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Beyond the Border of War
In Canada, Deserters Find an Uncertain Haven, And Aid From an Earlier Generation That Fled

By Tamara Jones
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 17, 2008

TORONTO In from the cold they come, gangly young men and graying grandfathers alike, filling a downtown church with the kind of polite anticipation more befitting an afternoon wedding than an antiwar rally. Banners dangle from the choir loft, bearing the same appeal as the T-shirts for sale in the foyer: "Let Them Stay."

Lee Zaslofsky bustles from pew to pew, an anxious organizer making sure everyone is in place on a recent Saturday -- the politicians and academics, the musicians, the pacifists, and a handful of runaway American soldiers seeking refuge in Canada.

Zaslofsky, 63, knows each of the latter by both name and need. There is Jeremy Hinzman, the first one to seek asylum here, in limbo for four years now. And Phil McDowell, the computer geek whose patriotism was put to the test in Baghdad. And Patrick Hart, the veteran worried about lost medical benefits for his sick son. All found their way to Zaslofsky and the quasi-underground network he runs for AWOL Americans crossing the border with little more than what they can fit in a duffel bag.

"You should know, I do love you," he assures each one. "I'm a Vietnam resister."

Across Canada, the remnants of a lost counterculture are rising up again as hundreds of aging draft dodgers reluctantly leave the quiet comforts of their anonymous lives to help an estimated 200 Iraq war deserters who fled north with no promise of asylum.

In truth, they share little beyond the difficult choice they made to forsake their citizenship, and the timeless debate whether theirs was an act of courage or cowardice. What they believe, where they came from, and how they ended up here are as different as 1968 and 2008.

Now this small, tentative band of unlikely brothers, two generations of American resisters, struggles to both find and forget its common ground.

* * *

"You're being stop-lossed!"

Phil McDowell tried to absorb his wife's frantic news in June 2006 that the Army was rescinding his discharge. Iraq had left him unsettled, angry. When his military tour was over, he had come to the mountains to clear his head, stopping to call Jamime from the Appalachian Trail. Now a letter from his commander was waiting at home, and McDowell later learned that the Army could essentially reinstate him for nearly two more years' active duty.

He was enraged. He had fulfilled his obligation. Why wasn't his government honoring its side of the bargain?

"I tried contacting senators and congressmen. I tried to contact civilian military lawyers, but they all said the time frame was too short," McDowell recalls. He offered to stay in the Army "and not do war," but was told no such deal could be made.

McDowell had joined the military after 9/11, while finishing up his information technology degree. He was 21 years old at the time, and the 2001 terrorist attacks had filled him with a sense of destiny.

"It sounds kinda cheesy," he says now, "but however we handled this event, I felt it would define our generation."

He spent four years in uniform with a communications unit, including a year in Iraq, where skepticism soon replaced his zeal. "They'd already been there a year, and there were no weapons of mass destruction. They'd given up searching. We were told the mission had changed to helping the Iraqi people, to bring them freedom and democracy.

"But then we'd go on convoys and they'd instruct us to run cars off the road if they were in our way."

He began researching the war, and reached an unsettling conclusion: "It's a hard personal realization to join the Army out of patriotism and accept your country was wrong."

When he came home to Rhode Island on two weeks' leave, his bitterness only deepened. "Nobody was even talking about the war. It didn't faze anybody. Nobody knew what was going on, and nobody cared."

Back in Iraq, McDowell was promoted to sergeant. He finished his tour and completed his last year of service stateside, where he says he readily shared his opinions with a fresh recruit who asked what he made of this conflict: "We were lied to."

He was honorably discharged in June 2006.

Faced with orders to report back to duty, McDowell "made a promise to myself, to Jamime and my family: Whatever happens, I'm not going back. It would've been easy to go to Iraq and have it done with again. But being a sellout to my own beliefs -- I just felt it was wrong on so many levels."

McDowell had heard of some soldiers fleeing to Canada. He began considering exile as an option.

