Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Former Texas soldier: "Why I Went AWOL"

by Tamara Jones, posted on MSN

Kimberly Rivera spotted the little girl outside the U.S. military base in Baghdad. Just a tiny face in an agitated crowd. Saturday was "claim day," Kim explains, when Iraqi civilians would come to request compensation for things they'd lost in the bombings: Their furniture. Their jewelry. Sometimes their children. The Iraqis had to be checked by American soldiers. "We'd scan them, pat them down. Nobody ever had anything," says Kim, a former Army private.
Kim's soft Texas drawl snags in her throat as she remembers catching sight of the 2-year-old child of war with her family. The girl's dark eyes had locked on Kim. "She was just petrified," Kim says. "She was crying, but there was no sound, just tears flowing out of her eyes. She was shaking. I have no idea what had happened in her little life. All I know is I wasn't seeing her; I was seeing my own little girl. I could imagine my daughter being one of those kids throwing rocks at soldiers, because maybe someone she loved had been killed. That Iraqi girl haunts my soul."
And she changed Kim's life. The nameless child suddenly represented everything that felt wrong about being in uniform, about being in Iraq, for the 26-year-old former Wal-Mart clerk who had joined the military out of economic hardship, hoping to build a better future.
Kim had two children and a husband waiting for her back home in Mesquite, TX.
Not long after that day at the Baghdad claims line in late 2006, Kim was on a two-week home leave. But even in the welcoming embrace of her small family, she couldn't let go of the pent-up tensions of the war zone. "I was so crazy, like a roller-coaster car that goes off its tracks and crashes," she says. "Sometimes I'd be pacing or paranoid or a little panicked. Other times, it would be just extreme depression."
Kim's thoughts constantly turned to her kids. "It was incredibly emotional. I kept thinking, What if something happened to them? What if there was some emergency and they were hurt? I wouldn't be there for them," she says. "I'd be over in Iraq, just waiting to die."The possibility of running away didn't occur to Kim at that point. But it did to her husband, Mario. He retreated to his computer, his usual hideout in times of stress. This wasn't the shy, sweet Kim he had known as a teenager; they couldn't go on like this.
So Mario began researching antiwar groups and stumbled across the War Resisters Support Campaign in Canada. He sent an e-mail asking if anyone there could help. A former Vietnam War deserter named Lee Zaslofsky responded: Yes.
"The first time Mario told me, I dismissed it," Kim says. "What were we going to do in Canada?" She remembers Mario pleading with her, "What options do we have?""We don't have any options," Kim snapped. "Well, this is an option," he pressed. "It's better than none."
Kim was due to report to her base in a few days to travel back to Baghdad. With the deadline approaching, she and Mario piled the kids and everything else they could fit into the family's blue Geo Prizm, uncertain when they pulled out of the driveway whether they were heading for the base — or for the border.Kim was a wreck.
They drove in a huge multistate circle for days, zigzagging west to east, north to south, debating and crying. "I could not make up my mind," Kim says. "And I was getting paranoid. We only used cash. Some hotels wouldn't take cash, so we'd have to find ones that did. I kept thinking that the police were going to break down our door in the middle of the night and find me."
Kim thought about her life in the Army before Iraq, when she worked a simple 9-to-5 day, driving supplies from one place to another, packing up trucks, and unloading equipment from train boxcars. Now every time she heard a car door slam, she says, "it sounded like a faraway mortar."She and Mario finally pointed the car north. On February 18, 2007, they crossed the border.
America disappeared fast in the mist of the Rainbow Bridge at Niagara Falls. Kim was too numb, too angry, to look back. One minute she was Private Kimberly Rivera, a soldier, an Iraq War veteran, and an avowed patriot.
But when she left the country that winter day, unnoticeable in the crush of honeymooners and sightseers, Kim became something else: a deserter. One of more than 16,000 American soldiers who have gone into hiding rather than fight since the U.S. invasion of Iraq five years ago, Kim belongs to a small but growing movement of deserters seeking refuge in Canada, hoping to be granted citizenship the way American draft dodgers were during the Vietnam era.

