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Wednesday, Nov. 24, 2004 03:15 am

Soldier of misfortune


Jeremy Hinzman joined the military in early 2001, attracted by the prospect of going to college without incurring debt and being, he says, "part of something bigger than myself."

He completed basic training, and in July 2001 moved to Fort Bragg, N.C., with his wife, Nga Nguyen. He was a "White Devil": a member of the 82nd Airborne's 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment.

But during basic training, he began to have doubts.

"There is a strong, innate predisposition against killing," Hinzman says, "and the military breaks that down." In target practice, he recalls, we "started out with black circle targets. Then the circles grew shoulders and then the shoulders turned into torsos. Pretty soon they were human beings."

Hinzman can pinpoint the moment he realized he "made the wrong career decision."

"About five weeks into basic training, we were on our way to the chow hall shouting 'trained to kill, kill we will.' We were threatened with push-ups because we were not showing enough enthusiasm.

"I found myself hoarse yelling this and, when I looked around me, I saw that most of my colleagues were red in the face, but totally engrossed." Then he understood that the military was not just training him to kill, but "to kill with a smile on my face." He had to get out.

Easier said than done.

Hinzman was a "good soldier," he recalls. "I couldn't get out of it, so I decided to make the most of it. Meanwhile, I was having this heavy internal debate about the morality of what I was doing."

He and his wife found the Quaker meeting in Fayetteville, seeking a "shared spiritual life" as they prepared for the birth of their child. The quiet worship contrasted sharply with Hinzman's life at Fort Bragg, and his introduction to the Quaker peace testimony intensified his questioning.

Soon after their son, Liam, was born in May 2002, Hinzman filed for conscientious objector status. "Although I still have a great desire to eliminate injustice, I have come to the realization that killing will do nothing but perpetuate it," he wrote in his application. "Thus, I cannot in good conscience continue to serve as a combatant in the Army."

Told his application was lost, he reapplied right before he left with his unit for Afghanistan. While there, he was assigned to noncombat duty in the kitchen waiting for his hearing. Hinzman read week-old newspapers and watched satellite television, closely following the buildup to war in Iraq.

Fourteen-hour days of dishwashing in the desert can make a man think, and Hinzman did, concluding, "The pretense the U.S. was using to launch war in Iraq was bogus. I promised myself and my wife that I would not go."

At his conscientious objector hearing in Kandahar in April 2003, Hinzman was asked if he would use violence to protect himself. He responded he would not automatically turn the other cheek. His application for conscientious objector status was denied on the basis of that response.

"It happens all the time," says Steve Morse, a counselor with the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. The law says you don't have to be a pacifist to be a conscientious objector. You have to oppose all war, but self-defense is a permissible answer, he explains. Morse says the military does not train its personnel in the rights of conscientious objectors, and it intimidates and stereotypes those who apply.

The Army says there have been 96 applications for CO status since the war in Iraq began, and it has approved 48. But J. E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience and War, believes the number of applicants is much higher. Plus, she notes, "there are faster discharges than a CO discharge," and some soldiers who are morally opposed to the Iraq War avail themselves of these discharges.

Hinzman has one regret: "I did not strip off my uniform right then and refuse to cooperate any longer." He felt like he was on a "100-mile-an-hour train" that wouldn't slow down for him to think.

The time to think came later that month when his unit returned to Fort Bragg, and he returned to his wife and son.

Through reading and discussions with Nguyen and friends in Fayetteville, Hinzman solidified his opposition to the Iraq War. "We were not attacking Iraq because we were under an imminent threat," he says. "Our aim there was economic in nature. To die or kill other people so that the American public could have cheap access to oil was wrong."

Just days before Christmas, Hinzman's unit was ordered to redeploy -- to Iraq. This time he did strip off his uniform.

In January, Hinzman and Nguyen packed their belongings, put Liam in the car seat, and headed north.

"I think what we did was worth it," Hinzman says, "We did the right thing and came here to make a life."

Now he hopes they can keep the life they've started in Toronto.

Initially sheltered by a Quaker family, Hinzman and Nguyen eventually found an apartment and -- even more importantly -- a lawyer.

Vietnam draft resisters offer assistance

More than 30 years before, Jeffry House had made a similar trek to Canada as a Vietnam War draft resister. Now he is a Toronto attorney, with 15 years of immigration law experience and a successful track record of gaining refugee status for Central Americans. He told Hinzman he was not alone; two other young American soldiers were in Canada. House would represent them all.

Brandon Hughey comes from a Republican family in Texas. Interested in money for college, he signed up for the Army at 17. "My dad had to sign a form because I was too young to enlist on my own accord," Hughey says.

"When I left for basic training, I didn't hold any political beliefs," Hughey says. "I wasn't naïve. I knew I could be deployed to fight in a war. But I did have this image growing up that I would be sort of a good guy, fighting for just causes and fighting to defend my country."

But as he began to pay attention to the news from Iraq, he began to have doubts about the mission. He recalls thinking, "No weapons of mass destruction? No ties to Al Qaeda? What are we doing there?"

