Pablo Paredes, an ex-Navy petty officer who refused to board the Iraq-bound USS Bonhomme Richard in December 2003, estimates that up to 40,000 U.S. servicemen and -women have either gone AWOL (absent without leave) or deserted since 2000. The number of deserters from the Iraq War alone is estimated at around 10,000. The GI Rights Helpline—where The Bronx, New York, resident works—gets 40,000 calls a year—half from military personnel who’ve gone AWOL and want advice on their options. Paredes assumes that at least the same number do not call.
“Every time we pick up the phone, it’s a horror story,” Paredes relates. “They’ve all seen something incredibly traumatic; they’ve watched friends die, civilians die, women assaulted and raped. They’ve had enough. Some of them have been officially diagnosed with psych issues,” Paredes continues, “and the military tries to get them to suck it up and send them straight back to Iraq. Some have done three, four or even five tours of duty, and they are not going back to risk their lives a sixth time. They don’t want to lose their lives for an insane war.”
Court-martialed for refusing to ship out to the Gulf, Paredes was administratively discharged after receiving a relatively light sentence and serving no time in the brig.
The Pentagon is evasive about revealing numbers. By 2004 the Defense Department admitted to 8,500 deserters—not including Marines. On December 2, 2006, CNN reported that 9,500 servicemen and -women had deserted since the start of the Iraq War and that 2,500 to 3,000 had gone AWOL. While anyone absent without leave for more than 30 days is technically classified a deserter, Paredes has had callers who have been on the lam for six months without being officially listed.
The numbers involved are the highest since the Vietnam War, during which an estimated 1.5 million soldiers deserted and went AWOL. Back then, George W. Bush moved to Texas and used his family connections to dodge combat duty while less-well-connected Americans flocked by the thousands to Canada. Liberal Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau rolled out the red carpet for them, saying, “Canada should be a refuge from militarism.” Up to 100,000 went north, 30,000 settling there permanently.
One of them, Jeffry House, became a lawyer and now handles the cases of over 30 contemporary GIs who have applied for refugee status to avoid service in Iraq. He estimates that there are another 200 in Canada who have not yet applied formally.
Staff Sergeant Camilo Mejía was the first combat veteran who refused to return to Iraq, staying Stateside to denounce the war. He gave himself up and received a year sentence, but is still fighting. “I’m appealing my conviction, so I’m still in the military, although I’m not in uniform or being bossed around by a military superior,” says Mejía, who seems haunted by the things he did and saw in Iraq.
“It’s a pretty messed- up thing, so you can’t really say I have no regrets. But after all, I’m in a better position. The experience has allowed me to grow, to speak out against the war, to educate others. I’ve had some contact with people from my squad in Iraq, and they have been very supportive. They know it was not a matter of cowardice, because we have been through so much together, and I did my job as a squad leader. I proved myself to them in combat; they know me very well.”
Mejía, the son of Sandinista revolutionaries, ruled out fleeing. “I weighed the idea of Canada, but I also had dual Nicaraguan and Costa Rican citizenship, so I could have gone back to either of those countries and had a comfortable middle-class life. It was not just to save my own skin. The best way to make my voice heard was to go public and take my place in court, and eventually it may go all the way to the Supreme Court, if the military refuses to recognize my rights as a conscientious objector.”
In this war, the stakes are higher for those crossing the border. These resisters are a new and tougher breed. Unlike most Vietnam-era servicemen, they volunteered for the military, and most expressed their willingness to go to equally dangerous combat zones in Afghanistan, but they all unite in condemning the war in Iraq as immoral, illegal and futile. And they should know: Many of them have been there.
By 1969, all an American GI had to do was cross the border and register as an immigrant, since Trudeau’s government guaranteed no one would be sent back. Since then, Canada has raised its immigration barriers. Would-be immigrants have to apply from their own countries and are required to show education, training and financial assets before emigrating to Canada—a process that can take two years.
Today arriving GIs must apply for political asylum on the grounds of persecution for refusing to take part in an illegal war. Three years ago, former Private First Class Jeremy Hinzman was the first American to apply for this status. His case is being laboriously fought by the Canadian government, which is now conservative and has so far persuaded the courts to ignore the question of whether or not the Iraq War is illegal. The lower level Immigration and Refugee Boards and courts have ruled against Hinzman, who, if successful, would reportedly be Canada’s first ever certified political refugee from the U.S.
Hinzman headed north with his wife and toddler at the beginning of 2004. Now working as a bike courier in Toronto, he has already survived several of Ontario’s ferocious winters. “The government didn’t roll out a red carpet for us,” Hinzman says, “but we like it up here, and there’s a lot of support for what we have done.”
The ex-soldier adds, “We’ve adapted pretty well. The fact that there is free healthcare is a big plus, but in general it’s not that different from home. Everyone has equal opportunities. We’re not rich, but we’re not poor—comfortable.”
Hinzman has no regrets. He joined the Army for the college funding, but was so horrified by the bloodthirsty values of basic training that he applied for conscientious objector status. Pending his appeal, he served in a noncombatant post with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan. After returning home, Hinzman heard that his application had been denied and that he was being deployed to Iraq. So he flew the coop to the Great White North.
“It was an illegal war,” Hinzman insists. “We did the right thing by deciding to fight it. Canada refused to fight in the war. To me that said they thought the war was illegal and immoral. When we came here, we knew that the chances were we may not be able to go back to America.”