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November 20, 2008

"Why I Went AWOL"

kimberly rivera awol soldier

Kimberly Rivera in Toronto

Photo Credit: Melissa Ann Pinney

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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.

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