But this war is different. Soldiers aren't drafted like they were for Vietnam, and Canada no longer has the open-door policy it had for that generation's protesters. Kim and an estimated 200 fellow deserters who fled north now live in uncertain exile, unable to return to their old lives or to begin anew; they're wanted on a fugitive warrant from the U.S. military and not openly welcomed by the Canadian government. They have been able to stay in Canada while they work their way through the court system — seeking political asylum or permission to immigrate — but so far, the courts have ruled against them. At press time, one soldier, Robin Long, had been deported to the U.S. and sentenced to 15 months in jail. Others are expected to follow.
As for Kim, she has been denied refugee status and is now appealing. Separately, she is also asking to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds. Final rulings are expected by year's end. When we meet in her subsidized apartment in a working-class Toronto neighborhood, Kim shyly opens the door to reveal a bare living room with a used dining-room set. She and Mario share the only bedroom with their kids, 6-year-old Christian and 4-year-old Rebecca.
"It's cozy to be able to reach out and touch them and feel safe," Kim says. Kim used to speak to her family daily from the war zone. Soldiers were allowed free phone calls in 15-minute turns, but Kim would go back when everyone else was sleeping to talk to Mario. One night, she returned from such a call to find an inch-long piece of shrapnel on her bunk. That could have hit me in the head and killed me, she thought.

Kim doesn't mind her spartan life in Toronto; poverty is something she has always known. "I never had any money growing up," she says of her childhood in Mesquite. Kim met Mario as a teen at the Wal-Mart, where they both worked. They'd dreamed of a future with educations and real careers, but Kim became pregnant at 20, and another baby quickly followed.
She and Mario lived with Kim's parents, whose dislike of Mario made the situation unbearable. Kim and Mario got married, and she saw the military as her only option. Becoming a soldier would mean a steady income, benefits, a roof over their heads. "Mario wanted to go instead of me," she says, but both were overweight, and Kim thought she would be able to shed the necessary pounds more quickly.
In January 2006, Kim joined the Army, and the family was posted to Colorado, where Kim was trained as a truck driver. The $8,000 signing bonus seemed like a fortune. Kim bought a tan sofa and chair ("microfiber suede," she says proudly), plus a TV and toys for the kids. Then her orders came for Iraq. "When they told me I'd be carrying a 20-pound semiautomatic weapon, it hit home," she says. "I felt like they were telling me I wasn't coming back."
Kim shipped out October 3, 2006, to a base in Baghdad. Meanwhile, her husband and kids moved back to Mesquite. In Iraq, Kim's main job was to guard the front gate of her base, inspecting vehicles and military convoys. There was an old supermarket across the street. "I was always afraid of that building," she says, "because there were these narrow windows throughout, and it would be completely easy for a sniper to hide there." By the time Kim had deployed, the fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction was long over, and her purpose, she believed, was to help the Iraqis rebuild and to deliver America's promise of freedom and democracy. Once there, however, Kim could see nothing but lies. "I felt like my government had betrayed me," she says.
After the Riveras crossed the border, Kim turned on her cell phone to find her voice mail filled with stern warnings from her commanding officers. However, Army spokesmen say the military doesn't actively pursue deserters; only 897 deserters have been prosecuted since the Iraq War began, and about half have pleaded guilty to AWOL rather than face trial. While desertion carries a five-year prison term, punishment for going AWOL is a maximum of 18 months. Both charges can include less-than-honorable discharges, or "rehabilitation" back at the unit.

