Soldiers Choose Canada

Facing Iraq duty, two U.S. G.I.'s head north to seek asylum

 TORONTO—Army private Brandon Hughey got in his silver Mustang around midnight on March 2, rolled past the gates at Fort Hood in Texas, and headed northeast. All he had to guide him was a deepening dread and principled objection to the war in Iraq and a promise of help from a complete stranger he'd found on the Internet. His unit was deploying to the Middle East the next morning and, as Hughey, 18, wrote in a February 29 e-mail to the stranger, an anti-war activist, "I do not want to be a pawn in the government's war for oil, and have told my superiors that I want out of the military. They are not willing to chapter me out and tell me that I have no choice but to pack my bags and get ready to go to Iraq. This has led me to feel hopeless and I have thought about suicide several times."

His heart pounding to the hip-hop beat on his radio, Hughey drove for 17 hours straight, keeping an anxious eye on the speedometer, panicked that he might get pulled over. The activist met him on March 4 in southern Indiana, stashed the Mustang (with Hughey's dog tags in the trunk) in Indianapolis, and took the wheel behind his own car for a 500-mile trip to the bridge at Niagara Falls. He gave Hughey a New York Knicks cap to pull on over his crew cut so the guards at the Canadian border would believe they were on their way to see a Toronto Raptors game.

Hughey did watch New York shut down Toronto in a fourth-quarter comeback that night—but on TV from St. Catharines, Ontario, where a Quaker couple has taken him in. He is the second American soldier who opposes the war to have applied for refugee status in Canada. As the occupation in Iraq drags on, morale among soldiers plummets, and talk of a post-election draft heats up, their cases will determine whether Canada will once again welcome young Americans resisting a questionable war.

Iraq and a hard place: Soldiers Hinzman (left) and Hughey
photo: Andre Souroujon
Iraq and a hard place: Soldiers Hinzman (left) and Hughey

The first was Jeremy Hinzman, a private first class with the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 82nd Airborne, who arrived in Toronto on January 3 with his wife, Nga Nguyen, and their 21-month-old son, Liam. In contrast to Hughey, Hinzman engaged a lengthy process of pleading from within his unit for non-combat duty as a conscientious objector (C.O.). After his request was denied, Hinzman faced orders for Iraq. He and his wife crammed what they could into their Chevy Prizm and headed north, with their son, from Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Hinzman, 25, understood what he was risking: if he wins his case, never being able to visit the U.S. again; if he loses, being deported, going directly to jail with a harsh sentence. Desertion during wartime is a capital offense; though the last execution for a runaway soldier was in 1945, Hinzman worries that the penalty could be revived. "The Bush administration has done so many unprecedented things," he notes. Nonetheless, seeking sanctuary in Canada looked better than any alternative. Hinzman reasons, "I thought of refusing orders and turning myself in [as Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejia did last month]. But because of how they had handled my C.O. application, I wasn't sure I would get a fair shake. Anyway, I don't feel I should be incarcerated for following my conscience."

To win refugee status, Hinzman and Hughey will have to demonstrate that they are fleeing a well-founded fear of persecution in the U.S.—an extremely tough claim. What's more, notes a former member of Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board, refugee law specifies that "prosecution is not persecution": Punishment for breaking a law is not grounds for asylum unless the law itself—China's one-child policy, for instance—is deemed a form of persecution.

That is the kind of argument Hinzman and Hughey's attorney, Jeffry House, will make before Canada's immigration board about eight weeks from now. Essentially, House will be putting the war itself on trial by contending that the U.S. wants to send these young men to jail—or worse—for choosing to comply with international law. "Rather than do something unthinkable or horrible as soldiers," House says, "they came to Canada. That's a huge step."

House knows the feeling. As a college student in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late '60s, he concluded that the Vietnam War was wrong and that he would not participate. The day he got his draft notice, he went to Canada.

Canada has a long tradition of providing safe haven for dissenting Americans: Loyalists during the War of Independence, refugees from the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, so-called "skedaddlers" deserting from Civil War battalions, and, most famously, some 60,000 men and women resisting the Vietnam War.

Unless there's a draft, no one expects a flood at the northern border nowadays. But the trickle could certainly swell. According to a U.S. Army survey released last week, 72 percent of soldiers report that morale in their unit is low or very low. Meanwhile, the suicide rate among service members is at an all-time high. From April through December last year, 23 killed themselves while on duty in Iraq or Kuwait; at least seven more did so after their return home.

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