"I've been having some problems with what my military does and while I've put in for conscientious objector status, it will most likely get denied, leaving me in a real bad spot," the soldier writes. "I believe what the Army does is to commit murder . . . Unfortunately, the Army treats anyone with my feelings poorly. I can't talk to my buddies because, well, simply put, they hate me for what I'm trying to do. I was wondering what the process of political refuge entails and whether it's advisable to do this."

Given the grim political climate, what will Zaslofsky tell the man?

"I'll advise him to call," he says. "You never give up hope. We're not discouraged; we're angry." Indeed, as he speaks, his face grows red and defiant. "We have a Rush Limbaugh government here — this isn't how Canada is supposed to be."

Landry, Johnson, and supporter Helyn Fisher (center) talk on their porch in Toronto.
Ian Willms
Landry, Johnson, and supporter Helyn Fisher (center) talk on their porch in Toronto.
Deserter Ryan Johnson hopes to get asylum in Canada.
Ian Willms
Deserter Ryan Johnson hopes to get asylum in Canada.

The political landscape was different when he deserted in 1969.

Zaslofsky was drafted after graduating from the State University of New York at Stoney Brook. He reported for basic training but was disturbed by the stories he heard from soldiers returning from Southeast Asia. When news of the My Lai massacre broke, he asked his sergeant major for an explanation of the mayhem that led American soldiers to slaughter more than 300 unarmed civilians and toss them into a mass grave.

"'In war, bad things happen,'" he recalls the man telling him. "I asked myself, 'If I were in a situation like that, would I be the heroic guy who says, "Hey, stop, this is terrible," or would I join in because I was experiencing the same rage and frustration they were?' I felt I couldn't be sure."

When he received orders to go to Vietnam, he filed for conscientious objector status and was denied. In January 1970, he drove into Canada. While President Richard Nixon struggled to keep a lid on the anti-war protests roiling the States, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was welcoming American deserters by the thousands.

It's unclear whether today's deserters will be affected by America's now handing a president who campaigned on his conviction that the Iraq War was illegal, which is precisely the refrain of most war resisters, many of whom volunteered to go to Afghanistan but refused to serve in Iraq.

Stephen Zunes, a professor of politics and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, who has been active in the peace movement, says President Barack Obama is unlikely to make war deserters much of a priority in the near future. "I can't imagine he'd consider amnesty or anything until the war has wound down sometime in his second term," Zunes says. Even if Obama agrees with the resisters about the unfounded case for war in Iraq, he's still the commander in chief, and it remains a crime to desert one's comrades in a time of war.

Wayne Hall, an Army spokesman, emphasizes that desertion constitutes a punishable crime for good reason. "AWOL and desertion are crimes that, in a time of war, put other soldiers' lives at risk," he says. "Not only do these crimes go against Army values, they degrade unit readiness."

Hall questions why soldiers would enlist voluntarily and only later, once receiving orders to deploy, change their minds and cite political or philosophical reasons for deserting. The fact that large numbers of Americans fleeing the war in Vietnam — 33,000 in 1971 alone — were running from a compulsory draft while today's deserters are turning from the consequences of their own choices has earned these new deserters a scarlet letter in the minds of many Americans.

Rivera has been called a "parasite" and a "traitor" in comments posted to her blog, and Zaslofsky says he frequently receives letters from across the United States that not only call the recent deserters "pussies" and cowards who abandoned their brothers in arms, but also fools who enlisted deliberately only to shirk their duty.

Yet Zunes and other sociologists point out that unlike the draft-dodgers and resisters who fled north decades ago, many of whom were well-educated and had been able to put off the draft for several years by attending college, most recent deserters come from impoverished backgrounds and joined the military because it was the only way they could find to get an education and an above-minimum-wage job.

"What we're looking at now is a poverty draft," Zunes says, "a lot of people from rural areas or inner cities who simply don't have job opportunities or money for college — and the Army promises that."

Unlike their counterparts during Vietnam, who were often politically liberal and opposed the war to begin with, many of today's resisters were raised in conservative swaths of rural America. The majority of the dozen or so young resisters at the Toronto rally, for example, had begun their journeys as eager, patriotic recruits, only to undergo wrenching changes of heart that landed them in a foreign city that they'd hardly imagined, much less considered, inhabiting.

Take Joshua Key, who grew up in a trailer in the tiny town of Guthrie, Oklahoma. A burly welder with tattooed arms, Key, 30, grew up admiring his grandfather who fought in the Korean War. By age 12, he was shooting snakes with AK-47s and Glocks, and 10 years later he joined the Army after struggling to support his wife and children on his earnings from KFC. A country boy who recalls his wife saying, "You get 'em, Josh, before they get you. Even if it's a kid. They're terrorists, too," Key never dreamed that, after a tour in Iraq, he'd be living in self-imposed exile, the author of a book titled The Deserter's Tale.

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My Voice Nation Help
9 comments
Ryan
Ryan

Why isn't anyone commenting on the "morality" of the government who sent these young people to war. All I hear is crap about a business contract that was signed and how it is "cowardly" for these people to want to opt out of a war they were lied to about in the first place. Killing and maiming innocent people isn't for everyone. I feel for the American soldiers who were lied to, and are being sent to fight a special interest war in which the majority will see no benefits from, and especially feel for the majority of everyday Iraqi people who have not had a choice of a life for the last 20-30 years because of the West meddling in their affairs.

