The Deserter

March 29, 2011

By Chris Cannon

In February 2006, Rodney Watson-a 28-year-old Specialist in the U.S. Army-was standing guard at the entrance to Q-West Forward Operating Base, north of Tikrit, when an emergency vehicle delivered an Iraqi civilian who’d been shot through the stomach. A tense search found no explosives or weapons, but since the man was not an informant, Watson was ordered to turn him away. He radioed the tower, requesting that someone at least come out and patch the man’s wound; the request was denied. Over the next hour, Watson was forced to ignore his cries for help, his pleas to Allah, as he bled out into the dust.

“Before I deployed,” Watson says, “I remember seeing on the TV all these soldiers handing out stuffed bears, showing them with children and stuff, helping people. Then I witnessed with my own eyes-they told me to turn a man away who was in need of help. I was not allowed to do anything. No one would help me. I watched that guy die just because we had no use for him.”

Watson could not have envisioned such a scenario when, in 2004, he enlisted as a cook. Taught to run a dining facility when he arrived in Iraq, he instead found himself searching vehicles for explosives, detaining prisoners, and operating X-ray equipment-tasks for which he’d never been trained.

His fellow soldiers, he says, were weary, drugged, and violent. One scrawled Bible verses all over his helmet and vest. “He was always wanting to go out there and kill,” Watson remembers. “He actually thought he was one of God’s warriors. A lot of these guys think they’re doing some type of God’s will. They were beating these civilians just because they had a bad day. They would call them ‘sand nigger,’ kicking and beating them right in front of me. You couldn’t be a snitch-if you rat somebody out, you’re a dead man. All my life I’ve experienced being pulled over for being black and having guns put to my head by cops. Now I’m in Iraq, side by side with the same type of people who hate me in my own country.”

Eight months after the standoff outside the base, Watson returned to his family in Kansas City, Kansas. With only a few months left on his three-year contract, he spent his leave among family and friends, dreaming of opening a diner after his discharge. But relief was short-lived; His unit was slated for redeployment, making him a victim of the military’s “stop-loss” policy, a procedure used to extend soldiers’ enlistment periods indefinitely to prevent a shortage of manpower. Watson would be serving well past his original commitment-worse, he would spend that time back in Iraq.

“My conscience was tormenting me. I feel like that blood, that splatter, is still on my hands because I’m not grabbing that soldier and saying, ‘Stop!’ I’m not reporting what he’s doing. There’s a time when if you see something going on you don’t agree with, it doesn’t agree with you mind, body, and soul, you gotta say no.”

The day Watson was supposed to return to Fort Hood, Texas-a stopover for thousands of troops heading overseas-he hugged his family and said he’d call soon. Then he bought a one-way ticket to Vancouver, and for two days rode a bus north to Canada in search of a future that didn’t involve bullets.

A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law,” wrote Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience, “is that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed.”

Whether you call them deserters or war resisters, they were once welcome in Canada. Before the American draft ended, in 1972, between 50,000 and 100,000 draftees sought sanctuary in Canada, welcomed by the public and largely ignored by the government. After Jimmy Carter awarded them amnesty in 1977, about half remained.

It’s doubtful the 200 or so American soldiers now hiding in Canada will receive such grace. Today’s resisters were not drafted into service, and the U.S. military does not consider a stance against a specific war grounds for conscientious objector status. No trick of semantics can bury the fact these men and women-most of whom have settled in Toronto, and, like Watson, have already served a combat tour but refuse to return for reasons of conscience-are deserters. They signed up to fight but decided to run. Their reasons, as far as legal protections go, are moot, but only because soldiers’ legal protections assume that their fight is justified and they won’t be asked to perform illegal or immoral acts, such as invading a nation under false pretences.

This is to say nothing of the “economic draft.” A large portion of American soldiers enlist out of necessity, joining the military to escape a life of poverty, drugs, and violence. “The main reason that most of them [American soldiers] are in Iraq, that I met, was because they had family to take care of,” says Watson. “They have no options. They were just like me, most of them: they loved their country, they were patriotic. But they’re there because of a need to support their family. Just live the American dream.”

The bullet lodged in Rodney Watson’s right leg did not come from an Iraqi soldier. It came from a house party when he was 14 in Kansas City, the seat of Wyandotte County-known locally as “Crimedot County.” The city’s murder rate is six times the national average. “Some guys got into a fight,” he recalls. “The next thing you know they came back and shot the place up. I’ve seen what a bullet does to the flesh at a young age. It’s something no child should see.”

Watson was lucky, scoring a coveted union job supervising auto shipments after high school, which gave him a lifeline for seven years until the economy tanked in 2002. Out of work and unable to make more than $8.50 an hour, he looked at the drugs and crime that had swallowed up many of his friends. “This is not the life for me,” he decided, “selling death to my own people. I thought I could be out here selling crack, hurting people, or I could sign up and help these young men and women who were risking their lives in some far-off land.”

After enlisting, Watson trained at Fort Hood, giving him a preview of post-war life. Exiting his barracks one day, he heard a yelp and a thump, turning the corner to find the crumpled body of a soldier who had leapt to his death. It was not uncommon. Fort Hood averages roughly one suicide per month, and in 2010 set a record with 22 confirmed suicides-twice the previous year’s tally-including four in one week. Small wonder the prospect of returning sent him in the opposite direction.

