US army private Jeremy Hinzman fought in Afghanistan and considers himself a patriot. But when his unit was ordered to Iraq, he refused to go and embarked on a radical journey that could make legal history.
Private first class Hinzman left the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, taking his wife and son to Canada. Officially, he is awol (absent without leave), and, instead of fighting insurgents, he is battling the US military in the Canadian courts.
This month Pte Hinzman, 25, filed legal papers to become the first US soldier objecting to the Iraq war to be granted refugee status in Canada. His case is expected to be a test of new Canadian immigration laws and the country’s traditional role of accepting refugees from the US military.
An estimated 250 Americans every year seek refugee status in Canada, the vast majority making mental health claims, according to Jeffrey House, a Toronto criminal defence lawyer who represents Pte Hinzman.
“This is the first time a soldier from the Iraq war is seeking protection. He does not want to fight in Iraq and he will do any lawful thing to stay in Canada.”
If he returns to the US, Pte Hinzman could be prosecuted as a deserter, according to Sergeant Pam Smith, a spokes woman for the 82nd Airborne. “We don’t have time to go and track down people who go awol,” she told the Associated Press. “We’re fighting a war.”
On the telephone from Toronto, Pte Hinzman said: “I signed up to defend my country, not carry out acts of aggression.”
He hopes other soldiers will refuse to serve in Iraq and come to Canada: “I think I am the first, but I encourage others to do the same. I do not want to sound seditious, but there is strength in numbers.”
Pte Hinzman told the Fayetteville Observer that he had liked the subsidised housing and groceries offered by the army and the promises of money for college. “It seemed like a good financial decision,” he said. “I had a romantic vision of what the army was.”
From the start of basic training, he was upset by the continuous chanting about blood and killing, and what he called the dehumanisation of the enemy. “It’s like watching some kind of scary movie, except I was in it,” he said.
“People would just walk around saying things like ‘I want to kill somebody’.”
Human rights lawyers and religious counsellors in the US predict that the case is the start of a huge wave of protests and legal moves by military personnel and their families.
Volunteers at the GI Rights Hotline, a legal aid centre for soldiers, are receiving about 3,500 calls a month from military personnel looking to leave the armed forces.
With a growing number of dead and wounded, the Pentagon is struggling to maintain troop levels in Iraq. Nearly 40% of those now deployed are national guard or reserve troops. “These guys are not going to re-enlist, that is for sure,” said Giorgio DeShaun Ra’Shadd, a lawyer in Centennial, Colorado, who represents several military families. “Soldiers are fighting to get out of the service.”
In late January the Pentagon cancelled retirement dates for an estimated 40,000 soldiers. This unilateral move postpones soldiers’ return to civilian life.
Military families erupted in protest at the decision and immediately launched websites and demonstrations.
“Can the US president with the signature of a pen indenture tens of thousands of US citizens? That is the question we are now investigating,” said Luke Hiken, a lawyer in San Francisco. “This is a tremendous militarisation of civilian families. Soldiers are now being asked to stay for two more years. This takes civilian families and turns them into military families.”
Based on his work with US military personnel in Germany, Mr Hiken estimates that there are “thousands” of soldiers who want to escape from Iraq. “When they brought them home for vacation in the US, about 15%-20% simply never went back. They stayed with their families.”
Pte Hinzman said his family was part of his reason for going awol.
“I vowed to myself, to my wife and son, that I would not go to Iraq. To me it was a war fought on false pretenses. Dr Blix [the former chief UN weapons inspector] went time and time again [to Iraq] and he said there are no weapons of mass destruction.
“They are exploiting the events of September 11, based on greed and our need for oil.”
JONATHAN FRANKLIN writes for The Guardian of London.