Jeremy Hinzman enlisted in the Army in Boston, did a tour in Afghanistan and prepared for elite Ranger school. Then came orders to go to Iraq. He neatly piled his Army gear in his living room at Fort Bragg and fled to Canada with his wife and baby.
"No matter how much I wanted to, I could not convince myself that killing someone was ever right," Hinzman, 25, said in an interview here.
Spec. Hinzman is a deserter, one of at least four who have followed the path of Vietnam War resisters a generation ago to seek refuge in Canada. Here, they have been embraced by many from that time -- former peaceniks who are now pillars of the community.
The government is less welcoming. Despite Canada's opposition to the Iraq war, the government also is opposing the deserters' refugee applications, saying the soldiers are not persecuted. It is resisting the argument that the Iraq war is illegal.
"Canada is worried if they grant us refugee status, others would come up," said Hinzman.
The deserters in Canada provoke anger in the United States among people who argue they are shirking a duty to which they willingly agreed. "There's no draft. These people volunteered for the military," said Jerry Newberry, a spokesman of the Veterans of Foreign Wars in St. Louis. "These people want to have their cake and eat it, too."
Hinzman, a slender, studious young man, accepts the criticisms. He replies that his objections to the military evolved after he enlisted. Well before he was ordered to Iraq, he applied for noncombatant duty. Had that been granted, he said, he would have served his obligation, would even have gone to Iraq as a medic or cook or anything that did not involve offensive operations.
"If I was in a situation where bullets were whizzing by, I'd be fine with that," he said. "I'm not saying I wouldn't be scared, but I would have soldiered on -- as long as I wasn't pulling a trigger."
Hinzman spends his days reading and taking care of Liam, his 21/2-year-old son, in the small backyard of the family's basement apartment in downtown Toronto. He and his wife, Nga Nguyen, a biologist and social worker who was barely 3 when her family fled Laos after the Vietnam War, take turns cooking vegetarian meals.
They are in legal limbo while Hinzman's case works its way through the Immigration and Refugee Board, which has scheduled a hearing for Dec. 6. They hope to get work permits and find jobs, but until then, as they pay for rent, food and lawyers' fees, their savings from Jeremy's three years in the Army dwindles.
"I told Jeremy I would support his decision, whether he left or he went to prison," said Nguyen, 31. "At least we are together as a family, and alive."
Hinzman makes occasional speeches along with two other U.S. deserters who have gone public, Pvt. Brandon Hughey, 19, and David Sanders, a Navy enlistee. At least one other deserter is in Canada, according to Jeffrey House, an attorney for the Americans, but has remained out of sight.
House, 57, said he felt a chill of recognition when Hinzman first came to his office. Thirty-four years earlier, House had crossed the border from Wisconsin rather than obey a draft notice during the Vietnam War.
Estimates of how many Americans came to Canada in those times to avoid service in the war range from 30,000 to 90,000. They were invited by the prime minister at the time, Pierre Trudeau, who in 1969 declared Canada to be "a refuge from militarism."
On taking office in 1977, President Jimmy Carter pardoned the draft dodgers and allowed deserters to apply for resolution of their cases. Many of the Americans went home. Others stayed in Canada, and many flourished. Today they include several judges, scores of university professors, a popular radio host, a music promoter, politicians and a film critic.
"It's a big decision," House said of his client's action. "I respect and admire his decision."
House has argued to the refugee board that Hinzman is fleeing an illegal war. The lawyer said he is prepared to argue that the Iraq war has produced a pattern of war crimes -- he says the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison is exhibit number one -- that justifies a soldier's refusal to serve.
The government responded that the legality of the war was not an issue, and that anyway, the U.S. presence in Iraq had been sanctioned by the United Nations by the time Hinzman fled Fort Bragg in January. The government's lawyer declined to discuss the case, as did spokesmen for the board and the Citizenship and Immigration Agency.
Others, however, have taken up the Americans' cause. A music promoter organized a concert in June to raise funds for them. A public relations firm in western Canada set up a Web site, now brimming with messages of support.
"There's a very strong feeling against the war in Iraq here," said Carolyn Egan, president of the United Steelworkers' local council, which voted to support Hinzman. Unlike the Vietnam resisters, she said, these deserters "are not coming off college campuses filled with a political ideology. They seem to be honest young men who have made very personal decisions that they cannot support the war."
Hinzman was raised in Rapid City, S.D., finished high school and worked as a baker for a while. Through mutual friends, he met and dated Nguyen, whose family had fled Laos in 1975.
They moved to Boston, got married, and Hinzman enlisted in the Army in January 2001 because, he said, it seemed an honorable vocation, steady, and with college benefits. He was assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division and made 17 parachute jumps in training.
"The Army did give me focus and structure in my life," he said. "When I enlisted, I figured I would be deployed. I thought if I was called up to do it, I could do it. But I was ignorant, probably stupidly, of an ingrained inhibition to killing another human being."
Hinzman said he was repelled by the chants of "Kill! Kill!" in basic training and was more drawn to his readings of Buddhism.
"I was on the verge of going to Ranger school," he said. "But the flip side of that was I was going through internal debate about whether I could do this. I finally decided no."
In 2002, he applied for a conscientious objector status that would have kept him in the Army, but as a noncombatant. While his request was pending, his unit shipped out to Afghanistan. Hinzman went and was assigned to duties as a dishwasher and cook while his unit was in Kandahar from December 2002 to July 2003. In Afghanistan, a first lieutenant denied his application, saying the claimed reasons were "not congruent with the definition of conscientious objector."
Hinzman returned with his unit to Fort Bragg. But in late 2003, he was told they were being sent to Iraq. He and Nguyen talked at length, and "it became more and more obvious" he would refuse to go, he said. "It is an illegal war. I wasn't going to kill or be killed to subsidize gas for someone to drive their SUVs."
Last New Year's Day, Hinzman helped install scopes on Army tanks. The next night, with a three-day leave ahead, he and his family quietly put belongings in their Chevrolet Prism and drove toward Canada.
They crossed at Niagara Falls at 6 p.m. Jan. 3, telling the border officer they were "visiting friends." It was a bit of a pun. Hinzman had been in touch with the Quakers -- the Religious Society of Friends -- and was headed for sanctuary in a Quaker meeting house in Toronto.
They called their parents. "Everyone has been very supportive," Hinzman said. "With the only exception being my grandpa. He has some issues with it, even though he thinks the war is wrong. I think he has a different concept of duty."
"I think the U.S. is a great country," Hinzman said. "But the direction that it's heading now is not a good one. I don't want to be a part of it. There is something to be said for staying and being a voice of opposition. But I wasn't called for that.
"Some people have put us as cowards, others have put us as victims," he mused. "I would say neither is true. I chose to do this. I feel I exhausted all the options I had."