"I'd never broken any law before," the 27-year-old says. A computer search soon linked him to something called the War Resisters Support Campaign.

Could he legally enter Canada? Yes. What would happen then? No one knew.

Tougher still was the question McDowell continues to ask himself:

"What does it mean to desert the Army and abandon your country?"

How Many Deserters?

Since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003, more than 16,000 troops -- mostly Army -- have deserted. Antiwar groups contend the number is much higher, with many of the runaways quietly discharged.

How a case is handled is left to the discretion of each unit's commander. Some deserters are returned to duty with a mere reprimand; others face court-martial. A felony conviction can carry a five-year prison sentence. Under extreme circumstances, desertion is punishable by death.

"We do not actively look for deserters," the Army acknowledges in a written statement, "but they can be returned to military control by civilian law enforcement -- this normally happens when police check the identification during a traffic stop."

The Army has prosecuted only 837 deserters from Iraq, with about half pleading their charges down to AWOL.

Canadian immigration officials and the courts so far have denied asylum to the deserters here, concluding that the soldiers didn't exhaust legal remedies in the United States and that there is no evidence they would be treated unjustly or inhumanely if returned.

No one has been deported yet, pending a House of Commons debate on a motion that would grant permanent residency to any "conscientious objectors fleeing service in war not sanctioned by the United Nations."

'A New Canadian'

Lee Zaslofsky was part of a mass exodus of up to 90,000 Americans who sought refuge in Canada during the Vietnam War. Most were draft dodgers, and the majority came home after the United States granted amnesty. Zaslofsky is one of some 25,000 who stayed behind.

They settled down, grew old and, for the most part, remained invisible, integrating so thoroughly that no enduring subculture ever took root.

"I told myself I could never go back. I didn't want to be an American in exile. I wanted to be a new Canadian," Zaslofsky says. "When I refer to Americans, I say 'they.' I've been here 38 years now."

His days as a campus demonstrator enthralled by the beat poetry of Allen Ginsberg is a fond memory, but "I'm more radical now than I was then," Zaslofsky declares. After years of advocacy on behalf of AIDS patients, Zaslofsky has shifted his attention to antiwar efforts and the plight of the American deserters caught in political limbo here. Reaching out has meant connecting for the first time with his own lost tribe, as well.

Jeffry House is one of the key links between the two generations. A draft dodger who came to Canada in a VW Beetle with flower-power decals, the prominent Toronto attorney represents many of the Iraq deserters pro bono. More keep coming, including "people with three tours already" in the war zone.

He is not surprised that Vietnam-era exiles form the heart of the grass-roots network supporting the new arrivals -- organizing protests, finding housing, lobbying the government, providing pocket money and even baking cookies.

And the young deserters, House believes, have offered the old ones something in return, something they surrendered so long ago: an identity.

"This movement," he says hopefully, "has actually crystallized a community that didn't know it even existed."

From Generation to Generation

The rally is two days away, and Zaslofsky thinks this could be their moment. The War Resisters Support Campaign has events planned across Canada to raise awareness and gather petitions to send to Parliament, asking for a "yes" vote on the motion to let the deserters stay.

Twenty or so volunteers are gathered in a borrowed room at the steelworkers' union for this weekly meeting. Jeremy Hinzman huddles with a couple of other deserters about the speeches they'll give at Toronto's gathering, in a Methodist church downtown. Tom Riley, who came here to avoid the draft in 1969, passes around homemade cookies. The need to nurture is clear enough; his own father, 39 years later, still considers him a coward. "I don't think we've reconciled it," Riley says, and the hurt feels permanent now.

Zaslofsky and Riley never even knew each other before this movement, and both feel frustrated that more Vietnam-era settlers haven't come forward. Don't they owe that much? "Ancient history," they hear again and again from the weary grandfathers who want to forget that they were once angry young men. Plans are being made to develop a Web site, do some documentaries, organize more events to draw out the graying Vietnam generation. Thousands, not a few hundred, should be rising up again for this fight, Zaslofsky fumes.

