Just 5 feet tall, with a baby strapped to her chest and a soft, faltering voice, Kim Rivera is anything but soldierly. Yet, two years ago she was a private in the “War on Terror,” guarding a gate with an M4 rifle and frisking Iraqi civilians at a base in eastern Baghdad.
Now, on a Wednesday evening in January, the 26-year-old mother of three stands in a room in frigid, snow-covered Toronto. Her fair-skinned face and round blue eyes are framed by auburn hair pulled back in a low ponytail, and she places a hand on her bundled baby as she faces about 100 people seated in folding chairs in the middle-class apartment building’s community room.
Rivera clears her throat and unfolds a sheet of paper.
“I was fighting your kind for killing my kind,” she begins, reading a poem she wrote last summer and dedicated to the people of Iraq. “I was fighting for your liberty; I was fighting for peace.” She pauses and takes a deep breath. “But in reality, I was fighting to destroy everything you know and love.”
The audience listens in silence. Some nod. A few wipe tears from their eyes. They are peace activists and professors, fellow American Iraq War deserters in their 20s and American hippies in their 60s, Vietnam draft dodgers and Canadian mothers.
They’re all rooting for Rivera, red state–warrior-turned-peacenik deserter. They’re hoping and praying that by some lucky chance or the benevolent hand of a politician or judge, the young mother will escape the deportation order that has been issued here and the court martial that awaits back home.
Three years ago, before Iraq and Canada, Rivera’s dreams of going to college and starting a career had faded. She’d spent five years working at Wal-Mart in her hometown of Mesquite, Texas, met her husband in the store’s food court and had her first two children. After several years of living with relatives and struggling to save for their own apartment, Rivera saw the Army as the only way out. Through the military, she could make more than $10.50 an hour, plus get health insurance and higher education. And since she and her husband were both overweight and she was certain that she could shed the necessary pounds faster than he could, she began talking to recruiters.
She enlisted in early 2006. When she signed the contract, she thought of the war in Iraq as a remote and necessary evil. She was raised to praise the Lord and praise her country, and if that meant ridding the world of terrorists while allowing her and her family to get ahead, so be it. Yet after three desolate months in Iraq, consumed by homesickness, missing her children and disgusted by what she saw of the war, she deserted while on leave in 2007 and fled with her family to Canada.
Like her decision to enlist, that gamble hasn’t paid off the way she’d hoped. The Canadian government ordered Rivera to leave the country by January 27, or be deported to the United States, where there’s a warrant for her arrest. Desertion, according to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, carries penalties of up to five years in prison, a dishonorable discharge and, in wartime, a potential death sentence.
As the first known female soldier to walk away from the war in Iraq and fight for residency in Canada, Rivera has become a poster girl for a new generation of war deserters and, in particular, the small colony of American deserters living in Toronto and hoping they’ll be able to stay there.
More than 15,000 soldiers have deserted the Army since 2003, and most are thought to be living in the United States, keeping a low profile and trying to avoid a traffic ticket or anything else that would alert authorities to their presence. Army spokesmen stress that only 1 percent of all soldiers desert and that the problem is not large enough to warrant pursuing them for prosecution. Nevertheless, while desertion rates have held steady since the late ’90s, military records show a crackdown on deserters since the war in Iraq began. In both 2001 and 2007, for instance, roughly 4,500 soldiers deserted in each of those years. But in 2001, only 29 deserters were convicted; in 2007, that figure was 108.
The War Resisters Support Campaign estimates that several hundred deserters are living in Canada. Of those, around 40 have come forward to file asylum claims. The others, living under the radar without legal status and likely waiting to see how their peers’ cases pan out, have little to buoy their hopes. While an estimated 25,000 draft dodgers and deserters migrated from the United States to Canada during the Vietnam War, the notion that Canada will absorb today’s deserters as it did their predecessors is dead wrong. The Canadian government — led by conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper — has so far rejected all of the deserters’ requests, and the soldiers referred to as “war resisters” by their supporters are awaiting review from the country’s federal courts to determine their fate. As the cases make their way through the Canadian court system, Rivera is among the first wave to face impending deportation, and a host of others is expected to follow in the coming months.