Facing a second tour in Iraq, U.S. army corporal Rodney Watson fled
to Canada and now lives in the First United Church on East Hastings
while his government presses for his return
November 13, 2009
Rodney Watson, a fugitive soldier originally from Kansas City, Mo.,
stands in the cramped kitchen of his one-bedroom apartment at the
back of The First United Church on Hastings Street.
A stocky black man with a chin-strap beard, 31-year-old Watson is
dressed casually in a black shirt and jeans, and sports a burgundy
baseball cap. A dog tag with the impression of a cross dangles from
his neck as he browns ground beef in a pot on the small stove. He is
making spaghetti for one.
It is a far cry from preparing food in his own restaurant, which was
Watson's dream when he joined the army and became a corporal at the
beginning of 2004. Instead, the American soldier was deployed to Iraq
in October 2005.
He was put on guard duty, carrying an M16 rifle and surveying the
perimeter of his base in Mosul, searching for explosives under
vehicles, and guarding Iraqis. When he signed up at the recruiting
station in Connecticut, he was told he'd be a cook. "I asked my
higher ups before I went," Watson says. "They said I'd be supervising
the dining facility."
He never made it to the kitchen. He was given a weapon, a
walkie-talkie and told to keep the peace between Sunni and Shiite
Muslims in the Iraqi holding area on his military base. "Some of them
had knives on them," Watson says, "these traditional, curved knives
that they carry."
Watson hadn't gone to Iraq thinking he'd be safe--dining facilities
have been targeted and blown up--but he joined the U.S. Army as a
career move. He thought working as an army cook would be a good first
step to owning a restaurant, as he didn't have restaurant experience.
The economic climate changed after 9/11, he says. Previously, he'd
been the supervisor at Calibre Auto Transport in Kansas City, but was
laid off. He went to Connecticut to find work.
Watson wasn't trained to physically inspect or detonate explosives
during basic training in the spring of 2004 and never expected that
would be his job once he got to Iraq. It wasn't just the assigned
duties that made him question his decision to join. It was the
blatant racism he says he saw in Iraq--U.S. soldiers spitting on and
kicking the Koran, and beating Iraqis, even civilians. "I had to sit
there and watch it," Watson says, "and my hands were tied."
He didn't report what he saw because of the hostility he'd face. "I
didn't want to be labelled a snitch--not with people walking around
with machine guns."
Watson finished his 12-month tour of duty in October 2006 and returned home.
He was informed at the end of 2006 that he was going right back, even
though that would extend his service beyond his three-year contract,
part of the U.S. military's stop-loss policy. Watson's contract would
have ended in the spring of 2007.
Watson fled to Canada at the end of a two-week leave, living first in
north Burnaby and then moving to Vancouver's East Side. He has since
been charged with desertion.
Watson encountered a very different political climate in Canada than
what he expected.
Fugitive soldiers from the U.S. are discovering that Canada's welcome
mat has disappeared since Vietnam. Whereas thousands of Vietnam draft
dodgers (approximately 20,000 to 30,000 draft-age men immigrated to
Canada during the Vietnam War) were given permanent resident status,
few Iraq War-era soldiers have been allowed to stay.
Watson was eventually ordered to leave the country Sept. 11, 2009,
after two deportation stays during the summer.
A fugitive in Canada and the U.S., Watson sought refuge at the First
United Church on East Hastings after meeting Rev. Ric Matthews at a
press conference. Matthews says taking Watson in is part of church tradition.
Watson asked Matthews for sanctuary to avoid deportation. Matthews
offered him a former caretaker's apartment in the church, noting the
church is well known for providing refuge to those who need it in the
Downtown Eastside, primarily through the on-site emergency shelter.
"This is not a new concept for First United," Matthews says,
mentioning a Fijian woman who asked for sanctuary in 1998 and stayed
for more than 10 months. "It is 2,700 years old as a church tradition."
The church board and congregation supported the decision, Matthews
says. "It is about whether justice would better be served by putting
a pause in the momentum of what's happening to an individual."
Canada has a history of supporting conscientious objectors, Matthews
says, and Parliament voted twice last year on non-binding motions to
allow conscientious objectors of wars not sanctioned by the U.N. to
stay in Canada. The Conservatives did not support the motions.
Because of this, Watson's situation deserves further consideration,
he argues. "It would seem there's a least a prima facie case that it
might be unjust," he says, "that it at least be reconsidered."
This reasoning was also behind the formation of the War Resisters
Support Campaign following the arrival of former U.S. soldier Jeremy
Hinzman in Toronto in 2004. Hinzman was the first U.S. soldier to
file a refugee claim in Canada because of the Iraq War. There are
about 50 soldiers in Canada who entered the country after going AWOL
in the U.S., according to the group, though numbers are hard to track
because there may be more in hiding.
They are considered war resisters by their supporters, and deserters
by the American military. However, until they have been legally
convicted of desertion, it is difficult to know what to call the
The U.S., like many countries, doesn't allow selective conscientious
objection as a reason to leave the army or avoid serving overseas.
Sarah Bjorknas, Vancouver coordinator for the War Resisters, says the
point is to support former soldiers who don't want to be part of an
illegal war. "The U.S. military doesn't allow people to say, 'I won't
participate in this action'," she says, adding that this policy
requires soldiers to be part of a war even if the UN doesn't sanction it.
In September of 2004, then United Nations secretary general, Kofi
Annan, declared publicly that the Iraq War breached the UN Charter.
Watson joined the army a year later.
The group also supports soldiers who have had stop-loss contract
extensions, like Watson, which the War Resisters view as unfair.
