Click here for a native Missourian's story of war desertion.
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 Iraq War, 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.
"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 twenties and American hippies in their sixties, 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 her only way out. Through the military, she could make more than $10.50 an hour, plus get health insurance and higher education. And because 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 like 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, desertion rates have nearly doubled, rising from 2,610 in 2003 to 4,698 in 2007, and military records show a crackdown on deserters since the war in Iraq began. But while in 2001 only 29 deserters were prosecuted, 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 fifteen-month prison sentence at Miramar Naval Brig near San Diego. More recently, Cliff Cornell, a deserter from Arkansas who lived in British Columbia since leaving his unit four years ago when he was ordered to Iraq, opted to return to the United States in February after exhausting his legal options. He was arrested by American border agents and sent to Fort Stewart, Georgia, to face charges. Meanwhile, a former soldier from Cleveland, Ohio, named Andre Shepherd went AWOL from his base in Germany and is requesting political asylum from German authorities. His case will test a 2004 European Union measure that requires member countries to grant asylum to soldiers resisting unlawful wars and, if it succeeds, will likely result in a flood of American deserters arriving in Germany.
As the community of war resisters in Toronto braces for legal blows, deserters from California, Connecticut, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and New Jersey continue to 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 had 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.
Rivera 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. She also disliked the fact that Hajji was her unit's preferred term for Iraqis. She didn't know the word was a title for a Muslim who'd made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca; all she knew was that the way they said it made it sound just as mean as "sand nigger."
At the same time, Rivera missed her husband and children more than she ever thought she would. She had always loved them, but one of the things that gnawed away at her was that on some level, her decision to enlist — even if it meant going to an unknown and dangerous place — stemmed from a desire to escape her family situation.
She and Mario's money crunch had forced them to shuttle between their parents' homes in Mesquite while trying to save for their own place. This made for friction. Rivera felt that her mother — an insurance agent who became the sole breadwinner when Rivera's father was hurt at his munitions factory job — resented her and felt burdened by the young family. To make matters worse, tension developed between her mother and Mario. Rivera, who is Anglo but took her husband's surname, was convinced that her mother refused to accept Mario because he's the son of first-generation Mexican and Honduran immigrants.
As she worried about money and became exhausted from juggling work and kids and family feuds, Rivera grew increasingly stressed. The more frustrated she became, the more frequently she became enraged at her husband. If he was working, she felt unsupported at home. When he took time off to be with her and the kids, she grew angry because he wasn't making more money. But when she lost her temper, he'd just stare straight ahead and refuse to fight, which fueled her fury. She'd hurl a shoe or two at his head or fling a radio out the window.
At FOB Loyalty, when Rivera recalled those heated moments, she felt horrible and missed her family even more. She got in trouble with her commanders for spending an excessive amount of time talking to Mario on the phone, though one night the habit may have saved her life. One mortar explosion after another rocked the base while she was talking to her husband. When she returned to her bunk, a sizable piece of shrapnel lay on her pillow.
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 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.
Rivera 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. To add insult to injury, immigration minister Jason Kenney was quoted on the news complaining that the "bogus refugee claimants" were clogging up the courts with futile petitions. Zaslofsky's group has declared the last stretch of January "Let Them Stay Week," and he's holding nightly rallies and advocacy events, as well as pushing around-the-clock phone calls to the immigration ministry and the Prime Minister's Office requesting the government reconsider its view that desertion does not merit shelter in Canada.
On this overcast afternoon, Zaslofsky, a mustachioed sixty-something with bright blue eyes and thinning brown hair, sits at his desk, typing furiously. The wall behind him is papered with posters. One, an image of a soldier with his back turned, reads, "Stop the deportations now" and "War resisters welcome here." Another advises, "Cut and run. In an immoral war, it's the thing to do." Amid the fliers 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. Nearby is a picture of Joshua Key, a welder and father of four from Oklahoma who served seven months in Iraq with the 43rd Combat Engineer Company and deserted in 2004. A photograph of a smiling Robin Long before he was deported and imprisoned serves as a sobering reminder of what's at stake.
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. Hunched at his computer, he reads a recent e-mail from a soldier at Fort Knox.
"I've been having some problems with what my military does and while I've put in for conscientious objector status, it will most likely get denied, leaving me in a real bad spot," the soldier writes. "I believe what the Army does is to commit murder...unfortunately, the Army treats anyone with my feelings poorly. I can't talk to my buddies because, well, simply put, they hate me for what I'm trying to do. I was wondering what the process of political refuge entails and whether it's advisable to do this."
Given the grim political climate, what will Zaslofsky tell the man?
"I'll advise him to call," he says. "You never give up hope. We're not discouraged; we're angry." Indeed, as he speaks, his face grows red and defiant. "We have a Rush Limbaugh government here — this isn't how Canada is supposed to be."
