US deserter Phillip McDowell with partner Jamine.
US military deserters seek refuge in Canada
US deserter Phillip McDowell with partner Jamine.
Ian Munro, Toronto
Even though he was in no imminent danger of returning for a third deployment, he took a Greyhound bus to Canada.
He is one of dozens of US military deserters hoping to be granted refugee status in Canada under the rule of the United Nations Charter on Refugees.
It was not Mr Walcott's combat experience but his time in a military hospital in Germany that prompted his desertion.
His route north followed a path taken decades earlier by tens of thousands of Vietnam War draft dodgers and deserters, to Toronto and the War Resisters Support Campaign.
Mr Walcott was in Landstuhl military hospital when the hideously burned survivors of the 2004 Mosul mess tent bombing arrived. Some, he says, resembled nothing so much as a lump of coal, still screaming in pain despite the tide of morphine coursing through them.
"Seeing people in that suffering and pain, if you are going to do that to your country's soldiers and sailors, then there's got to be a damn good reason, not just the abstract like this one was," says Mr Walcott, 25.
He grew tired of trying to answer the questions of young reservists, recovering from the loss of limbs, who wanted to know what the heck the war was about.
Meanwhile, in Canada, two wars and two tales of atrocities against children have driven Lee Zaslofsky, one of that earlier generation of deserters.
The first story helps explain why Mr Zaslofsky deserted the US Army in January 1970, before he was shipped out.
During his military training, a returned infantryman told Mr Zaslofsky how he saw another US trooper clean his gun and then test fire a round into a Vietnamese toddler. Asked why he was killing children, the trooper replied: "Well, they grow up to kill you."
The other story is of Iraq and was related to Mr Zaslofsky by a new generation deserter, who was on patrol, guarding a highway out of Baghdad. Each day the patrol had to check suspected roadside bombs. Done properly it was a long, tedious task.
The patrol's frustrated sergeant decided to speed things up by cajoling a child with candy to help. The child was killed when it approached a suspicious device and it exploded.
Mr Zaslofsky has offered his support for the man who relayed the tale. The ex-trooper is now in Canada, on the run and sheltered by the support campaign.
Mr Zaslofsky's group is in touch with up to 40 deserters or war-resisters seeking refugee status, but there may be several hundred in Canada, he says.
He does not put his own decision to desert down just to accounts of atrocities, such as the My Lai massacre.
"I deserted partly because I did not believe in that war (and) partly because I was an infantryman and if I was present at My Lai I might join in like all of them. What moved them was a mob feeling of rage," he says.
Mr Zaslofsky, soon to turn 63, made a new life in Canada, working as a political aide and community activist. But in 2004 several deserters contacted the Canadian peace movement, and the war resisters group was formed.
The deserters he sees are mostly young, from late teens to mid-30s, of sergeant's rank or lower. They are deeply disillusioned with the war in Iraq, where
US military deaths top 3600, a fraction of the 60,000 killed or missing in Vietnam. An estimated 50,000 Americans sought sanctuary in Canada during the Vietnam conflict, all but a few thousand believed to be avoiding the draft.
Those seeking refuge from fighting in Iraq are deserters rather than draft dodgers, the draft having been abolished in the 1970s.
Toronto lawyer Jeff House says he has spoken to 170 individuals hiding in Canada, and he estimates the total of deserters in the country at about 250.
Mr House says the basis of the refugee claims lie in the United Nations charter, which says there is no obligation on a soldier to participate in a war begun in violation of international law. A soldier facing punishment for refusing to fight in such a case is considered to be facing persecution.
"We have said that the US Administration violates international law, and condones violation of international law in relation to its interrogation policy," Mr House says.
At 21, Phillip McDowell, formerly of Rhode Island, was just the sort of recruit US President George Bush would embrace. Mr McDowell's response to 9/11 was to enlist.
"I was thinking how we responded to this big event would define us as a nation," Mr McDowell says.
But last Saturday Mr McDowell, Iraq veteran, deserter and would-be refugee was outside a Toronto church canvassing support for the resisters and opposition to the war.
He would have gone to Afghanistan, he says, but he was not prepared to return to Iraq.
"I was aware of the international opposition to going in, but growing up I always trust my Government."
He says his 12 months in Iraq until March 2005 sowed doubts. "What was the justification for the invasion if everything they said was false?" he asks.
He did not intend to make a career out of the military, just to serve four years.
"Speaking to the Iraqis there, everybody said, 'Of course we didn't like Saddam, but since you guys have been here everything is worse — you have to go'," he says.
By the end of his tour he viewed the war as wrong, illegal and counterproductive. He was disturbed, too, by some of the treatment he saw meted out to detainees.
He thought he was clear of the army by the middle of last year when his enlistment expired. Then the army called him back after a change of regulations.
He and his partner, Jamine, took the Canada option in October last year, with his family's support. The couple have resettled in Toronto and are seeking refugee status.
The resisters group found them a sponsor who housed and supported them when they first moved to Toronto. Mr Zaslofsky says the group is now seeking sponsors further afieldas his local contacts are being stretched.
The refugee claim of the former marine Dean Walcott was heard a week ago, and he is waiting on a ruling, although recent applications have failed and are now being appealed through higher courts.
The Toronto lawyer, Mr House, said he did not expect to learn whether leave to appeal against the refugee rulings would be granted before mid-September. Meanwhile, Mr Zaslofsky is lobbying opposition political parties in Canada for support. He said an opinion poll in May taken in Ontario showed 64 per cent support for allowing the resisters to stay.
Mr Walcott, who had six year in the US Marines, knew he wasn't coping .
He eyes well up when he discusses his hospital experiences in Germany. His time there was followed by eight further months in Iraq, ending in March last year.
He says he was not coping emotionally and asked to be moved to a unit that was not to be redeployed to Iraq. Instead he was preparing others to ship out to Iraq.
"The unit I was with was sending reservists to fight this war," he says. "My role was supposed to be to train them to fix electronics.
"I put myself in a position where I may be safe, but I was asking other people to go instead of me."
One morning late last year he resolved not to do it any more. He had seen a psychiatrist while in the military, but not since arriving in Canada in December.
"I don't think there's any doctor in the world can take away memories," he says.