The War Resisters have provided support and advocacy for 12 U.S.
soldiers trying to stay in Canada, including Hinzman, convicted
deserter Robin Long and Kimberly Rivera, the first female U.S.
soldier to flee to Canada.
Rivera arrived in Ontario in 2007 with her husband and two children.
Now a mother of three living in Toronto, Rivera was granted a
temporary stay in August so she can have a new pre-removal risk
assessment done to review her risk of punishment as an opponent of
the Iraq War.
The campaign is supporting Watson's application for permanent
residence based on humanitarian or compassionate grounds. Watson has
also been supported by a number of local politicians. On Aug. 12,
seven B.C. NDP members of Parliament wrote the Minister of
Citizenship and Immigration, Jason Kenney, asking him to intervene in
Watson's case. Libby Davies, MP for Vancouver East, was one of the
signatories and says she will continue to support Watson in his fight
to stay. "I believe he has a legal reason to seek refugee status in
Canada," says Davies, noting that Watson's situation is more
difficult than it appears. "He's taking on this whole system. It's
obviously a very hard decision to make."
Many people support his decision, Davies says. She points to an Angus
Reid poll conducted in June 2008 with 64 per cent of Canadians
supporting permanent residence for fugitive soldiers. "Canada has a
history of welcoming war resisters," Davies says.
But, she adds, the current government, particularly Immigration
Minister Jason Kenney, does not. "But I'm an optimist. I hope that,
with all these efforts combined, Rodney will be able to stay in Canada."
Kelli Fraser, Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesperson, says
there is a thorough process for determining permanent residence
claims on the basis of humanitarian or compassionate grounds.
"Refugee protection claims, including those made by U.S. military
deserters, are generally referred to the Immigration Refugee Board
which is an independent decision-making body," Fraser explains.
Decision-makers must determine that the applicant has a well-founded
fear of persecution.
Or, "if removed, would be subjected to a danger of torture or a risk
to life or of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment."
Fraser said Watson could have his case reviewed by a federal court,
even if he is staying in Canada after ignoring a deportation order.
The Canada Border Services Agency is responsible for removing Watson
following the deportation order.
Lt. Col. Nathan Banks, spokesperson for the Pentagon, said Watson
faces immediate arrest from customs as soon as he enters the U.S. He
would be taken to the county jail, and an extradition team would be
sent to pick him up within 30 days.
He would be read his rights and charges, and returned to his home
unit in Fort Hood, Texas, where 13 people were killed and another 29
wounded last week in a shooting spree. An army psychiatrist, Maj.
Nidal M. Hasan, has since been charged with 13 counts of premeditated murder.
But his commanding officer would ultimately decide how his case would
be handled--he could be ordered to return to his unit, or court martialed.
"They may determine the soldier committed the offence but the best
punishment is for him to stay in the army," Banks says in a phone
interview. "This is not a cookie cutter situation."
Desertion is considered such a serious offence because it damages the
unit, Banks says. "In times of war, the maximum penalty is death,
that's how serious it is."
It can damage morale and degrade continuity, he adds.
"Someone else has to pick up the slack," Banks says. "You're letting
down your unit."
Even if the U.S. completely pulled out of Iraq and Afghanistan
tomorrow, Banks says, Watson would still be arrested.
"He still deserted his unit."
Anyone who joins the army is told they have to defend their country
and serve as soldiers, no matter the job description, Banks says. "We
all have jobs. But we're soldiers first."
The U.S. withdrew its forces from Iraqi cities last June, leaving
131,000 troops in non-populated areas. An agreement signed by former
president George W. Bush in his last days in office states American
troops will be completely withdrawn by 2011.
There has been nothing to suggest U.S. president Barack Obama would
then pardon soldiers who deserted because of the Iraq War, as former
president Jimmy Carter did following the Vietnam War.
And while draft dodgers and resisters were welcomed into Canada by
Pierre Trudeau's Liberal government during Vietnam, there is a big
difference with the current fugitive soldiers: they were not drafted.
It is a crucial point for those who oppose allowing those charged
with desertion to settle in Canada. But Rev. Ric Matthews says it is
not that simple.
"There are documentaries showing [people] don't really have a
choice," Matthews says, pointing to economic and cultural
limitations, particularly in the case of black soldiers, like Watson.
While media have focused on the targeting of poor, black
neighourhoods by recruitment officers, it is unclear what effect
recruiting has had. U.S. Defense Department statistics show that the
percentage of black enlistees decreased sharply between 2000 and
2007. In 2000, 20 per cent of new recruits were black. However, in
2007, only 14 per cent of new military enlistees identified
themselves as black. The army has seen the sharpest decline of all
the branches of the military.
Watson voluntarily approached a recruiting station and offered his
services as a cook.
"I thought it was something good I could do to support my country,"
He now regrets the decision, though he's glad he met some of his
Others he says are evil, and wishes he never encountered them, after
seeing them abuse Iraqi civilians.
As for Canada, Watson says he now has a life here. He has a fianc?e
and an 11-month-old son in Vancouver and would like to settle in B.C.
permanently. He met his fianc?e after arriving in Vancouver in September 2007.
"One night, she caught my eye," Watson says, "and that's all she wrote."
But if all his legal avenues are exhausted, Watson says he'll return
to the U.S., serve his time and try to move his family there. For
now, he's happy living at the church, with friends and his fianc?e
dropping by regularly to see him.
The couple went through a rough patch, breaking up and getting back
together in September. "[The situation] put a strain on our
relationship," Watson says.
Their son was in foster care at one point, though Watson wouldn't
explain why, saying only that it was being sorted out.
His next step is to consult legal counsel about his options. Watson
plans to fight his deportation. "I'm not a coward," he says. "I'm
here, right now, fighting for my life. I believe I'm doing something right."