The political landscape was different when he deserted in 1969. Zaslofsky was drafted after graduating from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He reported for basic training but was disturbed by the stories he heard from soldiers returning from Southeast Asia. When news of the My Lai massacre broke, he asked his sergeant major for an explanation of the mayhem that led American soldiers to slaughter more than 300 unarmed civilians and toss them into a mass grave. "In war, bad things happen," he recalls the man telling him. "I asked myself, If I were in a situation like that, would I be the heroic guy who says, 'Hey stop, this is terrible,' or would I join in because I was experiencing the same rage and frustration they were? I felt I couldn't be sure." 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 American deserters by the thousands.
It's unclear whether today's deserters will be affected by the fact that America now has a president who campaigned on his conviction that the Iraq War was illegal, which is precisely the refrain of most war resisters, many of whom volunteered to go to Afghanistan but refused to serve in Iraq. Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco who has been active in the peace movement, says President Obama is unlikely to make war deserters much of a priority in the near future. "I can't imagine he'd consider amnesty or anything until the war has wound down sometime in his second term," Zunes says. Even if Obama agrees with the resisters about the unfounded case for war in Iraq, he's still the commander in chief, and it remains a crime to desert one's comrades in a time of war.
Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, emphasizes that desertion constitutes 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.
Yet Zunes and other 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," Zunes says, "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 that landed them in a foreign city that they'd hardly imagined, much less considered inhabiting.
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 twelve he was shooting snakes with AK-47s and Glocks, and ten years later he joined the Army after struggling to support his wife and children on his earnings from KFC. A country boy who recalls his wife saying, "You get 'em, Josh, before they get you. Even if it's a kid. They're terrorists, too," 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.
Dale Landry, a 23-year-old from the Dallas area who deserted in 2007, joined the Air Force his senior year of high school. Besides the fact that it would enable him to go to college, he figured the military could be a good path out of low-income, red-state America and into a career in Democratic politics. His mother was a waitress who raised him alone except for a series of husbands who came and went, and he wanted his life to look as different from hers as possible. It does, but he couldn't have predicted that would mean watching from Canada as the first Democrat to win the presidency since Landry was eleven years old took the oath of office.
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 intheir 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 ten 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 theyre-enlisted, today's troops are deployed multiple times, which is making for a new, more battle-tested type of war deserter. Phil McDowell of Rhode Island, for example, joined the Army in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks and fled to Canada in 2006 because he received stop-loss orders back to Iraq after he'd already done one tour there and had been discharged.
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."
It's nearing the end of "Let Them Stay Week," and Rivera, Mario and their three children are being honored with a dinner at the pacifist Quaker House near the University of Toronto. While Mario holds their two-month-old, Katie, in the living room of the cozy Victorian, Rivera sits around a wooden table with a dozen other people eating stew, salad and scalloped potatoes. Nearby sits Naba Hamid, an Iraqi woman who used to teach at Baghdad University and is now seeking refugee status in Canada. An elegant woman wearing a pink sweater and large pearl earrings, Hamid hears Rivera is from Texas and explains that she's involved in a number of women's rights organizations and was supposed to attend a conference in the Southern state. "I couldn't go," she says. "My visa expired, and my refugee status is pending."
"I wanted to get involved in a refugee group here," Rivera tells her. "But I didn't know if I'd be accepted, you know, as someone who says, I have trauma because I afflicted you. I just went and saw a counselor. As long as you keep talking about it, it's not so bad." She's quiet for a moment and seems to be lost in faraway thoughts. Earlier she'd mentioned that she still sees little girls who remind her of that two-year-old Iraqi at the gate, but right now she recalls other incidents that continue to cloud her thoughts. "The soldiers went out on raids every night; the people didn't have electricity; the markets were getting blown up every day."
Hamid nods, her eyes brimming. "There was a raid in my neighborhood after I left," she says. "They came to my house. My neighbor said nothing was disturbed, but I don't know." She asks where Rivera was stationed while in Iraq.
"When did you arrive there?"
"I was there October 2006 through January 2007."
"I left that month, too," Hamid says. "It was horrible. It was Hell. Bombings, no electricity, no water, no telephones, no food, no nothing for days. We'd go everywhere in taxis, but it was very dangerous. You didn't know if the driver was a criminal or a terrorist. And I was a target for many reasons. I'm a professor, an activist, a woman."
The two women look at each other for a moment in silence. "That's crazy," Rivera finally says. "We could have crossed paths there, but we met right here."
The next day, January 23, is cold and overcast, only four days before the Riveras are scheduled to be deported. Alyssa 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 morning, Kim 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 seventeen 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 asks.
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."
Megan Feldman is a staff writer at RFT's sister paper the Dallas Observer. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.