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Goodbye Uncle Sam

July 29 2007 at 1:07 PM
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From The Times
July 28, 2007

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Goodbye Uncle Sam

What does it feel like to turn your back on your country? As increasing numbers of US military personnel head for Canada to escape service in Iraq and Afghanistan, three deserters explain what drove them to such drastic action
Phil McDowell has sought asylum in Canada after witnessing US atrocities while on active service in Iraq

Phil McDowell has sought asylum in Canada after witnessing US atrocities while on active service in Iraq
Image :1 of 2
Catherine Philp

Phil McDowell is, depending on your view, a deserter, a resister or a traitor; one of thousands of American soldiers who have quit their posts prematurely since the September 11 attacks plunged their country into a brutal, bloody war. A handful have departed the military legally, winning their cases as conscientious objectors. Some have taken drugs and tried to get caught; others have "come out" as gay or pleaded an exit on hardship. The majority, several thousand of them, have simply slipped away from their bases in the US and remain underground, risking up to five years in jail should they be stopped for so much as a traffic offence.

A couple of hundred, like McDowell, have gone further, leaving their former lives to flee to Canada, seeking sanctuary from the long arm of Uncle Sam. It is a well-worn path, trodden first in the 19th century by the pioneers of the Underground Railroad, African slaves fleeing the South, aided by abolitionists who sheltered them along the way. Then, in the Sixties, thousands of young men took the same route in evading the draft for Vietnam. And now, a steady trickle of soldiers, broken on the battlefields of Iraq, is once again following suit.

Much has changed since more than 50,000 young men escaping service in Vietnam made their journey north. Back then, the army was conscripted; now it is a volunteer force, though the current make-up of the military strains that description. Back then, young men signed up for university to defer the draft; now many young men from poor backgrounds join the military simply for the funds to go to college. Back then, Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau threw open the border, declaring that his country would be "a refuge from militarism" from which no deserter would be returned. Now, the only way for a deserter to seek refuge is to claim asylum and wait to see if Canada decides to accept them or deport them back home.

It is no small thing to turn your back on your country, as Phil McDowell can attest. McDowell thought he had served his time when he returned to Rhode Island after a year in Iraq. He had always been sceptical of the claims of WMDs, but still, "I just didn't think they'd make something that important up." He had joined the army just two months after September 11, during his senior year at college. "I felt it was something important for our generation, something honourable." Over the course of his year in Iraq, his disquiet grew. At Camp Justice near Sadr city, he was filled with shame at what he claims to have witnessed: hooded prisoners lying in their own faeces before being taken off and beaten.

He spoke to Iraqi translators who worked with the Americans; heard how they felt under occupation. He thought he might feel the same. To the irritation of his superiors, he began speaking out to his fellow soldiers against the war. "Most were kind of on my side, but there was nothing they could do," he says. He began saving up his leave, not wishing to take a single break that might lengthen his time there. His time over, he flew back to Rhode Island, dumped his gear and set out on a four-month hike along the Appalachian Trail to clear his head of the war.

Three hundred miles in, he called an old army friend. The friend had bad news: McDowell had been "stop-lossed", recalled to a compulsory extension on his service, referred to as the "back-door draft". He had a little over a week to report back to Fort Hood, and in three months he'd be back in Iraq. It was then he remembered a guy who'd gone to Canada, Jeremy Hinzmann, the first deserter there, now awaiting the outcome of his refugee status appeal. "I asked myself, could I really leave my country behind? It would have been easier just to go back, but I didn't want to be a pushover to myself."

The route Dean Walcott took to Canada was more complicated. Now 26, he joined the Marines straight out of high school. "I'd always felt patriotic," he tells me over coffee at a hotel amid the skyscrapers of downtown Toronto. "I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself." When we meet, he has been in the city for just six weeks and will not let me visit the apartment where he is dossing down as the guest of a young anti-war social worker; it is "trashed", he explains.

When Walcott's call to arms came, it was for Iraq. "I was fine with that, it made sense to me," he says. "They've got weapons of mass destruction. There was no reason to doubt what we were told." After an uneventful tour in the quiet south, Walcott was sent as a Marine liaison officer to the Landstuhl medical hospital in Germany, the first stop for the wounded from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. That was where, as Walcott puts it, "the wheels fell off".

"Most of them had suffered some kind of burns, usually very serious. Others were missing arms or legs, or half their faces." Many were suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. "Walking through the hallways, you could hear them," says Walcott, "some asleep and screaming, some awake but crying." The worst for Walcott was when a wounded soldier would look him in the eye and ask him what their suffering had been for. By then, late 2004, the search for WMDs had yielded no results and Walcott couldn't for the life of him think what their blood had bought. "Looking at that poor suffering individual and not being able to give an answer, it was a rude awakening," he said. "I don't think there's anything in the world that could justify the kind of suffering I saw there. If there is, Iraq isn't it."

Returning to the States from a second tour in Iraq, nightmares about the horrors he had witnessed began to close in and Walcott asked if he could see a psychologist and not return to the front line. He was sent to Greensboro, North Carolina, where he hoped to train reservists to do his own job in communications, but he learnt quickly that the reservists would be going to Iraq. "That," he says, "was when I started looking at legal ways to remove myself from the military."

To qualify as a conscientious objector, a soldier has to prove he is against all wars, which for Walcott was not the case. His choices looked bleak. Searching the internet, he stumbled across a website for the War Resister's Support Campaign, a Canada-based group set up by Vietnam-era draft dodgers and deserters to assist the new wave of US soldiers seeking to escape the war. Walcott called the group and was greeted cheerfully, but also warned that if he chose this path, it would not be easy. There were no guarantees he could stay in Canada. If he could, there were no guarantees he could ever go home.