Ron
Ron

She enlisted for all the wrong reasons. I've heard this story before and even from a Marine Corps reservist who actually believed she would never be sent into a conflict. She was confident that her unit had rear area support duties and she could always get out of the corps if she was assigned to go into danger. Some people are quite adept at convincing themselves that military service is something other than the reality. They deny the realty and decide to believe some convenient fairytale. Some become deserters running to foreign nations to avoid the reality which rains upon them washing away all pretense. So to the youth of America I say, consider carefully what you do. Military service is not an easy ride to benefits and the educational benefits are paltry compared to the risks. Need an education, there are plenty of other ways to help yourself. Even the National Guard is no place to go just to get benefits. The cold war is over -- now we have endless "hot" conflicts around the globe. Plenty of opportunity to serve our country which is the reason one should serve in the military. Don't just sign up for the benefits, you could end up using your burial benefit earlier than you like. I served in the U.S. Air Force for a decade. I recommend service, but consider it carefully. When you do sign that contract -- live by your decision and fulfill your promise.

Devildog
Devildog

Coward, I am ashamed of this coward, make excuses because of the lack of commitment, you wanted all the good but none of the bad, come back to America and face the charges you coward

john
john

Anyone find it odd that Canada wont allow deserters to stay but fight to keep killers facing the death penalty?

Mike Wichrowski
Mike Wichrowski

I don't believe her for a minute, she joined for a free ride, hoping her 2)kids would keep her from serving in Iraq. She gambled and lost, now needs to face the music. I served in everything from NAM to the 1st. Gulf War (and 5 kids along the way). I may not have agreed or liked the situation but I was no COWARD! She could have gotten out, if she hated it so much, but WITH NO BENEFITS!

Jerry K
Jerry K

First and foremost. You signed the contract, you said you would do the duty and you lied. These people in the article ran when they said they wouldn't. They are truly cowards in every sense of the word. Even if you are a woman and you are serving you must expect that you will have to sacrifice, the main subject of the article expects everyone to sacrifice for her and then claims to be a victim when she sees how hard life can be for her to sacrifice. Girl grow up or shut up.

I served in the military 19 years ago, I knew what I signed up for and I now know that if my life was needed I signed a contract that said I would give it voluntarily.

In talking with my current 2 family members that are in the Army and USAF they both have stated they are proud to be serving and when they have been in theater they are doing the right things there.

These deserters deserve the full UCMJ thrown at them and be lined up in front of a firing squad. We are in a time of war, the punishment is clear.

Since the article threw in a political spin. I will do mine, I am a republican; ironically I grew up as a democrat and then saw the light that we make our own way. These people are the weak minded democrats that our wonderful new administration wants to serve. If our new administration doesn�t deal with these deserters per the UCMJ it will show the world just how weak we are.

We as Americans must find our back bone and be the leaders we need to be.

Joe Harrison
Joe Harrison

I agree with Andrew Noe that there's something wrong with Kim Rivera, which give me some sympathy for her. Basically i think she should've toughed out the time she signed up to serve, but i would also like to know whether or not she was given alternatives to running away. She clearly has some issues, and from personal experience, i can tell you that homesickness can be debilitating, and can sneak up on a person. With that in mind, a well run military would provide for one to get help and if necessary, a transfer to a position that they're more capable of, or need be, discharge. If you jump at your own shadow, you're a danger to yourself and your unit, and that trumps unit cohesion. Still, while a lack of such options could be considered extenuating circumstances, what she did was still wrong.

The ones i do support are those that got a stop loss order. They did their duty, fulfilled their obligations, and went back to their lives, only to be pulled back in, or not allowed to leave. What happened to a volunteer military? Aside from a slap on the wrist, i don't think those deserters deserve any punishment, they did everything they were supposed to, and the military simply decided to conscript them, which goes against the claims of an all volunteer military. This is especially galling when at the same time we're kicking gays out because you can't be gay and serve. Quite frankly, as long as you behave yourself and conduct yourself professionally, i don't see why you can't serve, particularly at a time when we need everyone we can get.

Andrew Noe
Andrew Noe

Upon reading the first part of the article, I really thought that I would have sympathy for the subjects involved. But I don't. The Vietnam-era deserters who didn't have the balls or were too rich or too smart to fight? Good riddance. They were never Americans to begin with. I bet they have as many problems and guilt as the men and women who stood up and served our country as honorably as most of our military personnal did. Better to live life bravely than be a coward, and make no mistake, they were and always will be cowards. There is no such thing as a brave coward. I know that's a harsh judgement, but one has to live by one's choices.As far as the modern day deserters are concerned: If one joins the Marines, you should know better. I noticed no Navy personnel were involved. The Air Force guy sounds like the usual fuck-up who got busted. He should be a politician because it sounds like he is a liar and a weasel.What is very disturbing about the article is the fact that Kim Rivera was even allowed in the Army. I can't believe that they are so desperate to think she would be a good soldier. This is what happens when the standards are so low that they would allow this to happen. "Boo-hoo, I joined the Army voluntarily to get free stuff and they sent me to a place where bad things happened."As far as I'm concerned, the Canadians can keep them all.

Scott Davis
Scott Davis

Typical. I wan't somebody to provide for me. I have to do what to get my benefits? I know I signed up for this deal, but I'm not doing that.

And know this lazy so and so is a victim.

That's why is country is going down the toilet.

Total BS.

 
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