This article originally appeared at nymag.com.
There is one place in the world where AWOL U.S. soldiers who lost faith in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — long before their countrymen did — are most at risk right now. It’s Canada. By Wil S. Hylton
Sometimes Dean Walcott disappears. He’ll be sitting on the sofa, watching his boys play, their shouts and giggles slicing the air, when the scent of blood washes over him and the day goes black.
“All of a sudden, I’m gone,” he said quietly. “And I’m on the floor, crying.”
Dean’s wife, Vanessa, turned to face him. She studied his eyes and frowned. “I just go and cuddle him,” she said. “Hugging him, rubbing his shoulders, reassuring, pointing at the boys and saying, ‘Look, they’re okay.’ One time I tried to get him to touch them, but he didn’t want to put his hand anywhere near their faces.”
“I was afraid their skin would fall off,” Walcott said. “When you’re burned like that, you can lose the skin.”
It was a crisp autumn afternoon, and we were in the Walcott living room in Peterborough, Ontario, a small city in eastern Canada. Outside, the banks of the Otonabee River burst with orange sugar maple and crimson staghorn sumac. Inside, the apartment was in shambles. A dozen cats and kittens tumbled across the carpet, mewling and clawing at drapes and cushions, while a plump dog waddled among heaps of clothing and sniffed at plates of crumbs. The Walcotts had bigger worries. Early that morning, Vanessa had been rushed to the hospital with a flare-up of her heart condition; Dean had just gone to pick her up, but as soon as they got home, they realized they didn’t have enough money to buy a birthday cake for their son Drake, who was turning 6 that day. Vanessa spent the next half-hour calling relatives for help, and just as she hung up with her stepfather, the elementary school called to report that their other son, Aidan, had fallen from the jungle gym and smashed the back of his head. Both the Walcott boys have behavioral issues and have to be medicated with anti-psychotic drugs. As if all this weren’t enough, Dean was about to be deported. He had just received a rejection notice from the Canadian immigration office. His application for political asylum was denied, which meant that any day, he might be ordered to the American border, taken into custody by the U.S. military, and prosecuted as a deserter.
Walcott is 33 years old, with a stocky build and down-turned eyes. He was raised in upstate New York and enlisted in the Marine Corps as a high-school senior in 1999. For his military occupation, Walcott chose electronic repair. After training, he spent a year fixing equipment on a base in Japan; by the time he returned home, the Twin Towers were in ashes and the Iraq War loomed on the horizon. Every Marine, regardless of his specialty, is considered a combat rifleman. Within six months of his return from Japan, Walcott received orders to deploy to Iraq as a member of the military police. He spent five months in southern Iraq, then he returned to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and resumed electronic repair. In 2004, he received orders for a third deployment: This time, he was assigned to work at a hospital in western Germany.
The Landstuhl Regional Medical Center is the largest American health facility outside the United States. During the Iraq War, it provided urgent care to severely injured U.S. troops. Walcott’s job was to greet and comfort new arrivals. This meant daily exposure to the kind of horrific injuries for which doctors and nurses must be trained in the emotional distancing known as aequanimitas. Walcott received no such training and maintained no such distance. He spent his days racing down the hallways with stretchers bearing mutilated bodies, their legs and arms shorn by bomb blasts, their faces melted by fire. At night, the gruesome sights haunted him, but he believed he was managing the pressure until one morning, when the children arrived. An errant mortar round in northern Iraq had set fire to a civilian neighborhood of tents, and the military was evacuating local families. “It was mothers and kids coming in, all burned and bloody to hell, screaming this horrible noise,” Walcott said. Some of the children were so badly charred and glistening with ointment that he didn’t realize they were people. “A few times, I thought they were trash bags on the stretcher,” he said, “and it turned out to be a little toddler.”
That’s when Walcott’s nightmares began. He would settle into bed, only to wake a few hours later, stumbling around in a daze. “I was walking around the apartment, looking for people that weren’t there,” he said. “For injured people that I heard crying.”
