Gimme Shelter

U.S. military deserters once again flock to Canada to avoid war. Looks like this time they picked the wrong country.

As the community of war resisters in Toronto braces for legal blows, deserters from California, Connecticut, Texas, Oklahoma, New Jersey, and Florida 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, has organized the 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 silently 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, who deserted from Fort Irwin, California, and is seeking refuge in Canada, says much of his family has disowned him because of his decision.
Ian Willms
Ryan Johnson, who deserted from Fort Irwin, California, and is seeking refuge in Canada, says much of his family has disowned him because of his decision.


Florida Dreamin': A local deserter finds a cold reception in Canada.

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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 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 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 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter.

Before she left for Iraq, she and Mario's money crunch had forced them to shuttle between their parents' homes while trying to save for their own place. Their money problems caused fights and left Rivera feeling stressed about her family back home. At FOB Loyalty, Rivera got in trouble with her commanders for talking too much to Mario on the phone, though one night the habit might 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.

In December 2006, 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 reparations claim 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. Long after the pair had disappeared, Rivera couldn't stop thinking about them. 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.

She returned home in January for two weeks' leave. 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.

She and Mario loaded the kids into their Geo Prism and drove north. On February 18, 2007, they reached Niagara Falls and drove across the Rainbow Bridge. It was a gray, dreary day as they made their way over 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 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. Zaslofsky's group has declared the last stretch of January "Let Them Stay Week" and is 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.

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