Now the volunteers are labeling 800 envelopes for the letters they'll urge rallygoers to send to Ottawa. In her pink hoodie and ponytail, Phil McDowell's wife, Jamime Aponte, 28, runs the meeting with the precision and enthusiasm of a majorette. She wants to know: Who's been putting up posters where? Are there enough pens to hand out at the church?

Zaslofsky is grateful for her energy. He is weary and not a little disgruntled, himself. He thought he would be easing into a comfortable retirement by now after a career in public health, but here he is working himself ragged for $200 a week as the WRSC director, which just covers his rent, and why is the adopted country he has grown to love making this so damn hard?

"I feel so lucky that my generation of war resisters had it far easier than they do, and probably had a much easier time of it emotionally because there were so many more of us, and because so many more Americans were actively opposing the war than do so now," Zaslofsky says. "They don't have a widespread social movement backing them up."

Zaslofsky has fond memories of "my time," joining campus protests and cheering the Chicago Seven while studying history at Northeastern University. He opened his mail one day shortly after graduation in 1969 to see the dreaded salutation: "From the President of the United States, Greetings." He was being drafted.

He was inducted into the Army and sent to Fort Jackson, S.C., where he applied for status as a conscientious objector but was denied. When his orders for Vietnam came, he packed up his used Impala and left.

"I think Americans are stunned and shocked when someone rejects America. They assume everyone wants to be in America, or like them. When they don't, America is like a macho, jilted husband."

After the WRSC meeting, some of the younger ones consider walking a few blocks to Grossman's Tavern, but it's too late for cheap, happy-hour beer. Just as well, Zaslofsky thinks. The dingy blues club was a favorite watering hole for the draft dodgers in their day, too. He's tired of the place.

Moments of Truth

The smells, the flavors, the noise, the chaos, the life. Linjamin Mull feels displaced, disconnected. "I always miss home. I miss New York. I miss my friends. I don't really consider this home," the 32-year-old deserter admits. "If another soldier called me up, thinking of coming to Canada, I'd tell him to think twice."

People have been kind, and Mull is appreciative, but there's a reserve that seems aloof to the outgoing Harlem native. "My New York energy is quite different than Toronto's," he surmises. He's gone through a couple of girlfriends already. Connecting with people just seems harder here.

Mull was a New York City social worker who joined the service for the education benefits: He wanted to pursue a graduate degree in psychology or sociology. His childhood had been rough, and Mull landed in foster care at 14 after his mother died. He's proud that he pulled himself out of that stinking hole, went to college. But he was still saddled with student debts and just scraping by, terrified to see that he wasn't that many steps away from the homeless he helped as a city caseworker: no family, no means, no safety net.

He signed up with the Army, choosing avionics as his field "because I didn't want to be kicking down doors, raiding houses. I didn't want that blood on my hands." But once posted to Fort Eustis, Va., Mull concluded his chances of avoiding that scenario evaporated. "Everybody knew Fort Eustis was straight-to-Iraq." He went to the library and Googled "desertion," then called Zaslofsky's office. Not long after, he walked out of his barracks and caught a bus north.

"When you live all your life marginalized, there's no other choice but the military. It preys on people that are less fortunate, and that's how it functions," Mull charges. "You don't see recruiting stations in New York in well-to-do areas or schools. They're in poor areas." He tried to explain this to the Canadian immigration judge who asked him why he signed up for the military during wartime if he was opposed to combat. The judge, he remembers, was sympathetic, but had to follow the letter of the law, and rejected Mull's petition to be considered a political refugee. Much as he misses America, Mull doesn't feel ready to take his chances and come home.

"I feel angry for a lot of different reasons," he says. "There's no social responsibility, and there's no social justice, and that's always angered me.

"I'm not anti-American," he stresses. "I'm anti . . . " He searches for a description, finds none, and holds out his empty hands. "Something."