Walcott returned to North Carolina in 2006, but the nightmares and flashbacks followed him. He could be anywhere—at work, at home, even at the grocery store—when the memories flooded down. It began with the scent of death. “I smell blood, I smell burned flesh,” he said. “There’s a weird taste and smell to hospitals. It’s a whole building that smells like somebody just opened a fresh pack of Band-Aids. I can feel it on my tongue, the bandages, the gauze, the Vaseline.” After a flashback, Walcott would snap back to reality and discover that he was crumpled on the ground, gasping for air. “He gets scared when I go to touch him,” Vanessa said. “He jumps, and then he looks at me, then looks away and starts crying and says, ‘What are you doing here?’ ”
Walcott made appointments to see a psychiatrist, but he told me his commanders wouldn’t grant him leave. Eventually, he did see a doctor and was diagnosed with PTSD. He began to fantasize about leaving the military altogether, imagining himself somewhere quiet, working a normal job, learning to shunt aside the memories. He was standing beside his toaster one morning, preparing for a run, when he decided to desert instead. Within two hours, he was at the local bus station. Within two days, he was in Canada. Within a week, he had found his way into a growing community of American deserters that stretched from Newfoundland to British Columbia, through Winnipeg, London, and Nelson. No one knew how many there were or how long they could stay.
It is difficult to remember, and tempting to forget, the American enthusiasm for war in 2003—the fervid certainty of the Bush administration, the whooping consent of Congress, and the ready endorsement of an American majority long divorced from combat. Six weeks into the Iraq invasion, public support hovered near 80 percent. For the men and women tasked with fighting, those were galvanizing times. Many hardened in their commitment to service; others accepted their redeployments with grim resignation. Still others, returning home from a first or second tour damaged and disillusioned, felt compelled to desert. Between 2003 and 2006, more than 20,000 American soldiers and Marines abandoned their posts.
To desert in a time of war carries a maximum penalty of death. The military has not actually executed a soldier for desertion since 1945, but for the young men and women preparing to go AWOL in the early aughts, it was difficult to gauge what the true penalty might be. In a country gripped by renewed enthusiasm for military action, words like coward andtraitor enjoyed a currency unseen in decades. It seemed easy to believe that the penalty for desertion might be years of imprisonment or worse.
Desertion is always a solitary choice, but it can be especially so for those who seek refuge in other countries. The deserter in exile is cut off from community, family, and country, knowing there may never be a safe way home. For the alienated troops who fled to Canada in the early years of the Iraq War, the decision seemed to offer solace. The northern border has always welcomed disaffected Americans, from the British Union Loyalists who opposed the Revolutionary War to the draft dodgers and deserters avoiding Vietnam. Between 1965 and 1975, roughly 50,000 U.S. citizens took shelter in Canada, where the Liberal Party of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau quietly embraced them. In the first three years of the Iraq War, at least 200 new American troops joined them, believing they would find the same open arms. Most of the new deserters chose to live and work in cities like Toronto and Montreal without revealing their military past; only about two dozen stepped forward publicly to request political amnesty as “war resisters.”
Whatever else one thinks of these men and women, it is difficult to brand them cowards. They have chosen to spend the last ten years exposed to public scrutiny, with their lives and choices picked over by critics and no way to return home. These are people like Chuck Wiley, who served 17 years in the military before deploying to the Persian Gulf in 2006 as a nuclear engineer on an aircraft carrier, where he became concerned by the tactics used by the ship’s aircraft in civilian areas of Iraq. Over the past eight years, Wiley has steadfastly refused to reveal the classified details of what he saw, which could lead to an even greater penalty than desertion itself. But he was sufficiently distressed—and sufficiently thwarted in his efforts to change the system—that in 2007, he walked away from his Navy career, three years shy of a full retirement package. He says that his parents haven’t spoken to him since.
The U.S. deserters in Canada are a varied group. Some were highly successful in the military and completed multiple tours like Wiley; others were young, enlisted in haste, and became disillusioned as their political ideas shifted. Military service occupies an awkward intersection in American life. Most of the things a person can get into at 18, he or she can get out of a few years later. The American military defines itself as a “volunteer service,” but that’s only until the ink on the contract is dry. After that, it can be nearly impossible to get out. The soldier’s job is the only service contract a person can be imprisoned for refusing to complete. Anyone but the most committed ideologue can understand why this is so. Military discipline is essential to any national defense. But it is equally easy to sympathize with men like Wiley and Walcott, who enlisted in good faith but came to believe they could not continue in good conscience and good health. It can be difficult to reconcile the military demands of a free state with the individual values of a free society.