While other soldiers "just wanted to go and kick some ass," he says, that attitude "didn't work for me. I realized that basically the U.S. has attacked a country that was no threat to them in an act of aggression."

These doubts led him to a fundamental question: Could he participate in a war he knew was wrong? He came to an uncomfortable and life-altering answer: No.

Stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, after basic training, Hughey began asking his superiors to grant him a discharge.

"They kept brushing me off," he says. "They told me I was going to Iraq and there was nothing I could do about it. I was never informed of any route I could take to leave the military, such as applying for conscientious objector status."

No one in the military was providing any answers, so Hughey turned to the Internet, where he found Carl Rising-Moore, a peace activist in Indianapolis who has formed Freedom Underground, a "railroad" to help soldiers get to Canada.

Hughey was desperate to get out of the military. He says he was depressed, even suicidal, at times. He wrote to Rising-Moore: "I am a member of the U.S. military whose unit deploys to Iraq next week. I do not want to be a pawn in the government's war for oil. And have told my superiors that I want out of the military."

The night he was scheduled to report for deployment, Brandon drove to Indianapolis, met Carl, and they went north across the border together.

Hughey celebrated his nineteenth birthday in a foreign land, and he has been out of touch with his father and younger brother. He misses home, but he is comfortable in his choice. "I am proud of what I've done," he says. "I am standing up for what I believe is right."

David Sanders was stationed at a Navy base in Florida. When he heard his unit was on its way to Iraq early this year, he walked off base and got on a bus to Toronto.

Sanders did not know anyone in Canada, and he did not know he had the option to file for conscientious objector status. But he was certain of one thing.

"I didn't want to kill innocent people," he says. "That's what I'd be doing if I'd stayed."

The 20-year-old high school dropout lived in Toronto's homeless shelters, not knowing where to turn, afraid that if he asked for help, he'd be sent back to Florida.

Then he read an article about Jeremy Hinzman in the local paper, found Jeffry House, and filed for refugee status.

Canada is not rolling out the welcome mat

Hinzman, Hughey, and Sanders are following in the footsteps of tens of thousands of military deserters and draft dodgers who went to Canada during the Vietnam War. Canada opposed the war. At that time, it also had one of the world's most open immigration policies. Not anymore.

The three men face hearings before the Immigration and Refugee Board, where they have to prove they are refugees fleeing political persecution.

The legal argument is nuanced and hinges on the difference between prosecution and persecution. "We have a lot going for us," says House. "We have a fairly good case in law." The Geneva Conventions define a refugee as one who "owing to well-founded fear of being persecuted . . . is outside the country of his nationality" and unable or unwilling to "avail himself of the protection of that country."

Well-founded fear of persecution, not prosecution. If Hinzman, Hughey, and Sanders were sent back to the United States they would be prosecuted for deserting their post. During wartime, this crime is technically punishable by death, although no one has been executed for this in more than half a century.

In all likelihood, the three men would be facing as much as five years in jail. Does that constitute persecution?

Possibly. In one case, Andre Kortov, a Russian military deserter, sought refuge in England. He argued that he would not only face prosecution if sent back to Russia, he would be persecuted by being forced to "kill innocent civilians and destroy property in a reprehensible manner" in the Chechen War.

Kortov's claim was rejected, but the British court ruled that "he might nevertheless qualify if the Chechen War has been condemned by the international community."

House plans to argue that the international community has condemned the U.S.-led war in Iraq and "there should be protection when you don't want to serve in an illegal war that is contrary to international law," he says. House is 'cautiously optimistic." But he acknowledges that the argument is "narrower than it sounds at first," noting that there is "an irreducible political component" to the case. "What does the international community mean? Do you count up all the countries that opposed the war? What about the 'Coalition of the Willing'? How much condemnation equals international condemnation?"

House intends to put the U.S.-led war in Iraq on trial. But that could prove difficult. While the Immigration and Refugee Board is an independent body, the Canadian government has asked it not to consider the illegality of the war in its deliberations.

Hinzman points out another political wrinkle. "It is a test case for their sovereignty. Our cases are pressuring Canada to have a clear-cut position on the war," he says. If Canada is "afraid of offending America," that will be a "slight impediment to the success of our case."

It might be more than a slight impediment. Despite its opposition to the war in Iraq, Canada values close relations with the United States and does not want to become the destination for hundreds or thousands of military deserters.

Canada is not rolling out the welcome mat as it did during the Vietnam War, when Pierre Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, told immigration officials not to discriminate against applicants who had not fulfilled their military obligations in other countries. But Canadian Quakers and peace activists are trying to make up for their government's lack of hospitality. They've formed a national committee to support Hinzman, Hughey, and Sanders, and are prepared to extend the same warm reception to other war resisters who make it across the border.

When Hughey crossed into Canada, he says he was quiet for a minute and then breathed deeply and said, "I feel safe now. I feel like a free man." He hopes he can stay that way.

Frida Berrigan writes for The Progressive magazine. This story was distributed by AlterNet, the news service of the alternative press.

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