THE DESERTERS | More soldiers are breaking ranks, raising questions of cowardice and conviction
by Jenny Dean
Toronto – Just before midnight July 4, 2006, as his fellow soldiers slept in the barracks, Justin Colby began to pack.
Fort Carson was quiet that time of night. Colby, two weeks shy of his 23rd birthday, felt his heart race as he stuffed clothes, a DVD player and his computer into a duffel bag. He left behind the fatigues, the bulletproof vest, the helmet, the trappings of a war he had signed up for but no longer believed in.
Colby's 2nd Infantry Division unit was heading west the next day for final training in California before being sent back to Iraq. But Colby went the opposite direction, driving 30 hours straight to his parents' house in rural Massachusetts, where he hid for two months before fleeing north to Canada…
Today he is a deserter living in Toronto, facing probable court-martial and up to five years in prison if he crosses back into the U.S.
While exact numbers are unknown, some say about 200 U.S. military deserters live in Canada. Some are underground. Others, like Colby, are seeking political refugee status in the Canadian courts, asking for permanent safe haven from a war they believe is no longer just and has turned criminal.
A soldier is considered a deserter after leaving his or her unit and staying away with the intent of not returning. Typically they are absent without leave, or AWOL, for up to 30 days before being designated a deserter.
Recently, though, the Army has had trouble identifying the number of its deserters. In late March it admitted to poor record keeping and to previously underreporting the number of soldiers who walked away.
Army figures released last week show 1,710 soldiers have deserted in the past six months. The numbers are rising as the war goes on: 3,101 walked away between October 2005 and October 2006; 2,659 walked away during the 12 months before.
At least 2,400 military personnel from other branches also deserted between October 2004 and October 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
Most deserters do not flee the country. A few who went to Canada have since turned themselves in. One was court-martialed and sentenced to eight months and released after 75 days.
Lt. Col. Bob Tallman, an Army spokesman at the Pentagon, says the new numbers represent less than 1 percent of the total fighting force.
"It's not something that is spinning out of control," he says, pointing to the more than 30,000 deserters and draft dodgers who fled to Canada during the Vietnam era in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Troubled soldiers have resources available to them, he says, including asking for conscientious objector status or seeking medical and psychiatric evaluations to determine whether they are fit for duty.
But asking for an evaluation "does not mean they would still not redeploy," he says. That decision rests with the chain of command.
To many, today's deserters in Canada – men and women from virtually every branch of the service, some with children in tow – are cowards and traitors to their country.
Others view them as symbols of conviction and a testament to an increasingly unpopular war. They have been elevated to international causes célèbres, interviewed by journalists from France, Germany, Australia, Japan, England.
"To be honest, I don't know how to define myself," Colby says.
"The Army did a lot of good things for me. It taught me responsibility. But I won't bite my tongue anymore and continue doing something I think is wrong."
Colby, who received a military commendation in Iraq, knows others had it worse. As a medic, the private first class never fired his weapon at an enemy. But he did see the results of war, both in the bodies of friends he logged into the morgue and of the Iraqi children killed in the crossfire by U.S. troops.
"I made my decision in Iraq that I would never do this again," Colby says. "I kept asking everyone, 'What are we doing here?' I was told to stop asking."
So into the starry July night he drove, his body relaxing with each passing mile. As the sun rose, he called his mother from the road.
"Well, I did it," he said.
Her silence spoke for all Tammy Colby and her husband, Raymond, could not say: their fear for their firstborn now that he was a fugitive, their disappointment he had not kept a promise to the Army, their worry he would die if he went back to Iraq, their disillusionment with a government that had ordered him there.
She wept when she stashed snacks in her son's backpack and put him on a bus to Canada. Her husband did not come. He has not made peace with his son's decision.
On Sept. 18, 75 days after leaving Fort Carson, Colby arrived in Toronto, having crossed the border without a raised eyebrow. He told immigration officers he was visiting friends.
As he stepped from the bus, he spotted a man with graying hair wearing a T-shirt that read "Let Them Stay."
Thirty-six years before, Lee Zaslofsky had made a similar decision to flee to Canada. The 62-year-old Vietnam War deserter extended a hand to the new generation. "You must be Justin."
A support system
The phone rings a lot these days at the office of the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto.
Zaslofsky thinks it's because the U.S. fighting force is on its second and third rotations to Iraq. The Army announced last week it was extending the length of duty in Iraq to 15 months from one year.
Two weeks ago, a frantic mother in Utah called to say her son's National Guard unit was about to be sent back to Iraq. "If we drive due north, will there be a place for us?" she asked.
As head of the grassroots campaign, Zaslofsky helps smooth the passage for those who come by offering emotional support, finding temporary housing, guiding them through the paperwork to apply for refugee status so they can get work permits.
His larger mission, though, is to lobby the Canadian government to allow the deserters to stay.
When Zaslofsky was a young soldier who deserted before being sent to Vietnam, it was easier. In 1969, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau welcomed American draft dodgers and deserters by allowing them to apply for residency at the border.
Today it is more complicated.
Across town, in a sparse hearing room, Sgt. Corey Glass of the Indiana National Guard sits quietly waiting to plead his case before the Immigration and Refugee Board. He is 24 but looks younger. His suit, bought two days before, hangs off his shoulders, making him look like a boy playing dress-up.
Like the dozen or so American soldiers who have come before him – Colby's case is expected to be heard soon – Glass will seek refugee status so he can stay in Canada long enough to become a permanent resident.