For all their differences in age and experience, the deserters in Canada share at least one trait: They were extraordinarily unlucky. As the years have passed and the wars wound down, they have become trapped in a shifting cultural landscape. By 2008, two-thirds of Americans believed the Iraq War was a mistake, and President Obama was elected in large part because of his early opposition to it. Canada, meanwhile, drifted in an alternate political current: Although two-thirds of its citizens supported the U.S. deserters in a 2008 poll, and the legislature has voted twice to grant them permanent residence, the election of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative Party in 2006 altered the country’s political foundations. Harper, who supported the invasion of Iraq, has consistently opposed the American deserters and his immigration department has worked assiduously to deport them. In 2009, immigration minister Jason Kenney explained the administration’s position like this: “We’re talking about people who volunteer to serve in the armed forces of a democratic country and simply change their mind to desert. And that’s fine, that’s the decision they have made, but they are not refugees.” This leaves the American deserters in a grotesque bind: At a time when most Americans can agree that the decision to invade Iraq was disastrous, the only U.S. troops still fighting over the invasion are those who took a firm stand against it.
Many of them have already been deported from Canada and imprisoned in the United States. The first was Robin Long, who enlisted in 2003, became disillusioned by the Abu Ghraib scandal, and deserted in 2005. The Harper administration deported Long in 2008. At his court-martial, prosecutors appeared more incensed by his public statements against the war than by his decision to leave the service. The primary evidence against him was a six-minute interview he completed with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in which he spoke out against the Iraq invasion. After a plea deal, Long received a dishonorable discharge and spent 15 months in military prison. The judge expressed disappointment that prosecutors did not insist on a longer sentence.
The following year, the Harper administration attempted to deport another U.S. deserter, Rodney Watson, who was living in Vancouver after a deployment to Mosul where he says he watched American soldiers physically assault Iraqi civilians. When the Harper administration ordered Watson to leave Canada, he walked into a downtown church and claimed sanctuary. Five years later, he is still there—unable even to step outside.
Another deserter, Kim Rivera, was deported from Canada in 2012. Rivera completed a tour in 2006 as a driver with the Fourth Infantry Brigade Combat Team, but she came to believe the long-term occupation of Iraq was excessive and immoral. In 2007, she left her post in Texas and moved to Toronto with her husband and their two children. Over the next five years, they had two more children and Rivera became pregnant with another. At her court-martial, Rivera’s supporters included Amnesty International, the archbishop Desmond Tutu, and several veterans organizations, but she lost the case and was sentenced to 14 months in military prison. When her pregnancy came to term, she was escorted to a hospital by military police, who waited for her to deliver the baby and then returned Rivera to her cell.
Today, fewer than a dozen outspoken U.S. deserters remain in Canada. The Harper administration has denied many of them permits to work, cut off their access to the national health-care system, and rejected their applications for asylum at every stage—even as they file appeals and plead for protection in the federal courts. To survive, they have formed an insular community of mutual support—sharing apartments and tending to one another’s illnesses, heartbreaks, and depression. After a decade, their hellish limbo may be coming to an end: With a federal election scheduled this year, Prime Minister Harper spent the fall trailing in the polls to Liberal candidate Justin Trudeau, whose father was pivotal to the American draft dodgers and deserters from Vietnam. Cheri DiNovo, a member of the Ontario assembly from the New Democratic Party, told me that if anyone other than Harper wins the election, the deserters will be allowed to stay in Canada. “Neither the Liberals nor the New Democrats are willing to deport resisters,” she said. But as the election approaches, Harper has begun a final purge. Nearly all of the deserters who remain in Canada have received a deportation order in the past four months. Many of them could be in American prisons by the time a new Canadian government offers them relief. Michelle Robidoux, a prominent activist in Toronto who leads the War Resister Support Campaign, told me that after more than a decade of battle, the deserters have reached the “critical moment.”
As I sat with the Walcotts in Peterborough, Robidoux was organizing a strategy meeting for the deserters, so I drove into Toronto that afternoon. Since 2005, Robidoux’s group has kept an office on the third floor of a steelworkers’ hall downtown. The building sits at the edge of a neighborhood known as Baldwin Village, which became a locus of American war resisters in the Vietnam era. I took a walk through the neighborhood with a draft dodger named Jeffry House, who left the U.S. in 1970, studied law in Toronto, and eventually represented the new generation of deserters. As we wandered past the gentrified storefronts of Baldwin Village, he recalled the neighborhood’s bohemian past. “It was a nice carnival atmosphere of the hippie world,” he said. “On a summer day, there’d be people out on all the stoops, and there’d be dope smoking, and people with balloons.”
