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Just Deserters? 

Soldiers are singing 'O Canada.' Is it the beginning of a Vietnam-like trend?

Thursday, Aug 26 2004

On the night of January 2, 2004, Jeremy Hinzman, a paratrooper with the United States Army’s storied 82nd Airborne Division, loaded his wife, their 1-year-old son and some clothes into his Chevy Prizm, drove out the gates of his base in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and fled the country. The family barreled north for 17 hours and crossed into Canada the next day, posing as tourists.

“Once we were across the border, it was a load off my mind,” says Hinzman. “Though I knew it would be the beginning of a whole new chapter.”

That day, Hinzman left his life in America behind, perhaps for good. He had become a deserter from the U.S. military — a crime punishable by prison, or even death.

Just a couple of weeks before he bolted, Hinzman had learned that his unit was to be shipped off to Iraq. He’d already spent eight dispiriting months in Afghanistan — and more important, he had become convinced that Operation Iraqi Freedom was an unjustified attack aimed more at gaining control of foreign oil fields than defending the United States.

“This is a criminal war, and I’m not going to be part of it,” says Hinzman, 24, a rail-thin native of South Dakota with close-cropped hair and a purposeful expression on his angular face. “My wife and I wrestled with what to do — go the martyr route and go to prison, or leave the country. Prison could have meant a long sentence, and I’ve already spent enough time away from my family.” So the Hinzmans now live in a basement apartment in central Toronto, surviving off their savings and waiting for the Canadian government to decide what to do with them.

It may be premature at this point to call Iraq America’s new Vietnam, but it’s also getting harder to ignore the symptoms of that ill-fated conflict that are presenting themselves anew. One of the least noticed is the growing numbers of GIs who are either refusing to fight or who are having increasing doubts about doing so. Some are acting out of principle, others perhaps out of fear, many undoubtedly out of a combination of both. But they seem to agree with Hinzman on one thing: The war the Bush administration started in Iraq is not worth dying for.

At least three other American soldiers besides Hinzman have fled to Canada to avoid being sent to Iraq. A handful of others have been jailed for refusing to go; just this August, police in Rhode Island nabbed an Army recruit who ran off his base when he learned that he would be sent to Iraq as soon as his basic training was complete. There are certainly more who are quietly looking for a way out. According to the Army’s own statistics, the number of soldiers applying for conscientious-objector status is running double its prewar levels. Hinzman’s lawyer, Jeffry House, says about 60 GIs have contacted him about the prospects of finding refuge in Canada as deserters. And the GI Rights Hotline, a volunteer network that counsels soldiers considering leaving the military, is currently logging nearly 3,000 calls a month, almost twice the number that were coming in before the war.

“It’s been crazy,” says Hotline spokesman Bill Galvin. Calls are pouring in both from reservists who are afraid they’ll be called up and torn away from their families and jobs, and from active-duty servicemen and women. “We hear from a lot of people who have already served in Afghanistan or Iraq, saying they’ll go to jail before they’ll go back,” says Galvin.

Theoretically, deserters in wartime can be punished with execution. But in practice, that hasn’t happened since World War II. A long stretch in a military prison, however, is a real possibility. Camilo Mejia found that out the hard way.

Mejia, who emigrated from Nicaragua with his mother to Florida in 1994, joined the Army a year later at the age of 19. A Burger King cashier at the time, he was enticed — like many recruits — by the military’s offer to help pay for college. After his initial three-year stint, he stayed on with the Florida National Guard while he went to school. He was just finishing up a degree in psychology and Spanish in the spring of 2003 when his unit was ordered to Iraq.

For six months, Mejia led a squad in the volatile Sunni Triangle town of Ramadi, surviving roadside bombs, firefights and ambushes. But he also saw civilians — including children — killed by U.S. fire, and prisoners being cruelly abused, even before news of Abu Ghraib hit the headlines. In October, he was allowed home on a two-week furlough — and refused to go back. Instead, he began speaking out to the press, declaring his conscience would not let him return to fight what he called an “oil-driven war.”

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