Today in Toronto, Kim, who is due to give birth this month to her third child, works a night shift in a bakery, thanks to a temporary work permit. Mario works at a McDonald's during the day. Kim misses Mesquite, as well as her parents, who don't support her decision. During my visit, Kim kisses Mario, a lumbering teddy bear of a guy, three times before leaving the apartment for an hour. Then she smiles and tells me, "He's my euphoria." Later, she hurries down the street on her way to a favorite doughnut shop that reminds her of one back home in Texas. A homeless woman approaches and asks for change."Sorry, dear," Kim apologizes, offering directions to a government-run food pantry instead.
It's been a while since Kim has had to get groceries at the pantry herself, but when she heard the local government was about to close it down, she joined the campaign to save it. Becoming a war resister has awakened the activist in her. She still keeps her fatigues, which she wears sometimes for antiwar rallies, and dreams of doing "something humanitarian" someday.
That evening over a take-out dinner, Kim's kindergartner, Christian, suddenly puts down his pizza to announce, "My mommy was a soldier. She had to make a choice: Go home or die."
Kim freezes midbite, her eyes widening. Christian prattles on. "She chose to come home to her family. She didn't want to die. Her job was guarding the gate. Now someone else does it."
Kim is still sitting at the dinner table a half-hour later, wondering how her son had absorbed so much, when there's a sharp knock at the door. A man's voice rings out: "Kimberly Rivera!" Kim and Mario exchange frantic looks. Is this it? Is she going to be led away in handcuffs? Mario tentatively opens the door. The stranger hands him a boxful of donated toys for the kids — gifts from a local charity. Flooded with relief, Kim simply says, "Thank you. Thank you so much."

Tamara Jones is a former Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The Washington Post.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

An Open Letter to President-elect Obama

End military recruitment in our public schools

by Fernando Suárez del Solar

One day, when we still lived in Tijuana, Mexico, and my son was only 13 years old, a Marine recruiter told him that if my son enlisted someday he could become an agent in the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
My son had grown up in Tijuana and seen how drugs destroy the lives of innocent children and he wanted to become a policeman.
The recruiter who exploited my son's idealism promised that he would spend one year in the Marines and then transfer to the DEA despite the fact that he was not a U.S. citizen. We learned too late that none of this was true, but we accepted that in fact he would have to spend eight years in the Marines.
Then September 11 changed the history of the world. We were proud that our beloved son would be part of the armed forces that would protect us from terrorism.
Unfortunately, President Bush began to tell a series of lies about WMD and the connection between 9/11 and Iraq.
My son was deployed to the Kuwaiti border in February of 2003 and although I opposed the war because I believe violence is never the proper response to international conflict I thought the government of my adopted country would follow the lead of the Congress and the United Nations.
But unfortunately Mr. Bush led us into war with false reasons, a war against an innocent people that even today no one understands.
The carnage began on March 20, 2003, and seven days later on March 27 my son died and my life changed forever. The Marine official handed me an official Pentagon document that said he had been shot in the head by enemy fire, but the reality as I later learned from an embedded TV reporter who was present was that my son had stepped on a U.S. cluster bomb. As of today, I have never received a response to my inquiries to the government about the facts of my son's death.

Since 2003 I have dedicated my life to telling my story, denouncing the lies of the Bush administration, and advocating for peace. I traveled to Iraq in December of 2003 to see with my own eyes where my son had died at the hands of our own incompetent government, and while there I learned that thousands of Iraqi children die every day from a lack of medicine. One year later, I returned with $650,000.00 in donated medical aid for the Iraqi people.

I have also devoted myself to speaking out against military recruiters who lie to our young people in order to meet their quotas.And so, because I know that you opposed the war in Iraq, I have taken the audacious step of writing to you directly.
Today, our schools are in great financial trouble. In minority and working-class communities, school districts lack the necessary resources, many schools have closed, many teachers have lost their jobs. But the military recruiters have become better funded and so they visit the schools whenever they like, hunting for young people who only want to get an education.
And so I must ask: "What is our priority ­ education or the militarization of our youth?

Mr. President-elect, I ask, no I implore, you to put an end to military recruitment in our public schools. Let us put the billions of dollars used to fund recruitment and JROTC back into the educational mission of our schools. Let the American Dream be realized not with false promises and weapons training but rather with books, decent classrooms, well paid teachers, and a pedagogy of hope.

Si se puede Sr. Obama! Yes we can.