The young men and women gathered in the hall that evening were a different breed: no more countercultural than the workaday parents at my daughter’s school. Chuck Wiley was there, in a gray polo shirt tucked into belted pants with a cell-phone holster at the hip; next to him sat Jenna Johnson, who came to Canada after her husband, Ryan, discovered that the “non-deployable support position,” for which he volunteered, did not exist. At the center of the table, Robidoux’s laptop was open to a Skype window, with Dean and Vanessa Walcott patched in from Peterborough on the left and, to the right, Josh and Alexina Key at home in Manitoba. Josh has been among the most prominent American deserters in Canada. In 2007, he published a book in which he confessed to stealing from Iraqi civilians with members of his unit and watching one day as a 10-year-old girl was shot by a sniper round that he believed was fired by an American soldier. The Deserter’s Tale describes a slow moral awakening. At home on leave in 2005, he decided to desert, throwing his belongings into an old Dodge Caravan and driving north.
At the head of the table, Robidoux stood before a large sheet of paper attached to the wall. She is a wiry woman in her early 50s with a strong jaw and cropped gray hair. After a few minutes of small talk, she cleared her throat to begin the meeting. “Okay,” she said. “Are we ready to roll, kids?” She gestured toward the paper behind her, covered with pink and yellow sticky notes and scribbled with green and purple writing. “I took the liberty to do this up because I was trying to organize what’s going on,” she said. “Can we just do updates first?”
One by one, the deserters around the table reported their latest news—receiving a deportation order, or giving notice at work, or else packing their bags and selling or donating their belongings in preparation for prison. Robidoux listened in silence; when everyone had spoken, she provided an update for one of the deserters who wasn’t there. Over the course of combat in Iraq, he had developed extreme traumatic stress and still suffered frequent dissociative breaks. Now the immigration authorities had instructed him to leave Canada within two weeks; his wife was hoping to follow him to the U.S. border and to live with their children near the military prison where he would be sentenced—but the strain of their daily life was already overwhelming and the logistics of packing and moving seemed unbearable. Robidoux was trying to help.
“We need a strong person who can actually take things in hand,” she said. She glanced back to the chart on the wall. “The critical things. Doing a garage sale: When would that happen? How would that happen?”
A few of the Canadian activists shifted uncomfortably in their seats. It was difficult to accept that, after years of fighting, this family was finally facing the prospect of leaving. Many of the activists were still hoping for a last-minute legal reprieve.
“It’s so hard,” someone said. “They don’t know if they’ll have to go.”
Robidoux sighed. “Well,” she said. “They have to plan like they do.”
As the conversation turned toward the logistics of surrendering at the border, I noticed the name COREY written in marker on the paper behind Robidoux. This was a reference to an Army deserter who had left the country a few days earlier to avoid deportation. But rather than surrender at the U.S. border, Corey Glass headed east, across the ocean. Even as the meeting in Toronto wrapped up and everyone filed down the street to Grossman’s Tavern, Glass was making his way down the canals of Holland on a sailboat with a broken mast. He still had no idea where he was going, or what legal options he had—but everyone in Canada was hoping he would find a safe harbor where he, and they, could live.
I met up with Glass a few days later on a busy street in downtown Rotterdam. He is a skinny man with a shaggy beard and the insouciant aspect of a lifelong skateboarder. Glass had come to Europe with little time to plan and didn’t have many contacts on the Continent. I was on my way to meet with other deserters and peace activists, so I offered to make some introductions. We spent that night with friends in rural Belgium, then continued through the Ardennes Forest into Luxembourg. Along the way, he described his decade in exile and what he hoped to find in Europe.
Glass signed up with the National Guard in his late teens. He believed that the only time he could be called into service was for a national emergency but soon discovered that he was mistaken. During times of war, members of the Guard can be sent to combat for up to 18 months. By 2005, more than 40 percent of American troops in Iraq were Guardsmen. That year, Glass received orders to deploy to the northern city of Balad.
