Unwilling troops obtain legal aid, solace in Canada
(By Meredith May, originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle , August 6 2006)
Army Pvt. Ryan Johnson drove off his Mojave Desert base at 3 a.m.
Sgt. Patrick Hart told his Army superiors he was going to watch one last Buffalo Bills football game.
Marine police officer Christian Kjar of Santa Barbara got permission to leave his base in North Carolina to visit a mall.
Rather than go to the Iraq war, all three went to Canada, where a small community of military deserters is growing as the conflict drags on. They are drawn by Canada's history of helping Vietnam War-era draft evaders and the country's open opposition to the war.
Once across the border, they are met by a network of Vietnam War-era draft evaders, Quakers and anti-war activists, who are waiting with lawyers, free housing, job offers and organic groceries.
While the U.S. military considers them criminals and some Americans would call them traitors, the Canadian government has not taken an official position, waiting instead for the courts to decide if the deserters can stay. On the streets of Toronto, 35,000 people have signed a petition to grant the ex-service members amnesty.
"They've been trickling in since February 2004," said Lee Zaslofsky, 61, a Vietnam War draft dodger who helped form the War Resisters Support Campaign that year to help the newcomers adjust in Toronto.
Some of the deserters said they realized belatedly that they were pacifists. Others questioned the rationale for war, after the search for Iraqi weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaeda came up empty. Many simply got scared by what they saw in Iraq.
Drawn together by shared experience, they form a loose support group in Canada. Among them is a punk rock guitarist, a Buddhist and a soldier who fled after receiving a Purple Heart in Iraq. Some arrived with wives and children in tow.
Unlike the 50,000 Vietnam War draft evaders who came before them, today's war resisters aren't necessarily left-wing, college-educated and backed by a big peace movement.
They tend to be small-town America guys who volunteered for service, hoping the military would get them out of dead-end jobs and pay for the colleges and doctor visits their families could never afford.
Lawyers in Toronto and Vancouver have compared numbers and say they collectively have met with 200 Americans who have abandoned their units.
In a legal first, 25 of them have applied to become political refugees, a protected status that Canada has never granted to an American. Refugee status is typically reserved for those living in nondemocratic countries who can prove they would be persecuted for their politics, race, religion or membership in a specific social group. Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board has denied every deserter's claim thus far, sending the issue to the courts.
Toronto attorney and Vietnam War draft dodger Jeffry House, who is representing most of the deserters, argues that the international community considers the Iraq conflict an illegal war of aggression. Forcing the young men to fight -- or jailing them because they won't -- would amount to persecution, he says.
One of his clients is Army tank driver Pvt. Brandon Hughey, 21, the second known deserter to arrive in Canada. Hughey went north in February 2004 with a vague notion that Canada would be welcoming because of its history.
He joined the Army at 17 after a recruiter called his house in San Angelo in west Texas with promises to pay $40,000 for college, plus a $9,000 signing bonus.
At first, he believed the Iraq war was a necessary evil to restore democracy in the region. But after boot camp, he felt he had made a mistake.
"I've always believed if you need to defend yourself or your family from killing, then killing could be justified, but I can't kill someone without a good reason," Hughey said from the porch of the 100-year-old brick Victorian boardinghouse in Toronto, where the Catholic Worker provides him a free room.
Hughey's case is headed to the Canadian Federal Court of Appeal, after a lower court and the Immigration and Refugee Board rejected his application to be declared a refugee. House expects it will take two more years to get a final decision.
"The soldiers who are underground are watching his case," House said. "If we prevail, you'll see hundreds more showing up in Canada."
While their cases are pending, the deserters have the government's permission to stay in Canada. They receive medical care and work permits, and earn money as waiters, construction workers or bicycle messengers. They hang out together at night and speak at peace rallies on weekends.
"At first I didn't tell people who I really was," said Kjar, 20, who has a tattoo of the Marine Corps' eagle, globe and anchor on one forearm and the Buddha on the other.
"But I realized it's not like the United States up here," Kjar said. "Canadians are much more supportive."
Back in the Bay Area, the deserters don't get much sympathy from men like 28-year-old Army Spc. Joshua Erickson of Petaluma, who was jolted out of civilian life as an organic farmer last year to serve in Kuwait. He is a member of the Individual Ready Reserve, a nonactive pool of troops who have finished their service but can be called back in an emergency.
