• U.S.

From AWOL to Exile

8 minute read
Daniel Eisenberg

Only a few months after Army Specialist Darrell Anderson received a Purple Heart last summer for his service in Iraq, his heart wasn’t in it anymore. By Christmas, while on leave at his parents’ home in Lexington, Ky., Anderson, 22, was dead set against the war. Haunted by memories of civilian casualties, he had become a nervous wreck. So early last month, a few days before he was due to return to his unit’s base in Germany and prepare for a redeployment to Iraq later this year, Anderson rented a car and drove to Toronto. Since arriving, Anderson has joined several like-minded U.S. soldiers fighting an uphill battle to gain refugee status in Canada. “I joined the Army to get money and defend my country, not to kill innocent people and fight for a war that is unjust,” says Anderson, who earned his medal for the minor injuries he sustained April 11, when a homemade explosive device sprayed shrapnel all over his armored vehicle during a patrol in Baghdad.

Anderson thinks of himself and others like him as war resisters. His critics, who have no sympathy for volunteer soldiers suddenly opposed to combat, prefer terms like coward and traitor. But now that Anderson has been AWOL for more than 30 days, he is known in the U.S. military as a deserter, facing the possibility of years in jail. (No deserter during wartime has received the stiffest punishment, execution, since the last days of World War II.)

Although the American public remains sharply divided over the Iraq war, the number of soldiers like Anderson who are going to great lengths to get out of their service is actually smaller than it has been in many years. Still, for the first time since the Vietnam War, when Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau made his country a “refuge from militarism” for tens of thousands of U.S. draft dodgers, some disaffected young Americans are seeking sanctuary up north, risking permanent exile from their native land–or jail time back in it. A newfangled underground railroad has even sprung up, started by a group of religious, union and peace activists to help American soldiers get settled in Canada.

Other members of the armed forces have taken the drastic measure of deserting without fleeing the U.S. Navy Petty Officer Pablo Paredes, 23, a weapons-control technician who refused on Dec. 6 to board the U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard to help transport 3,000 Marines to Iraq, has been assigned to janitorial work while awaiting a ruling on his conscientious-objector application. Raised in the Bronx, Paredes joined the Navy because he was eager to get an education. Nearly five years later, he says he is ashamed to be a member of the same military responsible for the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison and claims to be a victim of the “poverty draft,” which he says encourages poor people with no career prospects to join the armed forces. The most famous deserter, Marine Corporal Wassef Ali Hassoun, who briefly appeared to have been kidnapped in Iraq last June only to resurface in Lebanon unharmed, recently disappeared again, failing to return after a holiday leave from his base in North Carolina, where his pretrial hearing was being held; he is now on the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s most-wanted fugitive list. In what may be the most desperate attempt to avoid going back to Iraq, Army Specialist Marquise Roberts, 23, allegedly had his wife’s cousin shoot him in the leg and then told police he had been caught in random crossfire on a North Philadelphia street corner.

Overall, however, desertion is rarer than it has been in quite a while. The number of deserters classified as such by the Army dropped 33% from fiscal 2003 to last year, to 2,436–less than 1% of the total service and the fewest since 1998. One reason, surely, is that the men and women who join the military have a greater sense of duty in wartime. But it is also true that the military has become more efficient at preventing desertions: since 2001, unit commanders, instead of one central authority, have had responsibility for identifying potential deserters and reintegrating those who have gone AWOL. Even as the number of desertions has fallen, the number of prosecutions, while still tiny, has edged up, from 153 in fiscal year 2002 to 171 and 176 in the past two years. Whereas offenders once had a good chance of getting a slap on the wrist and a dishonorable discharge, they now must consider the well-publicized case of Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia, 28, of the Florida National Guard, who is serving a yearlong sentence at a military prison for his refusal to return to Iraq for a second stint.

The Pentagon, which did an extensive study of deserters four years ago, says the vast majority tend to be younger soldiers with troubled records who make a break for it because of personal or financial woes rather than moral or political objections. “Often, we have found, soldiers cannot find an honorable way out and just leave their units,” says Lieut. Colonel Susan Danielsen, the provost marshal at Fort Bragg Army base. Whatever the reason, discontent in the ranks seems to be starting to show, especially among National Guard and Reserve soldiers, some of whom probably never bargained for the full-time, life-threatening commitment that their service, in many cases, has become. Staff members at the G.I. Rights Hotline, based in Oakland, Calif., say calls from soldiers seeking help have jumped 30% in the past year, to around 33,000 in 2004, almost a third of which were from soldiers contemplating going AWOL.

Even though everybody who enlists swears that he or she is not a conscientious objector, annual C.O. applications to the military, while still very rare, have nearly tripled since 2002, to 61 in 2003 and 67 last year. Anderson’s attorney, Jeffry House, 58, says he gets a few inquiries every day from U.S. soldiers interested in fleeing to Canada. A Wisconsin native who went to Canada in 1970 as a draft dodger, House says he has five American clients applying to be refugees. Extrapolating from those and additional cases he knows about, he estimates there may be 75 to 100 U.S. soldiers hiding in Canada, although there is no way to confirm that number.

The incident that eventually spurred Anderson to seek House’s counsel took place just before he earned his Purple Heart. While trying to quell a disturbance outside a police station one night, his unit came under heavy attack. Anderson says he saw a car that appeared to be emitting sparks drive into the middle of the melee. Instructed to start shooting, Anderson held his fire–and the car turned out to be carrying only a startled family. Afterward, Anderson claims, his sergeants told him, “‘Next time, you open fire, just in case.’ Basically they have a standard procedure that if you’re fired upon, you fire at everybody that’s around.” Without commenting on specific rules of engagement, a Pentagon spokesman vehemently rejected Anderson’s description of the rules.

For now, Anderson has been given lodging by a teacher in Toronto, where he remains in a state of legal limbo. His case and those of most of his fellow resisters are on hold until Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board decides the fate of another deserter, Private Jeremy Hinzman, 26. Raised in Rapid City, S.D., and unsuccessful in two attempts to gain C.O. status, Hinzman arrived in Toronto with his wife and infant son at the beginning of last year, two weeks before his unit, the 82nd Airborne, was due to go to Iraq.

Although various appeals could drag out the process for months or even years, the long-term prospects for Hinzman, Anderson and the rest aren’t too good. Unlike 35 years ago, Americans can’t just stay in Canada indefinitely as landed immigrants. To be accepted as refugees, they have to show that they face a risk of actual persecution upon returning to the U.S. And one of their principal claims, that the war in Iraq violated international law, has been ruled irrelevant by the immigration board. That doesn’t faze Hinzman, who is also prepared to argue that by serving in an “illegal war” he would be a participant in war crimes. Even if he and Anderson can never attend family members’ weddings or funerals back home, they are certain they are doing the right thing. Hinzman says, “They tell you in boot camp that if you are given an illegal order, it is your duty to disobey it.” No matter what anyone else might call them, in their own minds, Hinzman, Anderson and their peers are still good soldiers, just following orders. –Reported by Steven Frank and Paul Gains/ Toronto and Sandra Marquez/ San Diego

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