It was a relatively easy tour: He spent his days behind a desk, writing reports on field intelligence. Except for the occasional mortar round dropping into camp, he saw little action. The trouble for Glass was what he saw in the field reports delivered to his desk. His job was to read the contents and rewrite them into a coherent narrative for commanders to skim. Instead, he found himself questioning the reports themselves. Like other U.S. deserters, Glass has been careful not to reveal the operational details of what troubled him, but over time, he became convinced that U.S. troops had committed war crimes. He says he tried to alert superiors, who told him that he was oversensitive. When they offered Glass two weeks of leave to the United States, he accepted—and then went AWOL.
Glass lived underground in the U.S. for a year, terrified of being caught. In 2006, he crossed into Canada with the hope that he could live and work openly as a political exile. Over the next eight years, he became an integral member of the deserter community and in some ways a leader. He opened a small company for household repairs and employed other deserters, but his legal appeals stumbled through the immigration system. Every few months, he would receive a warning that he was about to be deported, and his lawyers would flood the courts with appeals and requests for a stay of removal. Twice he was so close to deportation that he began selling his belongings; the second time, he was headed to the Toronto airport when the reprieve came. When he discovered last fall that yet another deportation order was on the way, he decided it was time to give up on Canada. As a legal matter, he considered himself “on vacation” in Europe. His only piece of luggage was a large backpack with a solar charger clipped to the outside so that he could power a smartphone and check email on the free Wi-Fi at coffee shops. But he was using the vacation to look for a friendly country where he might file for permanent asylum.
We pulled into the grimy city of Kaiserslautern at dusk, passing through streets of broken windows and graffiti on our way to a small bar called the Clearing Barrel, known as a safe house for disgruntled U.S. troops at the nearby Ramstein Air Base. A cluster of neo-Nazis were standing just down the street; inside the bar, the walls were covered with anti-Nazi posters and antiwar slogans. One showed an illustration of Rodney Watson in sanctuary at the church in Vancouver. The owner of the bar, Meike Capps-Schubert, was behind the counter, decorating vegan chocolate muffins. She was a stout woman with short blonde hair and a black T-shirt that said SUPPORT GI RESISTANCE. She poured us coffee and listened in silence as Glass explained his situation. When he finished, he said, “I need to figure out what my move is.”
Capps-Schubert nodded. “I’ve been doing this quite a while,” she said quietly. “I have a couple resisters staying here, and I have my husband, who is one. If you want to stay here in Germany, I know tons of people.”
Glass smiled weakly. “Perfect,” he said.
“Do you have some sort of steady money flow?” she asked.
“I have some money,” Glass said.
Capps-Schubert shook her head. To stay in Germany, he would need a job. “To get a job, you need a permit to work,” she explained. “To get a permit to work, you need residency. And to get residency, you need proof that you’re not going to rely on the welfare system—like having a job.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Glass said.
“But there are ways,” Capps-Schubert replied with a smile. She glanced toward the front door, where a small group of customers were trickling in. Soon, the bar would fill with activists gathering to discuss the American air strikes on ISIS, so we agreed to continue our conversation with Capps-Schubert’s husband, Chris, in a nearby restaurant.
As we settled around a small wooden table, Chris explained his own history as an Army deserter. It was a familiar story—raised in a conservative Texas family, he deployed to Iraq in 2005, where he became distressed by the attitudes and tactics of other soldiers. “They would go to city blocks in Baghdad and arrest all military-age males,” he said. “When they took gunfire from a crowd, they would just open up.” After returning to Germany, Capps-Schubert received orders to deploy to Afghanistan in 2007. “That’s the point where I said no,” he said. But unlike the deserters in Canada, Capps-Schubert planned his escape from the Army meticulously. He knew that after being AWOL for a month or two, he would likely be dropped from the personnel rolls and listed as a deserter, so he requested permission to visit his family in the United States, then flew to New Jersey and took cover in a friend’s attic. After two months, he called the Army’s deserter hotline to confirm that he was classified as a deserter and removed from the rolls. Then he caught a bus to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, and turned himself in. Faced with the option to send him back to Germany and embark on a lengthy court-martial at an overseas base, the Army chose instead to let Capps-Schubert go with a general discharge. He returned to Germany on his own and has been living in Kaiserslautern ever since.
Glass chuckled at the story, but I could see that something in his expression had changed. As we left the restaurant and made our way to a dingy motel for the night, he was silent. We stood outside the front door for a while, finishing a smoke and watching skinheads on the corner guzzle beer. Glass was clearly somewhere else. After a few minutes, he stubbed out his cigarette and shook his head. “I can’t believe he got out that easy,” he said. “I wish I would have known that ten years ago.”
