"refusing orders, crossing borders": a report on the war resisters event in fort erie

On Saturday, October 16, a panel of 11 Iraq War resisters spoke about their experiences in the US military and what caused each of them to desert and come to Canada.

Peace activists from Toronto, western New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio gathered to hear these stories of courage and resistance, of people who found the strength to stand up and say "No!" to the most powerful military in human history. The event was held at St. Paul's Anglican Church in Fort Erie, Ontario, co-sponsored by the Buffalo, New York, chapter of Veterans for Peace, and the War Resisters Support Campaign.

After brief welcomes from Reverend Mark Gladding, pastor of the Ft. Erie church, and Reverend Rob Hurkmans, of the Anglican Church in Port Colborne, Ontario, the war resisters told pieces of their stories in a panel discussion.

* * * *

Justin Colby was trained as a medic and he spoke of the military's complete disregard for human life in Iraq. His unit would work on both US soldiers and injured Iraqis – but he was ordered not to use anesthesia on Iraqis suffering from severe trauma. Less experienced medics were ordered to practice their skills on Iraqi patients. If one of them died during surgery, Justin said, no one thought it was any big deal.

Chris Vassey said his unit was told that accessing health services made the unit look bad – so no one would be allowed to get health services, even if they were sick. Their commanders falsified information on combat-related mental health issues – making it look like there were none – in addition to ridiculing and punishing anyone who tried to get help. Chris has learned a trade in Canada: he is currently helping build a hospital. "After all the things I destroyed over there, maybe now I can build a place where people will heal."

Dean Walcott wasn't a good student in high school: "Going to university or college would have been a complete waste of time and money." The military gave him structure and a strong work ethic. He knew going to war one day might be a possibility, but he expected there would be solid reason for making that sacrifice. He grew to understand the only reason he was serving in the Iraq War was because "the president said so" – and that was not good enough. Not after he saw the mangled, charred bodies at the hospital in Germany where families would be flown in to see their mortally wounded child or spouse one last time. Walcott was also assigned to recruiting young people for the military. For him, that was the last straw before he boarded a greyhound for Toronto.

Chuck Wiley, a 17-year veteran and the oldest person on the panel, was stationed on an aircraft carrier. He learned that many of the bombing runs his planes flew had nothing to do with fighting insurgents or assisting ground troops: they were clearing the path for oil pipeline construction. Wiley was only a few years away from a generous Navy pension, but he knew he could no longer be a part of "Halliburton's Navy" (as someone in his unit called it). When asked about his decision to desert, Chuck said, "It wasn't a decision so much as my life taking a different course. It didn't ask myself, what should I do? I had to leave. I couldn't unlearn what I knew."

Joshua Key, whose experiences are detailed in the book A Deserter's Tale, spoke about trying to convince his cousin not to enlist. The cousin deployed to Iraq and when he was home on leave, told Josh that he wished he could have done what Josh did. Josh's cousin redeployed to Afghanistan. A few weeks later, he had both legs and one arm blown off in an explosion.

Before Ryan Johnson was ordered to deploy, he heard stories on base from soldiers who had already deployed. He saw the terrible shape they were in, the effects of PTSD. He started having nightmares – not that he would be killed in Iraq, but that he would survive, and have to live in that condition. Ryan went AWOL right before deployment. He's been in Canada four times as long as he was in the US military.

To the question of why they joined the military, the war resisters' answers repeated two themes: economics and patriotism. Phil McDowell joined a few weeks after September 11, 2001, believing his country was in danger and wanting to help. Josh Key was working as a welder for $7.25 an hour with no health insurance, and had a family to support. Kimberly Rivera had hit the pay ceiling at Wal-Mart, so the company brought in a cheaper replacement. Military recruiters were a permanent fixture at Kim's Texas high school, and she grew up believing that the US were the "good guys", working to make the world a safer and more democratic place.

Dale Landry finds a more open, accepting attitude in Canada, less judgement, less pressure to conform. "In Canada, I can be a socialist. In Canada, I can be an atheist," and no one cares. Dale appreciates living in a country that doesn't care whether or not the Prime Minister goes to church. "In one country people are screaming about whether the President is a Muslim. In this country, I don't know what church, if any, Michael Ignatieff belongs to – and I'm so glad I don't know."