"It's not like soldiers are sitting around cursing the ones who went to Canada -- they understand why someone would not want to go to Iraq," Erickson said. "But everyone is scared, everyone has family problems. Why don't they have to play by the rules?"
Although 200 members of the military have bolted for Canada, Pentagon officials say the number of desertions overall has dropped since the war began in 2003. In that year, there were 6,729 desertions from the four military branches. Last year, 4,494 people left.
The names of the soldiers who fled to Canada have been entered into an FBI wanted-persons file and sent to the deserter information center in Kentucky, said Army Lt. Col. Lee Packnett.
But requests to obtain conscientious-objector status have steadily risen annually since 2000 to 110 in 2004. About half were approved that year.
"We don't go looking for deserters, but we pick them up if they come into contact with police," Packnett said. "They face dishonorable discharge and a maximum five years in prison."
Canadian immigration law has tightened considerably since the Vietnam War, when former Premier Pierre Trudeau said Canada "should be a refuge from militarism."
Then, draft evaders and deserters came to Canada as visitors and filled out a simple application for "landed-immigrant status." Some even showed up on the border with a job offer and were immigrated on the spot.
Today, Canadian immigration seekers must apply from outside the United States and prove they have needed job skills and healthy bank accounts. The process can take two years or more.
Staying AWOL that long in the United States was not an option for soldier-on-the-run Darryl Anderson of Ontario (San Bernardino County). The 24-year-old Army cannon crewman worried that the first time he showed his ID at a traffic stop or airport, he could be jailed on a federal warrant. If he applied for immigrant status from within Canada, he would be protected from arrest by international law.
Pvt. Anderson said he supported the war at first but changed his mind after he was ordered to shoot at a car speeding toward his checkpoint in Baghdad. He held his fire and saw the car was carrying a family with two small children.
"I did the right thing because they were innocent, but my superior said I should have fired anyway," Anderson said. "Right then I decided I'm not going to fire my weapon unless I absolutely have to."
He thought he had to when the tank he was riding in came under fire a few days later and he suffered a shrapnel wound in his side. He tried to shoot back, but his gun's safety lock was on, and he saw that he almost shot a young boy who was running with a stick.
"I thought, 'That's just a kid running scared like I am right now,' " Anderson said. "That's when I realized no matter how good my stance is, I am going to kill innocent people. There's no way I can stop it."
Anderson returned to his mother's house in December 2004 with a Purple Heart and a second deployment order for Iraq.
During his Christmas leave, he told her what had happened in Iraq. Together they decided she would drive him over the Canadian border.
Ryan Johnson, 22, of Visalia (Tulare County) is pretty confident Canada will let him and his wife, Jenna, stay, but just in case, they are researching options -- like going to Sweden.
He said he had told his Army recruiters that he didn't want to fight, so they signed him up for a job in automotive supplies.
"They told me no problem, I could get a noncombat position and serve from the United States. I was lied to," he said.
Given a deployment date for Iraq, Johnson went underground in December 2004, returning to his mother's house in Visalia. Although the Army called the house and sent two letters home, no one came looking for him.
While he was AWOL, Johnson attended a Navy court-martial hearing in San Diego for conscientious objector Pablo Paredes. There, Johnson met "peace mom" Cindy Sheehan, who camped outside President Bush's Texas ranch in 2005 after her soldier son was killed in Iraq, as well as former Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia of the Florida National Guard, who served nine months in military prison for deserting in 2003.
Since taking their advice and arriving in Toronto in June 2005, Johnson and his wife helped start a chapter of the Iraq Veterans Against the War, and the couple reach out to new deserters who cross the border.
In August 2005, the Johnsons welcomed Sgt. Patrick Hart, 32, who deserted the Army after nine years.
He'd served with the 101st Airborne Division in Kuwait and was horrified by the stories he heard from soldiers who'd served in Iraq. They showed him videotape of soldiers lighting cigarettes off burning bodies and told him stories of killing civilians and torching cars with children in them. He watched one too many beheadings on the Internet.
He always thought he could handle war atrocities, but when his 10-year-old son was diagnosed with epilepsy while he was in Kuwait, that changed. All of a sudden, it became much more important for Hart to stay alive.
His unit was transferred to Kentucky, to train for duty in Iraq. As his deployment date approached, Hart was granted permission to see one last Buffalo Bills game. Instead, he met his parents, who drove him over the border to Canada.
"My son already has one strike against him," Hart said. "I don't want to give him two."