Iraq's Forgotten Deserters

Kimberly Rivera thought joining the Army would solve her problems. Before she enlisted in 2006, she was struggling on her Wal-Mart paycheck while her husband worked odd jobs and tended their two small kids. She knew she'd be sent to Iraq, but she didn't mind. "I thought I was helping my family and helping my country," she says. But her problems only got worse; she and Mario did nothing but fight on the phone, and the war kept eating at her. In January 2007, while she was home on leave in Mesquite, Texas, she and Mario packed up their car and headed for Toronto rather than let her return to Iraq. The old junker barely made it before breaking down.

Now 26, Rivera has more problems than ever. Her mother hasn't spoken to her since she fled to Canada, although Rivera misses her terribly. And the Canadian government keeps trying to send her home to face desertion charges. She might end up in a military prison—but says she has no regrets about her broken commitment to the service of her country. "At least I can say I never killed anyone, ever," she says. "I think that's a little more honorable."

As Rivera awaits her next court appeal in July, some 50 other American deserters are waging their own asylum battles in Canada. They've inspired rallies and parliamentary resolutions, and triggered clashes between lawmakers and Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Not long ago Iraq provoked similar passions on the U.S. side of the border. But after six years of conflict, thousands of combat deaths and innumerable scandals, most Americans are eager to move on. In some ways the war over the war now rages more fiercely in Canada than in the United States.

Dubbed "Resisterville" by opponents of the war, Toronto has become the deserters' refuge of choice. Many settled in the Parkdale neighborhood, a gritty area west of downtown, where placards pledging support for the dissenters sit in some apartment windows, framed by grubby stonework and peeling paint. Rivera and her husband rented a place there, and last year they had their third child, Katie. As the first mother to publicly campaign for asylum, Rivera offers an alluring face for the movement, appearing at rallies with her Canadian-born child to read a poem she wrote for the Iraqi people. "I was fighting for your liberty," it reads. "I was fighting for peace. But in reality, I was fighting to destroy everything you know and love."

When Rivera deployed to Iraq in October 2006, she sounded a lot more like the red-blooded, flag-waving Texan she'd been raised to be. As far as the enemy was concerned, "bomb them all to hell," she thought. A few months into her tour her attitude began to change. Standing in full battle rattle before a young Iraqi girl who shook and sobbed and peered up at her with wild-eyed terror, Rivera was painfully reminded of her daughter Rebecca. The carnage, the constant menace, the strain of separation from her family—all of it wore her down. She barely slept, ate little and withdrew from her fellow troops. Home on leave, Rivera couldn't fathom returning to the war zone. She and Mario talked things over, then packed up their belongings, loaded Rebecca and her older brother Christian into a beat-up Geo Prizm and took off for Canada.

She and the others have found succor in the War Resisters Support Campaign. Working out of a cramped office loaned by the United Steelworkers of America, the group has opened chapters in 12 Canadian cities and built a roster of supporters that numbers in the thousands. It helps newcomers find housing, apply for work permits and pay for legal counsel. But more than anything, it tries to ratchet up pressure on the Canadian government to let the deserters stay.

Among the organization's most ardent members are Vietnam-era deserters like Lee Zaslofsky, who serves as the campaign's de facto spokesman. Back in the 1960s and '70s, Canada proudly offered shelter to more than 50,000 Americans, roughly half of whom ended up staying, despite President Jimmy Carter's unconditional pardon in 1977. Now grayer but just as fiery, the old-timers still gather at grungy watering holes to toss back drinks and rail against injustice. One recent evening at an Irish pub the talk turned to the American public's apparent disengagement from the war in Iraq. "It has not captured the hearts and minds of the American people because there is no draft," says Carolyn Egan, a trade unionist and Vietnam-era expat. "The people don't want to hear about it," Zaslofsky offered. "It's 'We want it over and Obama is going to make it go away'."

Yet Canada isn't the open-armed sanctuary it once was. True, the public is firmly against the Iraq War; according to a recent poll, three in five Canadians think the Americans should be granted permanent residency. And in March, Parliament voted for the second time in favor of a nonbinding resolution calling for a halt to deportations of deserters. But Harper, a Conservative, spoke in support of the Iraq War before assuming power and has uniformly rejected the petitioners' asylum claims. Last July, the government began deporting deserters.

Harper's immigration minister, Jason Kenney, once complained that the resisters were "bogus refugee claimants," clogging the courts with baseless applications. When one of the deserters' supporters, accompanied by a cameraman, cornered Kenney and pleaded with him not to separate Rivera from her Canadian child, Kenney replied, "Talk to the Obama administration," and got in his car and sped off. That hostility leaves immigration lawyers few options. "I don't think this is a situation that ultimately will be resolved in the courts," says Alyssa Manning, Rivera's attorney. "I'm just buying time for a political solution."

All of which means that the United States must now figure out what to do with the deserters who have already begun trickling back. No one expects Obama to issue them a pardon. They'll have to plead their cases before the military command. Prosecution rates of deserters have increased during the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, from 2 percent at the start to about 10 percent now (the remainder receive administrative punishments, like the loss of a stripe). With the help of a new electronic notification system that issues arrest warrants to local police, the military has been nabbing more deserters than ever, according to Lt. Col. Nathan Banks, an Army spokesman. Indeed, Rivera says Texas cops called her family members incessantly for months, even relatives she'd never met.

Still, Banks thinks the resister issue has been overblown. More than 20,000 soldiers have deserted the Army since 2001, peaking at 4,700 in 2007, the highest number in decades (the figure dropped to about 2,900 last year). Yet that amounts to less than 1 percent of the force. Contrast that with 1971, at the height of the Vietnam War, when some 33,000 soldiers, or 3.4 percent, abandoned their posts. "The vast majority of American soldiers serve their country admirably," says Banks. And those who flee, he adds, usually do so for family or financial reasons, not to make a political statement.

That doesn't mean the Canadian deserters will find a receptive audience if they're sent home. Robin Long was the first American soldier to be deported and received a 15-month sentence in the brig. Next up was Cliff Cornell, who got 12 months. Jeremy Hinzman could be removed at any moment, and Rivera—whose asylum application has already been rejected twice—may well follow. Her apartment remains a maze of moving boxes, a continual reminder of the legal limbo she finds herself in. She cringes at the thought of another long separation from her family, of bidding farewell to Toronto, a city she's come to love. "The best thing about Canada is it allowed me to get the strength to deal with the consequences" of deserting. Those consequences are just starting to unfold.