Like [war resisters] of Vietnam era, American soldiers are heading north to find refuge from what they say is an unjust war in Iraq
TORONTO -- In the crowded basement of a community library, the young men recounted their stories of escape.
They spoke of crimes perpetrated by their country, of fleeing in the dead of night to avoid a brutal war they would have been forced to fight.
Thousands of people seek asylum in Canada every year, but these were extraordinary exiles: They claimed to be refugees from the United States, soldiers no less, who deserted duty in Iraq and are taking a provocative stance against the nation they vowed to serve.
"I was willing to give my life. I received a Purple Heart for being injured in combat," said Darrell Anderson, 22, one of a handful of deserters who have surfaced here decrying the war and seeking protection as refugees. An Army Humvee gunner from Lexington, Ky., he spent seven months in Iraq before packing a duffel and fleeing while on leave earlier this year.
"I'm going to be able to live the rest of my life with my head held up high, knowing I wasn't part of the killing of innocent people," he said on a recent night under a banner in the library that read: "Message From Canada, War Resisters Welcome Here."
Anti-war activists and Americans who settled here to avoid serving in Vietnam are embracing the soldiers as kindred spirits, but this is a different generation of defectors. They volunteered for the military, and though Canada opposed the Iraq war, it's arguing against granting the soldiers asylum -- a contrast to the Vietnam era, when Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared his country "a refuge from militarism" and welcomed tens of thousands of deserters and draft evaders.
"They are just not refugees," said Randy White, a member of the Canadian parliament's Conservative opposition. "This isn't about whether the Americans are in a war that we disagree with."
Nobody knows exactly how many deserters are here; at least six have gone public -- minuscule by any measure. But according to activists, attorneys and military counselors, there are other soldiers underground, and more who inquire about the drastic path every day.
Jeffry House, a Toronto lawyer and Vietnam draft dodger who represents five deserters, said he's had inquiries from more than 100 service members.
"If we are successful, you would find a fair number of soldiers who would be interested," he said.
House is using the refugee process because unlike during Vietnam, Canada now requires would-be immigrants to apply for residency from outside the country, which wasn't an option for the deserters. He alleges that the war was illegal and the occupation of Iraq so rife with crimes, such as abuses at Abu Ghraib prison, that soldiers should not be compelled to participate. If sent home, he insists, the young men -- fugitives facing prison -- will be persecuted.
"If someone is going to go to jail for doing what's right, then that's persecution," he said.
A decision in the first case, brought on behalf of Jeremy Hinzman, an Army deserter from South Dakota, is expected soon, although the movement has already suffered a setback. The refugee board has ruled out as disputed and irrelevant House's contention that the war was unlawful.
Michael Scharf, a war crimes expert who advises governments and judges around the world, said although soldiers have been given protection, these cases do not meet the standards. "I am sympathetic to them completely, but they just don't have a winning argument," he said, noting his own opinion that the war was illegal.
Scharf, the director of the International Law Center at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, said the soldiers are not facing persecution, just jail time. And he said they could have exercised an internationally recognized right to protest illegal orders.
"It would be different if [Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld or the generals ordered the systematic commission of war crimes," he said. "But that is not what is going on."
The deserters may be on uncertain legal ground, but they are not alone in their dissatisfaction. As the United States continues to lose soldiers in Iraq, it is struggling to keep and recruit new members. National Guardsmen and reservists, in particular, are chafing and a small number of soldiers have been imprisoned or brought up on charges for refusing to serve. Pentagon figures show more than 8,000 desertions since the months leading up to the war, though military officials stress that overall the incidences are dramatically declining and that the vast majority are due to personal or financial problems, not politics. The Army alone reported a nearly 50 percent drop between last fiscal year and 2001.
"We have the government wanting to portray this rosy picture of everything is fine and it is not," said Bill Galvin, the counseling coordinator at the Center on Conscience & War in Washington, which advocates for conscientious objectors and works on the GI Rights Hotline. He said his organization has been inundated with calls.
But while plenty of service members have complaints about the war and its rationale they stick it out anyway, said Paul Rieckhoff, an Iraq combat veteran who founded the Manhattan-based soldier advocacy group Operation Truth. "I don't know anybody who will respect those guys," he said of the deserters. "The government decides where they send you; it's not your choice."
Rieckhoff added, "The military is split on whether or not we are making more enemies than we are killing. My own personal opinion is that we are making more than we are killing."
Such doubts about the war resonate with the deserters, as well as the draft dodgers, activists and Quakers who welcomed them here.
"You've got Humvees that aren't armored and you are driving through the streets ... hoping that today is not the day you're going to get blown up," Darrell Anderson said. "I was over there and there were no weapons of mass destruction. There were people fighting for their lives."
Bill King, a music promoter from Indiana who fled to Toronto during Vietnam, said, "It comes down to, does a person have the right to say 'no' to an organization that claims to own you? These guys have no problem with the military. It was how the military was going to spend their lives."
Brandon Hughey, 19, from San Angelo, Texas, said he joined the Army to pay for college, but "knew combat was a possibility -- I trained as a tank driver." When it was time to deploy last year, neither money nor his contract mattered. On the eve of shipping out, he loaded a bag and headed north in his silver Mustang.
His father, David, said he's come to support the decision, but worries about the impact on the rest of his family. There have been public calls to execute his son. Technically, death is the maximum punishment for desertion during war, but jail time is the most probable consequence.
Anderson's mom, Anita, has heard similar attacks. "My son volunteered. He went and fought for this country, and he got wounded and that is more than most people who are sitting on their butt," she said.
Awaiting verdicts on their claims, the deserters are living hand-to-mouth here, relying on hosts, doing menial jobs or waiting for work permits. They speak out against the war and look to each other for support.
"If you want to call me a coward, fine," said Clifford Cornell, 24, an artillery soldier from Arkansas who arrived in January. "But I am up here trying to fight. It is an unjust war. We went from one war to fight another."
BY ANDREW METZ STAFF CORRESPONDENT March 2, 2005
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