Fernando Suárez del Solar
Founder & Director
Guerrero Azteca Peace Project
PO Box 300221, Escondido, CA 92030-0221

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Conscientious Objectors in Israel

Good article here, re-posted from The Rag Blog, about young people refusing military service in Israel:

'These are young adults, just out of high school, who have managed to break through all the myths that they have been immersed in and figured out for themselves what the Army actually does.'

By Rebecca Vilkomerson

December 19, 2008

It is hard to convey, and impossible to overstate, just how completely saturated Israeli culture is by the heroic image of the Israeli Army. In school, advertisements, marketing campaigns,store discounts, discussions with neighbors, every way you can imagine, the Army is portrayed as the ultimate form of service to the country. When I took my daughter, who is five, to the doctor recently, the doctor began her explanation of how vaccines worked in this way: "you know how Israel has an Army that protects us? Well the vaccines are your body's army…"It is simply everywhere.

That is what makes the shministim all the more remarkable. These are young adults, just out of high school, who have managed to break through all the myths that they have been immersed in and figured out for themselves what the Army actually does. Having reached the conclusion that being in the Army would force them to commit immoral actions, they have taken the next obvious---but in no way easy---step of taking action by refusing to serve. All in the face of family pressure, peer pressure and societal pressure that is absolutely intense. They are willing to pay the price, which can and does include jail time, for standing up for what they know is right.

As far as I am concerned, as a mother who is raising two Israeli daughters, they could not be better role models.

So I invited my daughter to join me at the December 18th Day of Action in Solidarity with the Shministim, and I was thrilled that she even agreed to leave her sister's Chanukah party early to accompany me.

The Day of Action had already attracted welcome attention: a front page article this morning in Haaretz, a moving statement of solidarity from U.S. Army war resisters, and a strongly worded statement of support from Amnesty International.

When we arrived, the first thing we saw was box after box after box after box lined up on the street. These were the letters and postcards that had been generated by the international campaign, over 20,000 in total.We were arrayed across the street from the imposing kiriya, the Army headquarters. This was as close as the police would allow us to get.

We were a small group, about two hundred people, and this reminded me just how brave and still isolated the refusenik movement in Israel is, and therefore how much the international support really means.The spirited crowd chanted and yelled support as some of the shministim--Omer Goldman, Sahar Vardi, Raz Bar-David Varon--and the relatives of Yuval Ophir-Auron and Sahar Vardi, took turns bringing the boxes of letters to the locked gates of the kiriya, where eventually two men in suits agreed to take them all inside. They make a nice group, indicative of how a refusenik can come from any part of Israeli society, as Omer's father made his career high up in the Mossad and Sahar's family are relentlessly dedicated left-wing activists.

There is a traditional belief in Yiddish culture, which comes from the Jewish mystical tradition, about the lamedvavniks, the thirty six righteous and humble people for whom God saves the world. The shministim are our lamedvavniks-our voice of conscience, our tiny flickering hope of building a society that does not willingly participate in controlling, terrorizing, and killing the Palestinian people-enforcing the checkpoints, demolishing homes, destroying ancient olive groves, building the Wall, confiscating land, enforcing siege and all the other immoral and illegal actions of the occupation.

In the last minutes of the demonstration, I talked briefly with one of the organizers. She said, "you know, there's a lot more we can do with these letters. We can hand them out on the streets of Tel Aviv. There are all sorts of things we can do." She was clearly buoyed and excited about building on the movement the Day of Action had generated. And as we got back on our bike to ride home in the still-warm December air, my daughter said to me, "Mama, I never want to be in the Army."

This is how it can begin. Because what if instead of six, or ten or sixty, six hundred refused? What if 6000 refused? The occupation would be over.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Austin Chronicle comes through

Check out the Austin Chronicle story in the current (December 19, 2008) issue:

"Stop the Loss: Austin veterans turn away from Iraq and war"

by Richard Whittaker

The article focuses on three local veterans who are active with Iraq Veterans Against the War, including Nonmilitary Options' own Hart Viges.