Gimme Shelter

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

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-age men who fled to Canada bailed after receiving draft notices and never actually fought.

Most Iraq War deserters now in Canada 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. Dean Walcott of Connecticut served in the Marine Corps for nearly five years and did two Iraq tours. Phil McDowell of Rhode Island joined the Army after the September 11, 2001 attacks and fled to Canada in 2006 because he received stop-loss orders to return for a second tour in Iraq.

To Zaslofsky, the Iraq War deserters 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."

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


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

Click the picture below to view the slide show:

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. 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 and 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 TV set.

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 of this, he writes, led him to conclude the American military "had become a force for evil, and I could not escape the fact that I was part of the machine."

When Iraq War deserters 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 the Canadian courts have declined to consider the legality of the Iraq War in their rulings, finding that unless the asylum seeker is a high-ranking officer, it's irrelevant whether or not the war is condemned by international law.

In most of the cases, instead of pursuing refugee claims, Manning is applying for permanent residence based on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. 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.

Most of the deserters are able to work pending the resolution of their cases. Key does welding. Johnson picks up carpentry projects, and Rivera worked nights at a bakery before she had her third child. 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. She and Mario checked their phone messages when they arrived in Ontario to hear her mother saying that if Rivera didn't turn herself in, she'd call the police and report Mario for kidnapping her and the kids. According to Mario's mother, Reyna, that's just what she did. Rivera's mother, Cathy Miller, didn't return phone calls for this story, but Reyna says that for months she received calls from Mesquite investigators asking about Mario and a kidnapping allegation.

For Ryan Johnson, losing his family has been the hardest part of moving 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."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Miami Concert Tickets