AWOL Soldiers Get Cold Shoulder from Canada

When 27 year old machine gunner Chris Teske was in Germany with the US army he decided he couldn’t go to Iraq. After two tours in Afghanistan he’d been honorably discharged but they called him back to service to train young soldiers in the use of the 50 calibre machine gun. He had reached a point where, according to his wife Stephanie he had to stop. He couldn’t take responsibility for arming these young men since, as Stephanie says, "the racism against the Muslim culture that was all through the army there, really got to him." He decided to escape. He and his wife spent a couple of months researching desertion and finally decided to go to Canada.

"We wanted some place where the language wasn’t a problem and our family could drive to see us" says Stephanie. But they had to get out of Germany first.

Soldiers don’t have access to their passports. They have to use only their military ID to travel so the Teskes had to try and fly out of Germany minus a passport. Stephanie pled their case. "I cried a lot and told them we’d spent $3,000 on these tickets and my parents were waiting for us and frankly, we just got lucky." They flew to North Carolina -- their home state -- jumped in a car and drove straight north. They had help with places to stay and food from the war resisting community on both sides of the border until they reached Toronto, October 11th, two days after Canadian Thanksgiving.

Soon after they applied for protected refugee status which allows them to work and provides them with health insurance until the court hears their case, which could take up to a year.

Lee Zalosfky deserted from the US military during the Vietnam war. Now living in Toronto he’s the Coordinator of the War Resisters Support Campaign which is the only national support group for resisters. He believes his group will soon be helping many other deserters settle in Canada. Estimates for more troops heading to Iraq go as high as twenty thousand. More Stop Loss orders are being issued. This is when the military decides they need to keep soldiers even after they have finished their terms. If like Chris Teske you are on inactive ready reserve -- basically around for domestic disasters -- you could well find yourself heading to Iraq.

Most of the resisters are apolitical, according to Zalosfky working class guys who went into the service to learn a trade or help pay for college. Usually they feel they held up their end of the deal and now they want their money and their freedom.

Canadians may be welcoming but their legal system is less keen. Recently Jeffrey Hinzman and Brandon Hughey, who deserted and came to Canada, were refused refugee status by the Immigration and Refugee Board. They are appealing the decision to the Federal Court of Appeal and hope to appear there in Feb.

Their lawyers argued along the same lines as Lt. Ehren K Watada, when he was defending his choice, made last July, to be the first lieutenant in this war to desert: that the Iraq war is an illegal war of aggression and therefore they are no longer bound by their agreement with the military.

Court martial proceedings against Watada will start in Feb. The Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board doesn’t want to hear any arguments about the illegality of the Iraq war. Lee Zaslofsky believes that the Board is apprehensive about declaring a US war illegal and has concerns about the implications for other refugees if they give these deserters refugee status. If Hinzman and Hughey are denied status and try to return to the US they face felony charges and possibly up to five years in prison, so they will stay and the War Resistors Support Campaign will try and have their case heard before the Supreme Court.

With only 30 or so US military deserters publicly residing in Canada, providing them with refugee status would not be anywhere near the big deal it was during the Vietnam war when the draft pushed tens of thousands over the border. Unofficial estimates on the number of deserters living undocumented in Canada are only between one or two hundred.

Before her son died in Iraq, peace activist Cindy Sheehan begged him to flee to Canada. She was in Ottawa this summer asking the Canadian government to consider a provision to allow military deserters immigrant status automatically so they don’t have to apply individually. Although former Prime Minister Jean Chretien refused to join the US in the war on Iraq -- a stance which won him overwhelming support from Canadians -- the current PM Stephen Harper, is much more sympathetic to the US.

Lee Zaslofsky believes the only real hope in Ottawa for Stephanie and Chris Teske and others like them is a new government, which could happen as early as next spring.

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