Chuck Wiley picked up on that theme to remind us why multiculturalism matters. "It's a lot harder to say, let's go kill all these Muslims, and get people to follow you, if the family next door is Muslim and there's a Muslim community around the corner. That's why I value Canada's multiculturalism so much – that's why we need it."

Asked whether they are estranged from family members because of their decision to desert – because of the family members' disapproval - nine of the 11 resisters raised their hand. Many of the resisters have lost family members while in Canada and were unable to go home to attend the funeral. They've sacrificed a lot – but each of them said they will never regret their decision to leave the killing.

* * * *

After lunch, Ashlea Brockway spoke about her husband, Jeremy Brockway, who suffers from severe depression and PTSD from his experiences in Iraq.

The audience watched excerpts from a video interview, because Jeremy's condition makes it impossible for him to appear in public. He spends most of his time alone in one room in their apartment, afraid he will have a flashback and hurt his wife or their two children. Jeremy has tried to commit suicide twice.

On the video, Jeremy speaks in a soft voice and never looks directly at the camera. His head and upper body never move, his blank expression never changes. Wringing his hands together, he pauses between sentences, between memories.

He recalled that a few days after blowing up what he was told was an empty building, he saw Iraqi parents dragging the burned corpses of their children from the rubble. An Iraqi policeman, his friend, bled to death on the street because command said it was cheaper to pay the man's family a token life insurance rather than risk any damage to a helicopter.

After the video, Ashlea Brockway addressed the audience. She's an incredibly articulate speaker, always relating their own heartbreaking experience to the larger picture: veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress symptoms, how the military has abandoned them. "The soldiers have already given of themselves. They can't take that back. But because they are not in good standing with the military, the military doesn't meet their side of the bargain – the veteran can no longer get health care or services. But the problems they are having are a direct result of the service they gave. If they could have gotten treatment and services while they were in the service, they wouldn't have gone AWOL."

Jeremy Brockway tried repeatedly to get a medical discharge: his commanding officer shredded his papers in front of his face. He was ridiculed, bullied, harassed – persecuted – for trying to get a medical discharge. This was clearly meant to send a message to any other troops considering doing the same.

Ashlea said, "I heard the Minister [of Citizenship and Immigration] say that war resisters are clogging up the refugee system, slowing things down for 'real' refugees. But I don't believe he cares about real refugees. Parliament passed a motion that would have taken us out of the refugee system. He could have implemented that, and the refugee system would be free of our cases, but he chose to ignore it."

For more on Ashlea and Jeremy Brockway, please see this post, my report on Ashlea's talk in Port Colborne. I posted some local stories about the Brockways here.

This family needs our help. They need Canada. If Jeremy is sent back to the US, there is a very real possibility that he will not survive.

* * * *

After a short break, Michelle Robidoux addressed the audience, giving a brief history of the War Resisters Support Campaign, how we got here and where we are going now. She focused on Operational Bulletin 202, Jason Kenney's illegal and unjust singling out of war resisters for automatic rejection. Bulletin 202 is the formal, institutional extension of Jason Kenney's public comments calling war resisters "bogus" refugee claimants. (Reaction to Bulletin 202 from Amnesty International and a former chair of the Immigration and Refugee Board: here and here.)

Michelle reminded us that passing a private member's bill is a huge undertaking – most fail. This one sought a change in the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act, an enormous undertaking in itself. And still, it was defeated by only seven votes. The war resisters have the complete support of the NDP, the Bloc Quebecois and a strong majority of the Liberal MPs.

Now that the bill has failed, there is a possibility that war resisters will be deported – but not a probability. We are doing everything we can to keep US war resisters in Canada, and we're more determined than ever to fight this to the end.

* * * *

The day ended with a walk to the river, the United States only half a kilometer away on the other side. War resisters and their supporters stood together side by side, shoulder to shoulder, in solidarity, always.

Many thanks to redsock for helping me write this post.

The war resisters who participated in the event and their partners:

Video by Russell of Adopt Resistance.

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