The soldier who refuses to fight
The Globe and Mail (Canada) 
Saturday 7 Feb. 2004

Jeremy Hinzman tells MICHAEL VALPY that he enlisted to get an education, not to kill people. But his superiors wouldn't listen and ordered him to pack for Iraq. Instead, he packed up his family and hightailed it north. Now, Canada must decide: Can a U.S. Army deserter be considered a refugee?

On a snowbound afternoon 955 kilometres north of where the U.S. Army says he should be, Private First Class Hinzman, Jeremy D., No. 503946779, is sitting in the sunroom of the rambling old mansion owned by Toronto's pacifist Quakers. He is describing the chants he learned in basic training.

"You're always walking around in formation. And you have this [marching] chant: 'We're trained to kill, and kill we will.' And during bayonet training, the instructors ask this question, 'What makes the grass grow?' and everyone chants in response, 'Blood, blood, blood.' "

The U.S. Army wants him in Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the 82nd Airborne Division, "America's Guard of Honor." But this week Mr. Hinzman, 25, passed the 30-day limit for being absent without leave. He officially became a deserter.

Just before midnight on Jan. 2, he and his wife, Nga Nguyen, 31, quietly loaded their 21-month-old son, Liam, and a few belongings into their 1996 Chevrolet Prism and disappeared into the darkness for a 17-hour drive to the Canadian border. They left just before his unit -- the second battalion of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment -- was shipped overseas.

As a result, Mr. Hinzman is believed to be the first U.S. soldier to apply for refugee status in Canada after refusing combat duty in Iraq -- the first echo of the 12,000 deserters and 20,000 draft resisters who came north more than 30 years ago to escape the Vietnam War.

In 2002, Mr. Hinzman asked the army to declare him a conscientious objector because he had arrived at the religious conviction that killing and war in any guise are wrong. His request was rejected.

He has in principle the basis for a refugee claim. He believes that the invasion of Iraq is an international human-rights violation in which he cannot morally take part; he says he will be subjected to persecution for this belief if sent back: imprisonment and dishonourable discharge, leading to discrimination in the job market. ("They were always telling us, 'You get dishonourable discharge and you're going to be flipping burgers your whole life.' ")

There is a precedent of sorts. Canada accepted an Iranian conscript who said he had deserted thinking his country was going to use chemical weapons.

In practice, however, the odds that Mr. Hinzman will be declared a refugee are not robust. "For Americans of any sort," says University of Toronto law professor Audrey Macklin, an expert on refugee law, "the chances are low. Extremely low. Very rare." As in, there may be a couple of favourable decisions by the Immigration and Refugee Board that have escaped notice.

Chuck Fager is executive director of Quaker House in Fayetteville, the city bordering Fort Bragg. Last year, his counsellors received 6,000 calls from troubled soldiers. He says Mr. Hinzman fits the profile of today's recruits: undereducated people from small-town and rural America with few employment opportunities who join up for the money.

Both Mr. Hinzman and his wife grew up in Rapid City, S.D., population 62,000, in the shadow of Mount Rushmore. After high school, he decided not go to college because he was afraid of saddling himself with student debt and "starting a whole cycle of middle-class existence." He went to work as a baker.

Ms. Nguyen earned an undergraduate social-work degree from the University of South Dakota and found a job working with disadvantaged preschool children. She met her future husband through a mutual acquaintance and fell in love.

They moved to Boston in 2000 to experience life in a big city. Ms. Nguyen, burned out from social work, found a job in a health-food store. Mr. Hinzman took whatever employment he could find.

They wanted to start a family, but Mr. Hinzman felt his life was going nowhere and hit on the idea of joining the army. If he served a four-year stint, the military would give him $50,000 he could use for college. Ms. Nguyen tried to talk him out of it. "I could see his thinking . . . but the military! I finally said, 'You decide, and I'll support you.' "

He enlisted on Jan. 17, 2001, leaving Ms. Nguyen -- they had married a few weeks earlier -- in Boston while he did his basic training at Fort Benning in Georgia.

At first, he liked the army. He signed up for a paratroop regiment. He liked the camaraderie. He liked the idea of free housing and subsidized groceries. "Shooting rockets and machine guns and jumping out of planes, it's all fun until you start to think about the bigger picture and what it's all about."

Meaning an army's bottom-line purpose is to kill people. "Right. And the chants, that was disconcerting to me. I mean, you could play the game and yell it, but you could see that your fellow trainees were really getting into it . . . like they were totally losing their whole notion of self, turning into these little automatons. It was kind of frightening to me, but I pushed it to the back of my head. It was a pretty easy game to play."

Before enlisting, he had become interested in Buddhism, and one day at Fort Benning, the sergeant was doing his rounds and found him in the lotus position, meditating. "There was a big to-do about that, and people found out and were asking questions -- 'What the heck were you doing?' -- and I had to explain myself."

In July, 2001, Mr. Hinzman finished training and was posted to Fort Bragg. He was assigned a two-bedroom sixplex house with a little yard, and Ms. Nguyen joined him.

