NEW YORK — An estimated 5,500 men and women have deserted from the U.S. Army since the invasion of Iraq, reflecting growing problems with troop morale in the United States. Many people are fleeing to Canada, according to the Sunday Telegraph, a trend that rekindles memories of the draft dodgers who flooded north to avoid service in Vietnam.
Jeremy Hinzman, a 26-year-old from South Dakota who deserted from the 82nd Airborne, is among those who have applied for refugee status in Canada. “This is a criminal war and any act of violence in an unjustified conflict is an atrocity,” Hinzman said. “I signed a contract for four years, and I was totally willing to fulfill it. Just not in combat arms jobs.”
The Army treats deserters as criminals, posting them on “wanted” lists with the FBI, state police forces, and Department of Homeland Security border patrols.
Hinzman, who served as a cook in Afghanistan, was due to join a fighting unit in Iraq after being refused status as a conscientious objector. As he marched with his platoon of recruits, chanting “Train to kill, kill we will,” he said he realized that he had made the “wrong career choice.”
Brandon Hughey, who deserted from the 1st Cavalry Division at Fort Hood, TX, said that he volunteered because the army offered to pay his college fees. He began training soon after the invasion of Iraq but became disillusioned when no weapons of mass destruction were found.
Ordered to deploy to Iraq, Hughey searched the Internet for an “underground railroad” operation, through which deserting troops are helped to escape to Canada. He was put in touch with a Quaker pacifist couple who had helped Vietnam draft dodgers, and was driven from Texas to Ontario.
The Pentagon says that the level of desertion is no higher than usual and denies that it is having difficulty persuading troops to fight. However, the flight to Canada is an embarrassment for the military, which is suffering from a recruiting shortfall for the National Guard and the Army Reserves.
The penalty for desertion in wartime can be death, but most deserters serve up to five years in a military prison before receiving a dishonorable discharge.
To stay in Canada, legally deserters must convince an immigration board that they would face “persecution,” not just prosecution, if they returned to the United States.
During the Vietnam War, an estimated 55,000 deserters or draft-dodgers fled to Canada. There were amnesties for both groups in the late 1970s under President Jimmy Carter, but many stayed.
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