Soldiers Against Iraq Desert To Canada

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Justin Colby deserted his mission before he was sent back to Iraq.
CBS
During the Vietnam war, many young men who were drafted and didn't want to go to war fled to Canada. Today, a small group of soldiers and Marines are doing the same thing in protest of a war they say is unjust.

When you contemplate the danger and the violent death that are ever present factors in Iraq, you may wonder how Americans charged with fighting the war there can bear it.

The reality is that some of them can't take it. Justin Colby, 23 was inspired to join the Army to avenge the events of September 11.

"I thought that was something I wanted to do," he told Sunday Morning correspondent Rita Braver. "So I approached a recruiter and said, 'Sign me up.'"

On July 4 of this year, as his unit was about to be redeployed to Iraq, Colby became a deserter. And in September, he joined a small, but growing number of American servicemen who have sought refuge in Canada. Estimates say there are between 100 and 250 of them.

Before he decided to desert, Colby served heroically in Iraq. Starting in late 2004, he served a year as a medic there. He received the Army Commendation Medal for exceedingly meritorious service for his work while under fire. He said his base was constantly barraged by mortar and rocket attacks and he had a couple of close calls during his year there.

"The rocket landed within 15, 20 meters of where I was standing," he said.

But Colby was becoming disillusioned with the war in Iraq, especially because it became increasingly clear that Iraq, and its dictator Saddam Hussein, was not behind the attacks of 9/11.

"When I realized these people we were killing — 'cause we killed a lot of [them], I saw a lot of dead people — when I realized the people we were killing had nothing to do with 9/11, that's when I was, like, 'Okay, this is not for me! This, ya know, I was wrong.'"

Colby and the other deserters are the second generation of Americans to flee here, on the run from an unpopular war. In the 1960s and '70s, some 50,000 Americans — mostly draft dodgers but also some deserters — escaped to Canada, refusing to serve in Vietnam.

Lee Zaslofsky was one of those Army deserters. He was drafted in 1969 and fled to Canada in 1970. Today he is the coordinator of the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto — started in 2004 to help fleeing GIs. He is now a Canadian citizen.

"Provide them with temporary housing until they can get on their feet. If they need some money — we can give them some money; not a lot," Zaslofsky said. "We get them in touch with a lawyer."

He remains confident in the choice he made more than 30 years ago and says that he is happy to help other young men and women who faced similar dilemmas.

"I never had the slightest doubt about what I've done," Zaslofsky said. "What makes me feel good is that I'm able — at my age — to have the privilege of working with young people who have had the guts and the decency to stand up for what they believe is right."

One of those young people is former marine Dean Walcott, who served six years including two tours of duty in Iraq. In between he was assigned to a U.S. military hospital in Germany, assisting wounded marines. He said it was there that he fell apart after seeing so many burn victims.

"A lot of guys whose skin was melted off," he said. "A lot of guys who you couldn't recognize literally from their face to their feet. Missing arms, missing legs, couldn't breathe on their own, couldn't feed themselves. These kids, literally kids — 17, 18, 19, 20. And this look in their eyes that — Oh, I'm never gonna forget it. The look in their eyes when they finally come to understand that they're never gonna walk again. They're never gonna hold their wife and their children again. And having them ask me, 'Why?' Ya know — a 'big-picture why.' And I couldn't tell them."

After his second tour in Iraq, depressed and filled with anxiety, Walcott got himself assigned to a non-combat unit. But to his dismay, he was assigned to prepare reservists for deployment to Iraq.

"So basically instead of me deploying and me being psychologically or physically injured," he said, "now we're pulling them away from their family for over a year — and telling them "Well, while I sit here in the office drinking coffee and being safe, you go to Iraq!'"

He simply walked out and headed to Canada, which he remembered hearing was a haven for Vietnam deserters.

But there's a catch for those who flee to Canada. In the era of the Vietnam war, American draft dodgers and deserters could easily take up residence in Canada, and stay as long as they liked. Now, however, Canadian law has changed.

"Well, legally what's changed is that there's a general policy in Canada now that to apply here you must apply from outside the country. And that's not really an option that American troops could do," said Jeffrey House, a Vietnam veteran who fled to Canada. "Because they're gonna be sent to Iraq next week or next month."

House is now a lawyer in Toronto, trying to help deserters like Walcott. House is trying to convince Canadian courts that American deserters of today are, in effect, political refugees. He said he is currently representing about 35 clients and is trying to establish permanent residence.

"I believe the law says you need not participate in an illegal war," House said. "And so that's the circumstance we're asserting. 'I'm an American solider, I don't want to participate in an illegal war. That's why I couldn't apply from the United States. That's why I'm applying from inside Canada.' And [we believe] people will win their cases eventually."

But so far, despite all the countless papers House has filed, Canadian immigration boards have rejected the claim. The country's appeals court will hear the case this spring.

But the United States military doesn't see desertion as a significant problem. Army Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty said fewer than 1,500 a year desert. The desertion rate has gone down since 9/11 and Hilferty said most desert for personal, family-related reasons [compared to] those motivated by opposition to the war.

"I don't think America really wants an Army where soldiers get to vote," he said. "'I don't want to attack that hill. I don't think this patrol is a good idea. No, No I don't really, don't want to go on that mission.' And that's what these soldiers, I think, are saying. I don't like this particular mission. You cannot have an army to defend America — that fights for truth and the American way — if you do that."

So far, a handful of American deserters who went to Canada have voluntarily returned to the U.S. One is in prison, another is in hiding. Several have been discharged. There's no uniform penalty for desertion. Col. Hilferty says the military issues an arrest warrant for deserters — but does not actively attempt to track them down — whether in the U.S. or Canada.

"Primarily people turn themselves in. They return to their duty stations," he said. "Or if a police officer stops you for running a red light. Primarily what we do with deserters is we bring them back in the unit. That's our first course of action."

It's an idea that was rejected outright by Colby:

"What I feared the most was being incorporated back into the unit," he said. "Ya know, take my rank, take my pay and send me back to Iraq."

In the 1970s, President Jimmy Carter announced an amnesty for Vietnam draft dodgers and deserters, but with the war in Iraq still raging, no one is talking about how deserters from this conflict will be dealt with in the future. Theirs is an even heavier burden: with no draft, everyone in today's military joined voluntarily, including Walcott, who says he sees the contradiction between leaving the war for moral reasons and abandoning his mission.

"I do see the contradictions there," he said. "And I realize that as — again — it not only being illegal, it's also going back on my word which I swore to when I did it — and did it again. And it's also more than likely a sin."

But, he said, the images of the dead and wounded from Iraq will not go away.

"I regret that it became necessary, but I don't see any other way that I can help those men and women more than by doing what I'm doing now," Walcott said, "which is talking about it, raising the issue, getting it out there for people to debate about it."