His attorney, Jeffry House, has argued the Iraq war violates international law and so the deserters should not have to participate.
Glass, who worked in military intelligence, says he was told to "sanitize" reports of civilian casualties or omit information of soldier misconduct.
So far every case to come before the board has failed.
House, 60, is undeterred. Like Zaslofsky, he came to Canada in 1970 after being drafted for the Vietnam War. He also never left Canada, going to law school, raising a family, building a prestigious legal practice.
He remembers when the first of the modern American deserters, Jeremy Hinzman, walked into his office in 2004 asking for help. It was like looking in a mirror.
"They are feeling all of the things I felt 40 years ago," he says. "It seems sad that so little has been learned."
Hinzman's case is considered the test case for all those stuck in legal limbo in Canada. Although his refugee claim was rejected at a lower level, House last month took it to the federal appeals court. No ruling has been made. But the lawyer is prepared to take it to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Economics of duty
The U.S. draft ended in 1973. Some say, though, it has been unofficially replaced by an economic draft.
"They go to Wal-Mart, go to McDonald's, or they go to the Army," says Zaslofsky, repeating what soldiers tell him.
Joshua Key was a welder and part-time pizza deliveryman in Oklahoma with a wife, two kids and a baby on the way. "I couldn't make ends meet," he says.
In May 2002, a recruiter in a strip mall offered a deal too good to refuse: steady pay, health insurance and, because he was a father, no combat duty.
But by fall when Key arrived at Fort Carson, the rumors of war had begun. He and others in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment figured if war came it would be over quickly.
And, in fact, when Key first arrived in Iraq, there was virtually no resistance. He says he was taught how to blow doors off houses and search for terrorists and caches of weapons. In 200 raids, the private first class says, he never found more than the occasional rifle.
All males over 5 feet tall were to be handcuffed and sent away for interrogation, he says. The women and children were to be held at gunpoint, Key says. He adds that any money or valuables were fair game and admits pocketing his share. After all, he figured, they were the enemy.
His uneasiness grew as the violence around him escalated. The tipping point came one day when his unit was traveling along the Euphrates River and happened upon the bodies of four decapitated Iraqis. He says he was ordered to find evidence of a firefight. He found none.
But he says he did see a panicked American soldier screaming "We (expletive) lost it here" as other soldiers kicked the heads like soccer balls.
"I'm not going to have no part of this," he says he told his commander. During a leave six months later, Key told his wife he wasn't going back: "I couldn't help but think we had become the terrorists. What if it was us and someone came breaking into our homes and held guns at our children?"
He asked the military for a reassignment. He was told he had two choices: Get on a plane to Iraq, or go to prison. "The only thing I could see to do was run."
His family hid for months in Philadelphia, but the constant fear drove him north to Canada. Today he, his wife, Brandi, and their four children live in rural Saskatchewan.
Key wrote a book called "The Deserter's Tale." Soon after it was published, he says, Army investigators began contacting people in Canada looking for him. They said they wanted to talk about his book.
"What should I do?"
Justin Colby is finally at ease. He shares a house in Toronto with three roommates. He has a new girlfriend and a job working for a photo supply company. His mother visited last month. His father stayed home.
Last summer Justin's dad, Raymond Colby, 46, was stopped by Monson, Mass., police for going 1 mph over the speed limit. The officer, explaining the department had been called by the Army, pleaded with him to turn in Justin. They said they didn't want to come looking for him.
But he also remembers finding his son sitting alone in the dark while on leave. "I can't sleep, Dad. I've got stuff in my head I can't get out."
The older man felt helpless. "Dad," his son once said, "if I go back, I'm gonna die. What should I do?"
Justin quit high school between his junior and senior years. He got his GED but no job. After the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he started talking to recruiters. His family thought the Army might be what he needed to gain maturity.
He enlisted in the fall of 2003 after being told the terrorist attacks and the Iraq war were connected. "I thought (Iraqis) were the bad guys and we should kill them all. It was like a video game."
Colby flourished in his first posting in South Korea. Then he was reassigned to Iraq.
When Colby returned from his tour in Iraq, his father saw troubling changes. His son had lost weight; he was agitated, hardened.
Colby met a woman in Colorado, and within weeks they were married. Just as quickly the marriage fell apart. They have a son together. Colby says he is trying to hold onto his parental rights from Canada.
In Toronto, the other deserters sometimes gather for dinner or drinks to stave off loneliness. Colby rarely joins them. He stays in touch with soldiers still in Iraq through MySpace .com. He once got a message from one of his buddies: "Good luck in Canada. Don't be a stranger."
"It was a big deal leaving my country," Colby says, admitting he doesn't know what he'll do if his refugee status is denied.
He just knows he can't go home again.
The U.S. Army reports that 42 soldiers applied for conscientious objector status in 2006, and 33 were approved.
According to the Army, a soldier may apply if he or she is "sincerely opposed because of religious or deeply held moral or ethical beliefs to participating in war in any form." Approval under those conditions would release them from the Army.
A soldier can also apply for non-combat duty for the same reasons.
In either case, political, philosophical or sociological beliefs are not considered.
A conscientious objector must be opposed to all wars, not specific ones.
Because enlistment is voluntary, new recruits must sign statements saying they are not conscientious objectors. They can later apply saying their opposition grew over time, but such objections may be harder to prove.
Applicants submit their conscientious objector application in writing and are not permitted to appear before the review board.
Once an application is denied, it will not be reconsidered.
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