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When war in not an option

By Jennifer McPhee

Patrick and Jill Hart sit across from each other in a noisy downtown Toronto coffee shop, recounting the past year of their lives. They used to be a fervent, flag-waving military couple, the kind of Americans who simply do not question their President. Patrick was a loyal sergeant, a nine-and-a-half-year veteran of the United States Army. But things he was hearing about Iraq "didn't sit well" with him, he says. One year ago, roughly one month before he was scheduled to leave his post in Kansas and deploy to Iraq, he decided to desert.

Patrick Hart is one of 28 Iraq deserters who have applied for refugee status in Canada, but at least 150 more are living here illegally. All told, more than 8,000 members of the U.S. military have deserted since the Iraq war began. Desertion charges can result in penalties ranging from a dishonourable discharge to a court martial and jail time.

Patrick's story, and others like it, led the United Church to add its name last June to a growing list of organizations that endorse the War Resisters Support Campaign. The WRSC is a coalition of organizations and individuals who provide deserters with basic material needs when they arrive, raise money for their legal costs and pressure the government to let them stay.

Patrick's doubts about going to Iraq began while he was deployed in Kuwait from April 2003 to March 2004. Several soldiers he knew returned from Iraq with horrific stories about "less than honourable things that soldiers were forced to do," says the 32-year-old.

One longtime friend, who took part in raids of Iraqi homes looking for weapons of mass destruction, is not the same person anymore, Patrick says. "He told me, `I'm not proud of what I did. My mom is proud of me, my dad is proud of me. But if they knew exactly what I did, they wouldn't be proud of me.'"

When Patrick returned to Kansas, younger soldiers started asking him questions about why they were going to Iraq when there were no weapons of mass destruction and no proven link between Iraq and 9/11. He didn't have any answers and says he didn't want to be responsible for their deaths.

But he didn't tell his wife about his growing doubts. A civilian employee working for Patrick's company commander, Jill was devoted to the military. Patrick believed that if she knew he was considering deserting, she would have turned him in. So he planned a weekend trip to his hometown, Buffalo, N.Y., before going to Iraq. Jill stayed behind to attend a briefing about how to notify families in a mass casualty situation.

The day he was supposed to return, Patrick -- who had already crossed the border into Canada -- called Jill to tell her he wasn't coming home. He tried hard to explain, but Jill "didn't want to hear it," she says. "You signed a contract. This is what you're going to do for the rest of your life."

But then she says she received a call from a senior officer threatening their health-care benefits. Their young son, Rian, has epilepsy, and the officer remarked that he hoped "Rian doesn't have another seizure." Then, she says, the officer suggested that she go along with a plan to pretend she had been assaulted to lure Patrick home. Jill's confidence in the military was utterly betrayed and her husband's passionate explanations began ringing in her ears. She and Rian joined him in Canada.

While Patrick loves it here, being a refugee claimant can be difficult. He hasn't found a job after a year. So the couple spends much of their free time volunteering, and they have a strong support network. Canada has become their home.

"Every day I get to spend with my husband and son is priceless to me because I could have been a widow," she says. "I'm much prouder of my husband for putting down his weapon and walking away than I would have been seeing six marines carrying him off the plane."

The United Church has a long history when it comes to supporting U.S. military deserters. Back in the 1960s, it was instrumental in convincing Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to let thousands of Vietnam War deserters and draft dodgers stay in Canada. At the time, Trudeau denounced the war and famously said, "Canada should be a refuge from militarism." No one today expects to hear similar words from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and churches don't have the influence they once did. Supporters of the war resisters campaign argue that the majority of Canadians oppose the war in Iraq and support the war resisters. Whether this sentiment will translate into asylum for those who resist the war on moral grounds remains to be seen.

At least two cases involving war resisters were turned down by Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board last year. A federal court upheld the decision, and the joint case is now under appeal. If the Canadian government decides to forcibly evict war resisters, the United Church may take a stronger stand than it has to date, says Heather Macdonald, who co-ordinates the church's refugee efforts. For now, the United Church is simply "encouraging people who are concerned to write Parliament, to write their local papers," says Macdonald.

Sgt. Corey Glass spent five months in Iraq before making the same decision as Patrick Hart. He was a military intelligence analyst, scrutinizing video footage, reading maps and documenting everything that happened in the combat zones. He knew exactly how many soldiers and civilians were killed each day, as well as where and how. He found the ever-growing body count and images deeply disturbing. He saw a country ruined by American bombs, and people on both sides dying.

A particular video proved to be the breaking point. It showed Iraqi children talking about their dream to become suicide bombers because of the atrocities committed by American soldiers. "They were saying we killed their families," says Glass. "They were saying we're stealing their land. That's kind of what it looks like we're doing. I see their side of it."

Soon afterward, he was granted stress leave. When his leave was up, he packed to return to Iraq, but couldn't get on the plane. It wasn't a fear of death that stopped him; it was that he could see no justifiable or legal reason for what was happening. "I thought, am I going to burn in hell for this?"

It wasn't the first time that Glass, 24, made his feelings about serving in the Iraq war known. When he enlisted in the National Guard four years ago, he believed he was joining a humanitarian branch of the military that would help out during floods, hurricanes, riots and other national disasters, and fight only if troops landed on the shores of North America. When he was put on a roster to go to Iraq, he tried to remove his name, saying he disagreed with the war.

After deserting, Glass spent seven months camping and couch surfing in various states before finding out about the war resisters campaign in Canada and crossing the border. He's hoping to get a work permit and says he's "looking for a job where I don't have to kill anyone or help kill anyone."

Both Glass and the Harts face an uncertain future, but are optimistic. "The Canadian people will make the right decision," says Jill. "They'll do the right thing. My faith is with them."

Jennifer McPhee is a freelance writer based in Toronto.
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