On November 10, 2006, he crossed the Canadian border, taking at its word the inscription on the Peace Arch: “May these gates never be closed.” After collecting his thoughts in the Cambie Hostel for several weeks, he met with the War Resisters Support Campaign, an information and advocacy network begun in 2004; they helped him file for asylum and obtain a work permit. Such groups help with legal assistance, public education campaigns, and media exposure, but the practical effects amount to little more than moral support. Asylum seekers like Watson are ensnared in a jungle of conflicting policies that protect nations at the expense of those who defend them.

For two years, Watson worked construction, waited on his application for refugee status, and discovered Vancouver. “They were good days because a lot of people welcomed me with open arms. I never in my life experienced strangers, especially of different races, open arms to you.” One night, he met the woman who would become his wife. They were soon living together and had a child. Life, for all its uncertainty, was good.

But his choices were catching up with him. The army had notified his family that he was a wanted man. Returning to the U.S. was a bleak prospect: prison time was almost certain, and a dishonourable discharge would amount to a felony conviction-the legal equivalent of murder or rape. He would lose all his benefits, be unable to obtain student loans or own firearms, and have difficulty finding work. In some American states, those dishonourably discharged can no longer vote. Accepting a lighter punishment and returning to Iraq-where he once, on orders from the tower, locked his sights on an 11-year-old boy-was equally unthinkable. His father, a minister who had himself been granted conscientious objector status during the Vietnam War, had worried about Rodney’s safety when he enlisted, and now was concerned that he was throwing away his future.

In August 2009, Watson’s application for political asylum was denied. The date chosen for his deportation was, of all days, September 11. More than America’s most solemn day, it was the anniversary of the event that led to the Iraq War. Consoled his tearful partner, he considered his options.

Minister Ric Matthews has spent years catering to the homeless at the First United Church in the Downtown Eastside. On September 18, 2009, he welcomed a different kind of refugee, escorting Rodney Watson, his baby, and his soon-to-be wife (they married in the church the following Valentine’s Day) to the building’s sole apartment. After meeting Watson at a press conference, Matthews had convinced the church to grant the family sanctuary in the one-bedroom unit secured behind more than a half-dozen locked doors. But even there Watson isn’t safe. “The sanctuary status that Rodney is living under is not a legal right,” says Sarah Bjorkas of the War Resisters Support Campaign. “Technically, Canadian Border Services could go in and take him, but the public-relations image of the government would take a beating.” To Bjorkas’s knowledge, Watson is the only deserter taking refuge in a Canadian church.

“Military deserters from the United States are not genuine refugees under the internationally accepted meaning of the term,” says Johanne Nadeau, spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada. “Our obligation to protect genuine refugees means we must ensure the system is there for those who truly need it.” That these soldiers volunteered for service, rather than being drafted, has brought them a boot rather than open arms.

Robin Long was among them. One of the 59 deserters besides Watson who have applied for asylum since the beginning of the Iraq War, Long was the first to have his appeal denied. (To date, five cases have been publicly heard; all have been rejected.) In July 2008, he was extradited from Nelson, B.C., to a San Diego cell. “When I joined the Army in 2003, I felt honored to be serving my country,” Long wrote from prison to a newly elected Barack Obama. “I was behind the president. I thought it was an honorable venture to be in Iraq. I was convinced by the lies of the Bush administration just like Congress and a majority of Americans. But just because I joined the Army doesn’t mean I abdicated my ability to evolve intellectually and morally. When I realized the war in Iraq was a mistake, I saw refusing to fight as my only option.”

Canadians seem to sympathize: polls show nearly two-thirds support granting American deserters permanent-resident status. In June 2008 and March 2009, the House of Commons passed an NDP private member’s motion calling on the government to cease deporting American deserters, but the nonbinding bill was lost in the Conservative wilderness. In 2010, Bill-C440, amending the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to allow them to stay, failed a second reading by seven votes.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Immigration Minister Jason Kenney have expressed disdain for the soldiers Kenney calls “bogus refugee claimants.” Kenney went so far as to issue “Operational Bulletin 202” in July 2010, reminding immigration officers of the criminal nature of desertion and instructing them to flag these soldiers’ files, bringing condemnation from Amnesty International and Members of Parliament. (Kenney’s and Harper’s offices would not respond to requests for comments.) “I’m very, very disappointed the Conservative government has been so rigid in its response,” says Libby Davies, the NDP Member of Parliament who represents the riding of Vancouver East where Watson has taken refuge. “Jason Kenney seems like he cannot relate to this issue.”

“I can understand where he’s coming from,” says Watson. “They’re trying to protect their borders. There’s nothing wrong with being suspicious of people trying to get into your country. But he’s trying to say we’re cowards or we’re criminals. Check my record-you won’t find a criminal record on me. I served my country with honour. I’m a decorated soldier, and that’s something no one can take from me. No one can say I didn’t go. No one can say I didn’t risk my life.”
For now, Watson is grateful to pace the grounds of the church, receiving visits from media, students, politicians, and parents of fallen soldiers who support his fight. He spends his days working on a memoir and posting on his Facebook blog “War Resister in Sanctuary,” while waiting for the slow gears of Immigration to chew on his application for asylum on humanitarian grounds. When his wife and child visit her parents in Port Coquitlam, he joins by telephone, dreaming of the day he can watch his son run in a park rather than down the church’s worn, tiled halls.

“I’m not here because I’m a coward and I can’t face the realities of war,” he says. “I’m here because this war is unjust. I’m not afraid of losing my life in battle. If I was a fearful man, if I had fear in my heart, I wouldn’t be able to speak up. I wouldn’t be able to put my face on TV or in a magazine. I’m not running. I’m not hiding. This is what I’m standing for.”

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