war resisters in port colborne: "for us, there is no easy way out"

Last night, a few carloads of members of the War Resisters Support Campaign traveled to Port Colborne to support Jeremy and Ashlea Brockway, a war-resister family who lives in that small town on Lake Erie. (I posted two local stories about the Brockways last week.) Our supporters from Buffalo were there - we've gone from never having met in person to seeing each other every month! - as well as a meeting-house full of local supporters. It was an emotionally intense evening. I imagine every person in that room was deeply affected by what they saw and heard.

Reverend Robert Hurkmans of St. James and St. Brendans Anglican Church welcomed us, then showed the Campaign's original movie, "Let Them Stay". I hadn't seen it in a long time, and it's as moving and inspiring as ever. Many of the people attending this event were hearing about the war resisters movement for the first time, and the movie is an excellent introduction.

After that, I was called upon to say a few words about the campaign. I was under the impression that the topic might be controversial - that the audience might not be fully supportive - so I tried to give a personal perspective. I talked about military resistance as the heart of the peace movement, and the moral courage it takes to put so much on the line to say no to war.

I mentioned I have just become a Canadian citizen (much applause, so sweet), and that my earliest memory of Canada is from during the Vietnam War. Canada was the place that accepted the brave young men who chose not to go to Vietnam. Canada was the place of peace, in contrast to the country of war that I lived in. I said I want to believe that somewhere that Canada still exists - I do believe that for the people of Canada, it does still exist - and I dream of making that Canada visible again.

I mentioned the motions that passed in Parliament, and the deportations, and Bill C-440. Hopefully it made sense and wasn't just a big blur.

Then we got to the heart of why we were there.

Jeremy Brockway cannot appear in public at this time. He suffers from very serious depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress, and public speaking is out of the question. He did, however, sit down with Rev. Rob Hurkmans and a video camera. We watched a short video of their interview.

First we saw a photo of Jeremy Brockway in his marine uniform - a good-looking young man beaming with patriotism and pride. Then we saw him today. He is broken. By using that word, I don't imply that Jeremy - or anyone else who struggles with the same issues - is beyond repair. On the contrary, I know that healing is possible. But for Jeremy, right now, every day is a struggle to survive. He has lost interest in life. It's everything he can do to hang on.

Jeremy was forced to participate in some terrible things in Iraq, and he witnessed many more brutal war crimes and other horrors. When his anxiety started to surface, he was told it would pass. As his condition worsened, he was given drugs that put him in a zombie-like state. Naturally that didn't help. It can't. His application for medical leave was denied. His application for Conscientious Objector status was shredded in front of him. Jeremy was in a terrible emotional and mental condition.

And he was ordered to redeploy.

After the video of Jeremy, Ashlea Brockway took the podium. She was crying. She said, "I had all these things I was going to say, but after seeing Jeremy... I don't know if I can do this." But she did. Ashlea spoke eloquently and movingly, sometimes through her tears, about their family's struggle.

Jeremy was a United States Marine. The Marines' motto, Ashlea reminded us, is semper fidelis, Latin for Always Faithful. Jeremy took this very seriously. He had great loyalty and great faith in the Marines. And gradually he learned the loyalty was a one-way street.

Ashlea said she knows that Jeremy has not told her all of what he saw in Iraq, but what she does know is chilling and gruesome. Jeremy was sent to a roof to install an antenna - not because the antenna was needed, but because his command knew there was a sniper in the area and wanted to draw the sniper out. In other words, Jeremy was used as human bait.

Buildings blown up, the bodies of children found in the rubble. An Iraqi officer left to bleed to death because it's cheaper to pay the life insurance than send a helicopter. And on and on.

Ashlea told us how Jeremy was treated when his PTSD and depression began to surface - how he was mocked, and ridiculed, and abused. How he was kept quiet with drugs. How he wanted to die.

She said, "Some people think we took an easy way out by coming to Canada. But for us, there is no easy way out."

She said, "People say, go back and take your punishment, and get on with your life." I wish everyone labouring under that delusion could have been there last night. First, could Jeremy Brockway survive in prison? If he could survive, incarcerating a man with combat-induced PTSD is tantamount to torture. No, it is torture.

And if he did survive, then what? With a dishonourable discharge, a felony offense, on his record, Jeremy won't be able to find work or go to school. He won't be eligible for any veterans' benefits. How will the family survive?

Ashlea told us how Jeremy returned from Iraq a changed man, and the strain that has put on them and their marriage. (They were married for one month before Jeremy deployed.) Ashlea struggles to stand by Jeremy - because splitting up would solve nothing, none of their problems would go away, but they would have lost their main support person in the bargain. She mentioned that Jeremy's grandfather came back from the Korean War a changed man, and that the grandparents' marriage failed, and she believes that was why. With this, she widened the picture to include all former soldiers who struggle with PTSD.

Here Ashlea soared. She said, "Just because I stand here under the banner of the war resisters, doesn't mean I don't stand with all soldiers, everywhere. There are good men and women all over the US, and probably Canadians, too, who served their countries honourably, and now suffer in silence, because the stigma of post-traumatic stress is so great." Some of them, she said, don't even realize that what they have is called PTSD; they are just "different" and can't get on with their lives.

Ashlea said there is a unit in the Canadian veterans' system where therapists are specially trained to deal with combat-related mental health issues. But deserters and AWOL soldiers are ineligible for treatment. Even if they can pay for treatment out-of-pocket with their own money, they will not be seen.

"Jeremy has already sacrificed for his country," she said. "He has already served loyally. He can't ever take that back." And now that that sacrifice has been made, she said, the Marines have turned their backs on Jeremy.

This is so often forgotten about war resisters. Many of the resisters are veterans, men and women who followed orders and served honourably. But because the military denies them the right to follow their conscience, their status as veterans is denied, too.

Ashlea's desire to raise awareness of post-traumatic stress and all combat-induced mental health issues really moved me. She is taking the ultimate step of being a survivor: she is using her own experience to try to help others.

Ashlea said that people are always telling her how strong she is, and she knows that everyone in the room has problems and challenges in their lives, and we all need strength, too. So she wrote down some of the words and thoughts that give her strength, and printed that up, and brought copies for everyone.

I was deeply touched by Ashlea's desire to share the source of her strength. From her hand-out, I learned that she is a religious Christian. It doesn't matter to me that my own inspiration derives from a different source. I'm grateful that Ashlea's faith helps to sustain her, and moved that she wanted to share it with us.

After Ashlea's talk, Reverend Rob read a letter from the Member of Parliament for Colborne, Malcolm Allen, supporting Jeremy and Ashlea, reaffirming the NDP's support for war resisters, and calling on the government to Let Them Stay.

Campaigner Lee Zaslofsky reaffirmed the Campaign's support for the Brockways, and recapped the political situation on Bill C-440. A woman from the local legal-aid clinic told us she is helping Ashlea with her Humanitarian and Compassionate application, and had a petition for us to sign for that.

People signed petitions and postcards, and quietly donated money to help the Brockways, and thanked us for doing this work. I have to say, I was a little overwhelmed at the emotional intensity of the evening - and very glad to be there.

For Jeremy and Ashlea Brockway, there is no easy answer. A man struggling with such turmoil cannot flip a switch and return to his former self. But, Ashlea said, "If we could know that we could stay in Canada, if we didn't live with the fear of deportation and court martial and prison, if we knew that we could settle here and just live our lives, I hold out hope that then Jeremy could begin to release his pain, and begin to heal."

The first step: Support Bill C-440.

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