It turns out that Capps-Schubert’s experience is fairly common: American military commanders rarely seek out deserters and even more rarely punish them. At the height of the Iraq War, fewer than 5 percent of deserters received a court-martial, and fewer than one percent served prison time.
The Pentagon, in fact, makes little effort even to count missing troops. There is no comprehensive list of AWOL and desertion cases for the military, nor any unit responsible for keeping one. When I called the Office of Personnel and Readiness at the Pentagon to ask why this was so, a lieutenant commander named Nathan Christensen said that, by chance, his office had just recently compiled such a list, which was so complete that it counted even those who were missing for a few hours. But as soon as Christensen sent me the list, it was clear that his figures were drastically low. For example, Christensen listed the total number of missing troops in the American military in 2007 at 1,571. The Marines alone list twice as many missing in 2007, and the Army lists three times as many. Christensen’s total number of missing personnel between 2001 and 2012 was 14,650. The real figure, based on internal numbers from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines, appears to be north of 50,000.
From that number, the only deserters who have consistently been punished by the American military are those who went to Canada. All of the deserters who have been deported by the Harper administration have been taken into military custody, and all but one have been sentenced to prison. This does not necessarily reflect an effort by the Obama administration to punish the deserters in Canada more harshly than others. The decision to prosecute is typically made at the unit level, and the heightened punishment for those in Canada may reveal nothing more than a military culture that castigates insubordination. Still, given the contrast between a one percent chance of punishment for most deserters and nearly 100 percent for those in Canada, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the military is making a special example of those who fled north and spoke out; and that the Obama administration, in picking its battles with military culture, has decided not to pick this one. At trial, prosecutors continue to emphasize the public speeches and interviews given by the war resisters in Canada.
Once a deserter has been sentenced, life in military prison can be complicated by the hostility of guards and other inmates. One of the deserters still living in Canada has seen this effect firsthand. Christian Kjar enlisted in the Marines in 2004, after growing up fascinated by martial arts and religion in California. In the Marines, Kjar believed he’d found a way to practice the ethical principles of defense and honor. Boot camp, he told me, “gives you the essence of what it’s like to be a Marine: discipline, honor, commitment, courage.” But when Kjar began to meet men and women returning from combat, he was shocked to hear stories about violent home raids and checkpoints, and he came to believe he’d made a mistake by enlisting. In 2005, he read about Robidoux’s group in Toronto, and a few weeks later, he caught a bus across the border. Two years later, when his grandfather seemed to be dying, he decided to return home—hoping that if he surrendered to the Marines, he might one day get a chance to say good-bye.
Instead, Kjar’s commanders in Virginia placed him in a punitive unit, where he says he spent two weeks deprived of sleep, unable to contact a lawyer, and physically terrorized by senior men. A spokesman for the Marines, Eric Flanagan, confirmed the dates and locations that Kjar described, but said the Corps would never sanction such treatment. “We take all allegations of misconduct seriously,” he said. “These allegations aren’t congruent with our treatment of deserters who return to our custody.” Late one night, Kjar escaped from the barracks, raced across an open field, and caught a taxicab to Washington, D.C., where several of the Canadian activists were in town for an antiwar rally. Kjar tracked down Robidoux and a Vietnam War deserter named Lee Zaslofsky at a hotel. When they saw him, far more gaunt than he’d been two weeks earlier, Zaslofsky began to cry. A few days later, they returned to Toronto. Kjar has been there ever since.
Like the other deserters in Canada, Kjar’s time in exile is winding down; unlike the others, he has already seen the punishment to come. Unless the U.S. government changes course, neither he nor any of the other deserters in Canada is likely to be forgiven like Capps-Schubert. But there is one deserter in Germany who may offer them a glimmer of hope. André Shepherd has been living in the Bavarian Alps for seven years and fighting for political asylum in European courts. Lately, his case has been looking up. Glass and I set out to find him.
The drive to find Shepherd in Bavaria took us through a startling vista of surging, icy mountains. Glass bounced a knee and tapped his fingers to some interior rhythm, gazing through the window, and it struck me just how isolated he had become. In Canada, he began a second life, bought a house, opened a company, and made friends; all he wanted in Europe was a chance to start over again.