She felt isolated at the base, home to 45,000 service people. She tried going to wives' meetings, but she didn't fit in. The other women were either patriotically proud of their husbands or afraid to voice dissent for fear of harming their husbands' careers.

In the first week of September, she learned that she was pregnant. On Sept. 11, she heard a news broadcast and knew immediately that life was going to change.

The young couple suddenly found themselves amid frenetic patriotism they didn't share. They were horrified by the jetliner attacks but intellectually (Mr. Hinzman read the left-tilting Nation and Noam Chomsky) saw them as a consequence of U.S. foreign policy.

They attended Quaker meetings in Fayetteville, where they found friends and a spiritual approach to violence in the world that, says Ms. Nguyen, "felt very right."

Mr. Fager recalls that Mr. Hinzman didn't rush into applying for conscientious objector (CO) status. "He had philosophical issues to work through." And Mr. Hinzman says he felt "conflicted." He liked his job. He was a good soldier. But he didn't want to kill.

Finally, on Aug. 2, 2002, he asked to be transferred, as a conscientious objector,to non-combat duties. He submitted a six-page eloquent, thoughtful, often moving explanation of how spiritually he had come to change his mind about using a gun. He wrote that he had entered the army "to be part of a force that was working to do good . . . to help stem the tide of senseless conflict. . . . Although I still have a great desire to eliminate injustice, I have come to the realization that killing will do nothing but perpetuate it. Thus, I cannot in good conscience continue to serve as a combatant in the Army."

The army lost the application.

Which happens a lot, says Mr. Fager, who now advises soldiers to apply by registered mail.

Mr. Hinzman was told on Halloween that his paperwork had never turned up. By then, his unit knew it was going to Afghanistan.

He reapplied immediately. And he went to Afghanistan, where he was assigned to kitchen duty for eight months until his application could be considered.

A hearing was held before Lieutenant Dennis Fitzgerald at Kandahar Airfield on April 2, 2003.

Three of his sergeants testified that he was a good soldier who "embodied Army Values." But one of them, First Sgt. James Carabello, said he couldn't understand how Mr. Hinzman, with all his training, could suddenly decide he was a conscientious objector.

"He fully knew what our mission is, and that is to do an Airborne Assault onto an objective and destroy the enemy. This did not become an issue until it was apparent we were going to deploy to Afghanistan."

That wasn't true. He had applied several weeks before learning about the deployment.

Even so, Lt. Fitzgerald rejected the application. His hearing was over 25 minutes after it began.

In a volunteer military, the presumption is that soldiers are not opposed to war, says Lt.-Col. Rick Mathis, a senior policy army chaplain at the Pentagon. The purpose of the hearing, he says, is to allow applicants "to rebut that reasonable presumption." And although army regulations do permit a successful CO applicant to be assigned to non-combat duties -- medic, clerk, cook -- in practice, Col. Mathis says, "I haven't seen it."

In other words, the army thinks that you're not reasonable if you become morally opposed to war after you've voluntarily enlisted. But if you make your case, you're discharged. And if you don't, you pick up your gun. There's no middle ground.

When Mr. Hinzman and his unit finally returned to Fort Bragg, he was made his company's armourer, looking after the weapons. Eight months later, on Dec. 20, he was told that his regiment was shipping out again, this time to Iraq.

Back in Rapid City for Christmas, he agonized over what to do, sharing his thoughts with family members, except for his highly patriotic grandfather. His mother and grandmother were sympathetic (his father is dead), and on Dec. 28, he decided to join the 1 per cent of U.S. soldiers -- about 4,000 a year, the Pentagon says -- who desert.

His wife felt relief. For Ms. Nguyen, the issue was simple: "I wanted Liam to have a father. The college money? It would be no good if you're dead."

The family returned to Fort Bragg, and on Jan. 2, Mr. Hinzman had the day off work. The couple cleared out their refrigerator. They packed up their books and stored them in the basement of Quaker House. They arranged for a civilian friend with a truck to pick up other belongings after they had left. They had already wired their savings to a bank in Rapid City. And they had looked up maps on the Internet to find the best route to Toronto.

At 11 p.m., they bundled Liam into the 1996 Chevrolet Prism and drove into the night.

Jeffrey House, picked by Mr. Hinzman from a list of lawyers provided by the Quakers, says the first thing his new client asked was whether U.S. officials could cross the border and take him back.

They can't. They never could. But other things have changed. In the Vietnam era, the federal government never declared fugitives from the military to be refugees; it just didn't look too closely at how they got into the country or qualified as landed immigrants. Mr. Hinzman isn't likely to receive the same laissez-faire scrutiny.

The family moved into a basement apartment this week to await their hearing. Mr. Hinzman wants to be a bicycle courier once he can legally work. "He's very fit," Ms. Nguyen says.

Last week, three soldiers from a sister regiment sent to Iraq at the same time as the 504th were killed by a roadside bomb. A fourth was critically injured.

Michael Valpy reports on faith and ethics for The Globe and Mail.

refusing to kill