Military Deserters Once Again Flock to Canada

Looks like this time they picked the wrong country.

At FOB Loyalty, when Rivera recalled those heated moments she felt horrible and missed her family even more. She got in trouble with her commanders for spending an excessive amount of time talking to Mario on the phone, though one night the habit may have saved her life. One mortar explosion after another rocked the base while she was talking to her husband. When she returned to her bunk, a sizable piece of shrapnel lay on her pillow.

The final turning point came one day in December. An Iraqi man walked through the gate with a little girl, and Rivera moved to frisk them. She assumed the man was coming to file a claim for reparations in exchange for damage caused by American forces. Rivera stopped dead when she turned to the girl. The child looked to be the same age as her daughter, Rebecca. The toddler screamed and wailed inconsolably, her cheeks streaked with tears. Rivera felt sickened by the girl's cries and wondered what had happened to her and why her mother wasn't there. Long after the pair had disappeared, Rivera couldn't stop thinking about them. Seeing that little Iraqi girl weeping was a watershed moment for her. From then on, she couldn't shake the feeling that everything was wrong. The bloodshed. The loss. The fact that her children were on the other side of the world, learning and saying and doing new things each day that she was missing and would never be able to recapture.

She came home in January for two weeks' leave, and she and Mario took the kids to Texas to visit their families. Rivera had trouble sleeping. Every time a car door slammed, she'd flatten herself onto the floor. Her mother-in-law, Reyna Rivera, recalls her having panic attacks and crying on the floor, begging God for a way to avoid another stint in Iraq. "She wasn't stable enough to handle that, and she shouldn't have been there in the first place," Reyna says. "To think of her going back—my God."

The Riveras’ third child, Katie, was born in Toronto last fall.
Ian Willms
The Riveras’ third child, Katie, was born in Toronto last fall.
Ryan Johnson,
who deserted from Fort Irwin, California, and is seeking refuge in Canada, says
much of his family
has disowned him
because of his
Ian Willms
Ryan Johnson, who deserted from Fort Irwin, California, and is seeking refuge in Canada, says much of his family has disowned him because of his decision.


See more photos of Rivera, Johnson and the War Resisters Support Campaign in our slideshow here.

Mario, searching for options online, came across the Web site for the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto. He called Zaslofsky, the coordinator, who told him the organization would help provide legal aid and temporary housing. The idea at first struck Rivera as ridiculous. They didn't know a soul in Canada. At the same time, she couldn't bear the thought of going back to Iraq. Deliberating and praying over where to go and how to hide, she let her scheduled flight date out of the United States pass. She knew that 30 days after going AWOL she'd be listed as a deserter, the authorities at Fort Carson would alert law enforcement and a warrant would likely be issued for her arrest. She didn't want to live as a wanted criminal in her own country, so Canada began to look like a better option. While her commanders searched for her by calling relatives and left messages on her phone recommending she return within the month to receive more lenient punishment, she and Mario loaded the kids into their Geo Prizm and drove north. On February 18, 2007, they reached Niagara Falls and drove over the Rainbow Bridge. It was a gray, dreary day as they made their way across the river gorge. Dark storm clouds gathered behind them, but as they emerged on the other side of the bridge in Ontario, the sun came out. Rivera took it as a sign that they did the right thing.


It's late January, and the past few days have brought grim news to Lee Zaslofsky's small office on the fourth floor of a brick building that houses unions and peace organizations. Along with Rivera, two other deserters living in Toronto have been denied residency and are scheduled to be deported by the end of the month. To add insult to injury, immigration minister Jason Kenney was quoted on the news complaining that the "bogus refugee claimants" were clogging up the courts with futile petitions. Zaslofsky's group has declared the last stretch of January "Let Them Stay Week" and is holding nightly rallies and advocacy events, as well as pushing around-the-clock phone calls to the immigration ministry and the Prime Minister's Office requesting the government reconsider its view that desertion does not merit shelter in Canada.

On this overcast afternoon, Zaslofsky, a mustachioed 60-something with bright blue eyes and thinning brown hair, sits at his desk, typing furiously. The wall behind him is papered with posters. One, an image of a soldier with his back turned, reads, "Stop the deportations now" and "War resisters welcome here." Another advises, "Cut and run. In an immoral war, it's the thing to do." Amid the fliers are several photographs. One shows Jeremy Hinzman, a paratrooper from South Dakota who served in the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. In 2004, after eight months in Afghanistan and with orders to deploy to Iraq, Hinzman fled north with his wife and 1-year-old son to become the first deserter of his generation to seek political refuge in Canada. Nearby is a picture of Joshua Key, a welder and father of four from Oklahoma who served seven months in Iraq with the 43rd Combat Engineer Company and deserted in 2004. A photograph of a smiling Robin Long before he was deported and imprisoned serves as a sobering reminder of what's at stake.

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