We met Shepherd at a café in Munich and found a seat near the back. He is a tall black man with an easy smile and a rapid, discursive style of conversation. Shepherd studied computer science at Kent State University, but when money grew tight, he enlisted in the Army and trained as a helicopter mechanic. After a tour in northern Iraq, he was stationed in Germany, where he met a community of antiwar activists. Shepherd came to believe the U.S. invasion was immoral and illegal, and when he received orders to return to Iraq in 2007, he drove instead to a friend’s house near Austria and went into hiding. After 19 months, he emerged to claim asylum in the German courts. A judge ruled against him, but his case is under appeal at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
As we settled into our seats, Shepherd joked about the challenge of trying to hide in the conservative, white enclaves of the Alps. “Living in Bavaria, a black guy doesn’t really fit. I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to really stay in shape, have a military haircut, so it always looks like I’m either on vacation or just visiting on the weekends.’ ” He turned to Glass. “I find it really fascinating how you guys were able to cross the border,” he said.
“Getting across was actually easy,” Glass said, “compared to what you had going on.”
Shepherd explained that by the time he came out of hiding, the German courts had already confirmed that a German soldier named Florian Pfaff had a right to refuse participation in the Iraq War. Pfaff was not a combat infantryman but a major assigned to a software project that he believed could be used to support the occupation. Shepherd’s case hinged on the idea that, like Pfaff, he was free to reject even a support role in a war he considered illegal. The fact that Apache helicopters were implicated in the notorious murder of civilians exposed by WikiLeaks did not escape Shepherd’s notice.
The European Court was expected to deliver a preliminary ruling any day; if the decision tilted toward Shepherd, he would begin a new trial in Germany on more favorable terms.
“Would it help your case to have other guys here?” Glass asked him.
Shepherd laughed. “Definitely!” he said. “Right now the perception is that it’s just one disgruntled soldier.”
After a few days with Shepherd in the Alps, Glass and I drove to Frankfurt to meet with Shepherd’s lawyer, Reinhard Marx. A lean man in a deep-blue suit, Marx escorted us into a dimly lit room lined with bookshelves. Glass explained that, like Shepherd, he was a deserter, but that he’d been living in Canada for several years. Marx looked confused. “Did you get a status there?” he asked.
“No, they were going to deport me,” Glass said.
Marx leaned back in his chair. “You have documentation from the asylum proceeding?”
“My lawyer is still there,” Glass said. “I’m surprised you guys aren’t sharing information. You’re working on the exact same case, but she’s worked about 20 of them.”
“They all have been rejected?” Marx asked.
“Yeah, everyone has been rejected,” Glass said. “They’re all looking for a new place to go.”
Marx nodded. “So,” he said, “you are the pilot project.”
He explained that in the European Union, a refugee can file for asylum only in the country he first reaches; since Glass had been through several other countries, he could not file in Germany unless he left the Continent for at least three months. Glass nodded silently, trying to imagine where else he could go. He thanked Marx, and we shuffled outside, into the wintry Frankfurt night. Glass stepped into a doorway and lit a cigarette.
In the weeks to come, he would leave Europe for yet another country, on yet another continent, while the deportation orders continued to land on his friends’ doorsteps in Canada. By the end of January, four more of the deserters would be gone, quietly slipping over the border to avoid a removal order. I spoke with one of them a few days ago; he was living underground in the United States, working under the table and struggling financially. Although he was still in touch with Glass, he was losing faith in the promise that Europe once seemed to offer.
“This ends with me returning myself,” he said quietly. “That’s what I’m planning right now. At this point, it’s going to be a relief. I mean, speaking out is going to make my time more difficult, because people who were politically active are criminalized. But it’s what I decided to do, and I would do it again.”
Back in Peterborough, Dean Walcott was striving for the same peace of mind. As the deportation orders trickled in, many of the deserters were drifting apart. Even at meetings in the steelworkers’ hall, there was a new air of tension. “There’s been so much secrecy,” Walcott said. “I went to a meeting not that long ago, and I still don’t know what anybody’s doing.” Of the 12 deserters who remained in Canada just six months ago, only Walcott and Josh Key still had reason to hope. Walcott was filing yet another appeal of the rejection notice he received last fall, and Key was hoping that a new petition would allow him a new asylum hearing. How much time this would buy, neither of them could say. After a decade in hiding, they were still living minute-to-minute.
“Now it’s just me and Josh,” Walcott said. “The longer it takes, the better.”
*This article appears in the February 23, 2015 issue of New York Magazine.