to buying time in the courts, deserters and their supporters are hoping Parliament might provide a political solution, which would require either the fall of the conservative government or a successful bid by the liberal parties to pass legislation allowing the Americans to stay. Last summer, Parliament passed a non-binding resolution arguing that the deserters should be given residency, and polls show that 60 percent of Canadians agree.

As they wait in legal limbo, 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.

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."

IT'S NEARING THE end of "Let Them Stay Week." It's cold and overcast on January 23, only four days 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, Rivera 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," Rivera 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—"I needed the experience to open my eyes," she says—she feels accountable. 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.

Rivera's breath catches. "Uh-huh?"

"We didn't get it," he says, trying unsuccessfully to disguise his grin.

"Are you messing with me?" Rivera says.

Her husband laughs. "We got it."

"For how long?"

"Maybe through June. We don't know."

Rivera 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."

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