Patrick Hart is at a loss, too, to neatly label his discontent.

He served in the Army from 1992 until 1995, straight out of high school. His grandfather had been a mess sergeant in World War II, and his father was a Vietnam veteran who didn't talk much about the war. "I got taught how to drive a forklift and shine boots," Hart laughs. He hoped to worked for General Motors after his discharge, but ended up driving a forklift for $8 an hour. He married his longtime girlfriend, Jill, in 2000 and enlisted again, "basically to have job security, benefits, dental."

Jill became the ultimate military wife, decorating the entire house in red, white and blue, with star-shaped pillows on the sofa and wallpaper borders stamped with hearts and flags. "To me, it was a lifestyle; to him, it was a job."

After their son's birth in 2002, Pat was deployed to Kuwait, where over the next couple of years he would see buddies returning from tours in Iraq. Some, he recalls, would show off ghoulish snapshots they'd taken of burning vehicles and bullet-riddled bodies. "The stories I'd hear these guys telling," Hart says, remembering a friend standing in line with him at Burger King, eagerly talking about how he couldn't wait to see his 6-year-old daughter again, and in the next breath boasting about running over "like so many speed bumps" the Iraqi children who got in the way of convoys.

Back home, Hart's own child had been hospitalized for seizures; Rian was eventually diagnosed with epilepsy, and reluctantly, Hart reenlisted in Kuwait to ensure his son's medical care. But with deployment to Iraq looming, Hart secretly boarded a bus to Canada while on leave three summers ago, after telling Jill he was visiting his parents in Buffalo.

Jill, the daughter of a Vietnam veteran herself, couldn't fathom the decision at first. She fielded calls and e-mails from Pat's chain of command pressuring her to coax him back before his AWOL status became desertion: Jill would lose her own civilian job on base, their housing allowance and the insurance that paid for Rian's medicine. She packed up her red, white and blue decorations and made her own reluctant decision.

She would leave America for good, too.

It's Home Now

Barely 200 people turn out for the Toronto rally, and Lee Zaslofsky can't decide whether to be grateful or annoyed that a trio of elderly women called the Raging Grannies has crashed the event to belt out antiwar songs set to Broadway tunes in the vestibule.

Jeremy Hinzman is the first deserter to take the podium, to a standing ovation. He is thin and intense in a blue sweat shirt; his little boy is flopped on his tummy in a side aisle, coloring, while his father talks about how the Army teaches a man incrementally to kill.

"You start out by shooting at circles," he says, "and then a week later, the circles have shoulders, and then after that, the shoulders have torsos and limbs, and before you know it, you're just firing away and it's reflexive."

He began practicing Buddhism and applied unsuccessfully for conscientious-objector status. He came to Canada, he says bitterly, "because there was no other option."

Pat Hart speaks, too, saying he enlisted "for pretty much one reason, because door after door slammed in my face looking for jobs." His folks come up from nearby Buffalo to visit often, and Rian has good subsidized medical care and is going to school in Toronto now. "I love being here. I hope to stay here," Hart says.

Phil McDowell talks about being misled about the reasons for the war he went off to fight as a patriot.

The young Americans declare their eagerness to get work permits, or enroll in college, to get off Canada's welfare rolls quickly and make the same kinds of positive contributions to society that the Vietnam-era immigrants did.

Politicians and academics take to the podium too, recalling the earlier exodus with righteous pride, hoping the embers from that distant fire might spark something big and important now. A samba band waits to lead the protesters in a conga line through the snowy streets to the post office, where they can all mail their letters to Parliament.

Before they go, though, a man with a silver ponytail brushing his black velvet jacket sits down at the old grand piano in front of the empty altar. Bill King dodged the draft in '69, and he tells them all he would do it again, for humanity's sake. His fingers ripple across the keyboard, summoning Dylan, and there is an ache in his voice as he begins the familiar verse:

How many roads must a man walk down. . .

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