Soldiers Choose Canada

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

Thousands are seeking less dire means of escape. Calls to G.I. Rights Hotline, which answers questions from recruits trying to leave the armed forces, shot up to 28,822 in 2003, from 17,267 in 2001. Meanwhile, though the Pentagon will not confirm figures, military attorneys, activists, and the European press have estimated that 600 to 1,700 soldiers have fled to avoid service in Iraq. Most are likely living underground in the U.S.—going AWOL, even for long periods, is a far less serious offense than actually applying for refugee status in another country—which clearly demonstrates the intent to desert. Nonetheless, the peacenik grapevine in Canada began buzzing on Wednesday with news that a female deserter is on her way.

Canada itself has resisted the war in Iraq. Backed by overwhelming public sentiment, its government officially refused to join the "coalition forces." But much has changed in the 35 years since a draft dodger or G.I. could simply present himself at Canada's border and sign up for landed-immigrant status. "In the '60s, we didn't have a refugee determination system," explains the former Immigration and Refugee Board member, Audrey Macklin, a professor of law at the University of Toronto. "The war resisters who came were not required to jump through any hoops. Now we have a rigorous one-by-one approach and more complex and narrow regimes for permitting entry."

Besides, notes law professor John Hagan, who himself went to Alberta to beat the draft and recently wrote Northern Passage: American Vietnam War Resisters in Canada, "The door didn't really open until 1969, and that was in the context of very high levels of casualties—far, far higher than are involved in the current situation. The pressure was immense and took a long time. Neither of those variables is operating now."

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

Even in the Vietnam War era, U.S. policies and public sympathies judged those who had enlisted and then abandoned their posts more harshly than those evading the draft. Indeed, a blanket pardon President Jimmy Carter granted the day he took office in 1977 applied only to draft dodgers, not to deserters. Hinzman and Hughey hear the same criticism today. "My grandpa was against the war and can't stand Bush," Hinzman says, "but he has firm notions of duty. I think it might be a little humiliating for him to see my name in the media."

Still, as House puts it, "No one has to give up basic moral principle because he signed a contract. Even the U.S. military recognizes that people can become conscientious objectors after enlisting."

Brandon Hughey was 17 when an army recruiter called him at his home in dry, hot, and heavily Republican San Angelo, Texas, to invite him to join up. "I wanted to go to college, and they offered me a $5,000 signing bonus," he recalls with a smile that pulls dimples into his boyish cheeks. "That really caught my attention." Hughey's dad, a computer programmer, had to sign the enlistment papers for his underage son. Then, last summer, shortly after his high school graduation, the teenager left west Texas for Fort Knox, Kentucky.

Hughey trained in bayonets, rifles, and hand grenades, and he learned to drive a tank. At the same time, figuring he should know what he was going to war for, he started to give himself an education in affairs of state. "It wasn't until I joined the military that I began to form political views," he says. On the base, Fox News blared everywhere, but Hughey began reading AP and MSNBC stories online. "When I learned that Saddam did not have weapons of mass destruction, I began to doubt things," he says. He brought questions to his officers, but they told him it wasn't his job to do the thinking. He didn't even know that applying for C.O. status was an option. His first one-month leave came, and Hughey had earned enough cash to finance the Mustang.

By the time Hughey reported to Fort Hood in mid December, he had read what international law has to say about wars of aggression and sensed he had made a terrible mistake. As the days ticked by, he dutifully carried out his orders—spraying insecticide on uniforms, packing gear to be shipped to Baghdad—but at night he surfed the Net, feeling increasingly frantic to get out of serving in a war he couldn't believe in. Hughey didn't feel he could turn to his pro-war family. (In fact, he hasn't called them from Canada.)

Then he found the stranger: One evening he stumbled on an article that quoted one Carl Rising-Moore calling for a new underground railroad and saying it would be better for suicidal soldiers to desert, as George W. Bush had done, than to take their own lives. He dashed off an e-mail with the subject line "Please help a desperate serviceman."

Carl Rising-Moore, 58, who describes himself as having been "a brainwashed young man" who enlisted during Vietnam and has been a peace activist ever since, says he couldn't help responding to Hughey's plea—even though it's a felony to assist a deserter. With only hours to go before Hughey was to report for baggage drop-off, Rising-Moore made arrangements with the Quakers. When Rose Marie Cipryk and Don Alexander agreed to receive Hughey in their St. Catharines home, it was déjà vu all over again: They had sheltered resisters in the late '60s. "Simplicity is a value for Quakers," says Alexander, "so there's a debate raging in the community over whether the Internet is good or bad. I think it's obvious which side wins in this instance."

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