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November 20, 2008

"Why I Went AWOL"

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kimberly rivera

Photo Credit: Melissa Ann Pinney

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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.


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