Years after crossing the border to avoid heading back to war, former US soldiers live in fear of being deported home to face potential jail time for desertion
It’s been more than a decade since Joshua Key chose to cross into Canada rather than continue as a US soldier in the Iraq war. But, at times, he still feels as though he’s fighting a war – one he describes as “a war against my post-traumatic stress disorder, a conflict against my contract with the military and a battle with the Canadian government”.
He arrived in Canada in 2005 – soon after Canada’s then government declared it would not actively participate in the US-led war in Iraq – following in the footsteps of the up to 90,000 Americans who sought refuge in Canada during the Vietnam war era.
But unlike those who poured into Canada in the 1960s and 70s, the estimated 200 Iraq war resisters who arrived decades later found little government support in their bid to stay in Canada. Years after crossing the border, the 15 or so known resisters who remain in Canada live lives coloured with uncertainty, the threat of being deported home to face potential jail time for desertion looming constantly over their new lives.
Now they’re calling on Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, and his Liberal government to reverse years of government antagonism and allow them to stay in Canada permanently.
As Key seeks to describe the moment when he knew he had to desert the US army, he points an image that continues to haunt him from his eight-month stint in Iraq.
A smiling seven-year-old girl had begun approaching him daily while he was on patrol in Ramadi, asking for water and bread. He couldn’t say no, handing over his army rations to her for weeks. “Then one day the little girl comes running across the street with a smile on her face and her head exploded like a mushroom.” She had been killed by a bullet, just 15ft from where Key was standing.
During a two-week break in the United States, he asked a military lawyer if there was any way to avoid returning to Iraq. “He said, ‘Soldier, you’ve got two choices: you either get back on that plane and go to Iraq or you’re going to prison,’” Key told an audience in Winnipeg in 2009.
Key opted for a third way – packing his life into a U-Haul and fleeing with his wife and three kids. After more than a year spent in hiding in Philadelphia, the family moved to Canada.
Shortly after, the Conservatives came to power in Canada, intent on cracking down on the hundreds of Iraq war resisters in Canada. A government order branded them as criminals, leaving some to be deported to face up to 24 months in jail while those who stayed in Canada were denied permanent residency. Others voluntarily returned to the United States.
As he campaigned to be prime minister, Trudeau hinted he would do things differently. Speaking last year in Winnipeg, he criticised the Conservative government for its lack of compassion and understanding toward the war resisters. “I am supportive of the principle of allowing conscientious objectors to stay,” Trudeau told the crowd. His words echoed those of his father, Pierre Trudeau, who declared Canada to be “a refuge from militarism” during the Vietnam war.
Some nine months after Trudeau was elected, Iraq war resisters in Canada continue to live in legal limbo. “I’m shocked and dismayed that it is still going on,” said Dean Walcott, a former US Marine corporal who served four tours in Iraq before escaping to Canada in 2006.
He is one of four war resisters whose immigration status is slated to be reviewed by a federal court in November. The court has given the Trudeau government until mid-September to decide whether it wants to continue with the Conservative policy of opposing the resisters’ bid to remain in Canada.
When approached for comment on the forthcoming deadline, a spokesperson for the ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship said: “It would not be appropriate to speculate on future actions the government may take.”
Polls suggest most Canadians support the idea of allowing war resisters to stay in the country, with 63% saying in June that they should be allowed to become permanent residents. “I don’t think this is surprising,” said Michelle Robidoux of the War Resisters Support Campaign, which assists Iraq war resisters as they forge new lives in Canada, pointing to Canadians’ widespread opposition to the Iraq war and the welcome extended to resisters during the Vietnam war.
Across the country, others have also gone out of their way to help the war resisters. For nearly seven years, the brick walls of Vancouver’s First United church have provided sanctuary to Rodney Watson, protecting him from the threat of deportation. The 38-year-old served in Iraq in 2005. The following year, as another tour in Iraq loomed, he fled to Vancouver rather than fight in what he describes as “an unjust war that was based on lies”.
His asylum claim was denied in 2009, soon after his son was born in Vancouver.Since then, his life has played out within the sombre walls of the church. “This is not a game; this is not a joke for me at all,” said Watson. “I want to tell Justin Trudeau to please – I’m pleading – to do the right thing and allow me to be free with my son. Allow me to be a part of his life, to be a great father, a great role model.”
His plea is echoed by Ashlea Brockway. Her husband, Jeremy, returned from his second tour in Iraq in 2007 with severe post-traumatic stress that left him constantly contemplating suicide.
When he was ordered to return to Iraq, the family escaped to Canada. “We came to Canada to save his life,” said Brockway.
Her husband continues to struggle with PTSD, rarely leaving the bedroom of their home. His mental state is exacerbated by the uncertainty of what lies ahead for the couple and their three young children. “If we were to have to return to the United States … I’m afraid of what that would mean for my children, who would be ripped away from everything that they’ve ever known, as well as having their father taken away,” she said. “And potentially losing him forever, because I don’t think, mentally, he could handle being put through the stress of a court martial or whatever that process would be.”
Her voice wavered as she choked back tears. “We just want to have a normal life, without the stress of worrying from day to day if we have to pack or explain to our children why we have to leave.”