By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The case of Robin Long, a soldier from Boise, Idaho, who last summer became the first deserter to be deported from Canada, provides a preview of what lies in store for deserters upon their return home. Long was handed over to officials at Fort Carson, Colorado, last August, pleaded guilty to desertion and is serving a 15-month prison sentence at Miramar Naval Brig near San Diego. More recently, Cliff Cornell, a deserter from Arkansas who lived in British Columbia since leaving his unit four years ago when he was ordered to Iraq, opted to return to the United States in February after exhausting his legal options. He was arrested by American border agents and sent to Fort Stewart, Georgia, to face charges. Meanwhile, a former soldier from Cleveland, Ohio, named Andre Shepherd went AWOL from his base in Germany and is requesting political asylum from German authorities. His case will test a 2004 European Union measure that requires member countries to grant asylum to soldiers resisting unlawful wars and, if it succeeds, will likely result in a flood of American deserters arriving in Germany.
As the community of war resisters in Toronto braces for legal blows, deserters from California, Connecticut, Texas, Oklahoma, Florida and New Jersey continue to rely on the help of Canadian anti-war activists and American Vietnam-era draft-dodgers. The War Resisters Support Campaign, led by New York-born Vietnam deserter Lee Zaslofsky, organized tonight's rally for Rivera and two other Toronto resisters facing deportation. A member of parliament is here to speak, as well as a local city councilman and various deserters and activists. All watch, silent, as Rivera attempts to describe the emotional and philosophical about-face that led her to abandon her unit and flee to Canada. It's an internal sea change she often finds difficult to articulate. So tonight, less than a week before her scheduled deportation date, she relies on the last stanzas of her poem.
"I was becoming something that wasn't me, that I didn't stand for as a person," she says, choking up. Then she makes a plea: "Canada, I am here. Will you take the time and the heart to understand what I am now fighting for, with words and not a gun?"
In October 2006, Private First Class Rivera deployed to Iraq with the 704th Support Battalion out of Fort Carson. She arrived at Forward Operating Base Loyalty in eastern Baghdad to find a different war than the one she expected. Instead of driving a truck, she was guarding a gate. Instead of doing "lots of rebuilding" as she'd thought the Army would be doing, most of the troops seemed to be dedicating their time to raids on civilian homes. She didn't like the way a lot of guys acted when they returned from patrol. "We tore their house up!" she recalls one soldier saying, jocular and triumphant. She observed that he seemed pretty happy about it. "Hell fuckin' yeah!" he replied. "They prolly killed my buddy." Rivera began to imagine what it would be like if foreign soldiers broke into her apartment in the middle of the night and dragged her and her husband, Mario, out of bed in front of their 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. She also disliked the fact that "Hajji" was her unit's preferred term for Iraqis. She didn't know the word was a title for a Muslim who'd made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca; all she knew was that the way they said it made it sound just as mean as "sand nigger."
At the same time, Rivera missed her husband and children more than she ever thought she would. She had always loved them, but one of the things that gnawed away at her was that on some level, her decision to enlist—even if it meant going to an unknown and dangerous place—stemmed from a desire to escape her family situation.
She and Mario's money crunch had forced them to shuttle between their parents' homes in Mesquite while trying to save for their own place. This made for friction. Rivera felt that her mother—an insurance agent who became the sole breadwinner when Rivera's father was hurt at his munitions factory job—resented her and felt burdened by the young family. To make matters worse, tension developed between her mother and Mario. Rivera, who is Anglo but took her husband's surname, was convinced that her mother refused to accept Mario because he's the son of first-generation Mexican and Honduran immigrants.
As she worried about money and became exhausted from juggling work and kids and family feuds, Rivera grew increasingly stressed. The more frustrated she became, the more frequently she became enraged at her husband. If he was working, she felt unsupported at home. When he took time off to be with her and the kids, she grew angry because he wasn't making more money. But when she lost her temper, he'd just stare straight ahead and refuse to fight, which fueled her fury. She'd hurl a shoe or two at his head or fling a radio out the window.