Walcott went back to work and mulled over the implications of leaving behind the country he had sworn to protect. Two days later, he was at a chilly Greyhound bus station, drunk on the Budweiser and Jack Daniel's he had downed to steady his nerves, willing the bus to arrive before he was seen. In his pocket, he carried what was left of the $400 he had taken from the bank that morning – his life's savings, minus the $113 for his ticket, military discount included. Just 30 hours after that, he was stepping off the bus into the first snowfall of an Ontario winter. He picked up his mobile to dial home. "Mom," he said, scarcely believing his own words. "I've defected to Canada."

Chris Teske is 27; tall and quietly handsome. He comes from a long line of soldiers and was 21 when he joined up, lured not so much by the promise of glory as the promise of the money to pay his way through college and the chance to escape the "nowhere town" of Albemarle, North Carolina. The army sent him on all the elite training, first as a paratrooper then as a Ranger. When the September 11 attacks took place, Teske received his calling. "I was outraged that civilians were attacked," he tells me, "so I volunteered for combat."

Teske flew out to Afghanistan, where the first enemies he encountered were prisoners brought in trucks to their base at Bagram. "Our sergeant said these are the people responsible for September 11. I expected demons and devils to come off that truck." But none of the "enemy" was even of fighting age. Teske's sergeant handed him an axe handle and told him to use it on the prisoners if he caught them talking. "Don't kill them," the sergeant told him, "just hit them upside the head." Teske refused. "It was disgusting. I was horrified. I'd come here to engage the enemy, not beat up young kids and old men."

Later, Teske saw the heaviest combat of the conflict thus far in Operation Anaconda, for which he was decorated. Returning in 2003 for a second tour, he was sent to Firebase Shkin on the Pakistan border, famed as the most dangerous place in Afghanistan. Teske still struggles to talk about what he says he saw there: enemy fighters burned alive by white phosphorus, melting the flesh on their bodies (the US military has been forced to admit using white phosphorus, but denies it has ever been used against civilians). Troubled, he sought out a military chaplain. "God raised up an army," the pastor told him. "They are not real people. God wants you to kill them."

Whatever taste he had for war, Teske lost in Shkin. When he left, he knew it would be for good. Back in Albemarle, he had left the war but the war had not left him. "I spent my time alone, but you're sitting by yourself and suddenly you're thinking of people's guts hanging out." He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, but there was little treatment on offer. He began to drink; soon, he barely went out at all. Sometimes he was joined at home by Stephanie, a friend of his cousin whom he'd connected with on one rare foray out. The two grew close and friendship turned to romance.

One day, nearly two years after his return, the phone rang. The message was from a reserve officer, asking Teske to call. Teske ignored the call, and the dozen that followed. Then one day, as he was backing down the drive, a vehicle pulled up behind him and a uniformed officer stepped out. At 21, Teske had signed up for three years, which he had completed with honour. No one had mentioned the five years more he would spend on reserve. The best they could offer was the promise that he would not see combat again.

Teske travelled with Steph to Germany to start his new job in communications. The pair had moved their wedding forward a year so she could come. Commanders told Teske they would not move his bride for a spell of less than three years. So, reluctantly, Teske had re-enlisted for that period. But when he arrived on base and asked to see the equipment he was trained for, his sergeant just laughed. "That was phased out more than a year ago," he said. Teske was sent instead to join an infantry battalion readying to deploy for combat in Iraq.

Teske's patience with the army was at an end. Steph researched their options and found the deserters in Canada. She exchanged e-mails with Jill Hart, the wife of an early deserter, Patrick. "Come to Canada," she told Steph. "I can't promise it will be easy, but it will be better than this." The couple packed up their clothes, their wedding album and laptop and sneaked away from the base. They bought round-trip tickets to Atlanta, fearing a one-way journey would give them away. "I felt like a fugitive," Teske says. Once back in the US, they drove north, stopping in Albemarle to see Steph's parents. Steph's mother gave them a patchwork quilt. "It's cold in Canada," she said.

Exile is not easy, even in a country with a shared language and values. Not all the deserters who came to Canada have stayed. Teske, McDowell and Walcott are among 30 who have applied for refugee status and now live on goodwill and handouts while they wait for work permits. Up to 200 more are living underground, watching and waiting for what the courts decide. Teske's wife Steph cannot forget her first visit to the immigration office, the waiting room full of would-be citizens from China, Somalia or Iran. "The pain of having fled your country hits you," she says. "I can't say I ever thought I'd be a refugee. It's shocking to realise that's what you are." McDowell remembers the disbelief of the immigration officials when he told them where he was from. No American has ever been granted asylum in Canada.

Walcott's mother is ill with cancer and he wonders if she will make it to visit him. McDowell will miss his sister's wedding this year. Back home in conservative Albemarle, Teske's grandparents no longer speak to him. "They don't understand my reasons for coming to Canada," he says. Steph's parents struggle with the public opprobrium. Last month, her mother's hairdresser of 15 years told her it would be better if she didn't come back to her salon.

None of them yet regrets his drastic move. For some, the War Resisters' Campaign has provided an outlet for their frustrations, and the chance to meet other exiles like themselves. "The funny thing is, these past six years, I keep being sent to places where I don't know anyone and I'm not allowed to leave," Walcott jokes. "So I refer to this as my fifth deployment. Because it's really the same rule, it's illegal to leave and I don't know anybody. The difference up here is there's a group that is dedicated to helping me, whereas being in the military, there's a group more or less intent on destroying me."

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