Click here for this week's feature story "No Canada" about U.S. military deserters living abroad.
Joshua Randall, a 21-year-old Branson native, calmly recounts most of his four months as a U.S. Army medic in Iraq over the phone to Riverfront Times. But there are some memories this self-described "war resister" living in Canada would prefer not to discuss.
Randall says the primary reason he walked into the Branson recruiter's office in April 2006 was that the Army would cover his college tuition. But he also wanted to serve as a medic in Afghanistan and Iraq because, at age eighteen, he viewed those conflicts as "humanitarian missions" and believed "that things were actually getting accomplished and we were fighting for freedoms."
Still, certain aspects of his training began to gnaw at him before he ever set foot in Iraq. During basic training enemies were referred to as Hajjis, a derogatory term. After four months of medical courses, he joined the 187th Infantry Battalion of the 10th Mountain Division, stationed in Fort Drum, New York. Part of his training there required him to perform life-saving procedures on anesthetized sheep with incurable cancers.
"I learned a lot from it, and they were going to die soon anyway," he says. "But morally, I didn't think it was right."
Randall spent nearly a year at Fort Drum, where he met a Canadian girl online and married her in August 2007. The following month, his unit was deployed to Iraq. "Walking up the stairs of the plane, my knees were weak," he recalls. "A half-hour into the flight, it got really quiet. It hit a lot of people: There's no turning back now."
On Randall's first day at FOB McHenry, a base between Mosul and Kirkuk, an Iraqi army soldier was brought in for treatment — Randall's first patient. The soldier had seven bullet wounds, from his knees up to his chest, and lay unconscious. Randall's job was to plug the blood flowing from the soldier's groin wound.
"The reality sunk in that I was actually at war," Randall recounts. "The glory was sucked out of it a little bit."
In the following weeks while on patrol — eight-hour trips in cramped Humvees, rolling over bleak terrain — Randall says he never visited Iraqi hospitals to provide free healthcare, as he was told he would.
Sometimes, he says, in the middle of the night, his unit would enter a village where an improvised explosive device had recently exploded. They'd round up all the males over age twelve and take them to the detainee center at FOB McHenry. "If I were in their shoes," he says, "I would have nothing but hate for the Americans."
Randall claims he was forcibly restrained from treating Iraqi civilians in need. He begins to tell a story about a young girl, but stops. "I can't do this tonight," he says, but mentions a post on his website, www.londonresisters.ca, where he has written: "It's hard to say how you will react when...your holding a 30 kg, 10 year girl bleeding to death in your arms and you don't have the knowledge to fix her."
While visiting his wife in Canada in January 2008, Randall took time to reflect. An IED blast in December had killed a good friend and left another paralyzed from the neck down. He says he had "questions upon questions," and began researching the war. "I came to the conclusion that my government had been lying to me for all these years, and I didn't know," he says.
He decided to desert and stay in London, Ontario, where he has since gained permanent residency through his Canadian wife, Colleen. He intends to apply for citizenship when he becomes eligible in January 2011.
Randall now has a construction job and has spoken to groups at the University of Western Ontario, where he plans to enroll.
To those back in Missouri who might be angry at him, he says, "Two years ago, I'd have been the first one to say, Put him up on the firewall! But having seen what really goes on there, and open to the information I have been, I'd basically say, Don't take everything that you hear and see for granted. Go and research it." Or, he suggests, "Ask a soldier what he honestly thinks."