VANCOUVER - American Rodney Watson will always remember watching a fellow soldier brutally beat an Iraqi civilian in anger over a divorce letter from his wife.
He'll recall the soldier spitting racist slurs in the faces of the people they were there to help, and then the same man turning to tell him, an African-American, not to worry — he'd never insult Mr. Watson like that.
After one year of duty overseas, Mr. Watson refused to return to an institution where he knew he'd be called a snitch for reporting such actions and where he felt his country was actually in a war to reap oil.
When ordered back to Iraq, he fled to Canada in 2006 with the draft dodgers of the Vietnam War era top of mind.
But he didn't expect he'd be trading one prison for another.
Last year, the 32-year-old was the first U.S. war resister to take sanctuary in a church after Canadian immigration officials ordered him deported.
Mr. Watson marked his one-year anniversary inside the Vancouver United church Saturday with all the hope he could muster, while longing for a day of fresh air in Stanley Park where he could watch his toddler son run.
“I can't be a part of that and it breaks my heart knowing that I risked my life in war and now I'm being treated like a criminal,” Mr. Watson said, gazing Sunday around a gathering area in the church that's become his home.
“I can't even be a part of [my son's] life outside of this building. I feel like I'm being punished for having a good spirit.”
Mr. Watson, from Kansas City, Kan., is among about 40 Americans who've been fighting legal battles, with the help of the War Resisters Support Campaign, to remain in Canada over their views on the Iraq war.
He now lives in a one-bedroom apartment inside the church with his wife and son.
His anniversary comes less than two weeks before MPs debate a private member's bill that would allow like-minded people to apply for permanent resident status in Canada.
If Mr. Watson were to return to the U.S., he faces a dishonourable discharge and a year in military prison. He's still awaiting a ruling on an application to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
“It would be funny for us to jail people for hard time, which is what they're getting down in the States, for agreeing with us about the Iraq war,” said Toronto-area MP Gerard Kennedy, who spearheaded the bill. “We should stand behind our principles.”
Parliament has already passed non-binding motions to stop the deportation of war resisters twice, but the Conservative government hasn't heeded those votes.
Mr. Kennedy noted Canada absorbed upwards of 80,000 Americans who refused to fight in Vietnam, but doesn't believe Bill C-440 would create a surge of new applications. Some 300 or so people are believed to be in Canada right now having fled duty in Iraq.
Parliamentarians will debate the bill on Sept. 27 and vote on whether it will go to a third reading on Sept. 29.
Mr. Watson joined the military after being laid off from his job in the auto industry. While he had signed up to be a cook in Iraq, he was instead given the task of searching cars for explosives.
A conversation one day with an Iraqi man summed up his objections.
Mr. Watson recalls the man asking him “why do white soldiers and white contractors hate us so much?”
Mr. Watson replied saying he'd been wondering the same questions for years back in America.
“We clicked on that,” he said “We knew we had something in common, even though we came from different worlds.”
Sarah Bjorknas, a spokeswoman for the war resisters campaign, says she watched Mr. Watson endure cycles of personal difficulty over the past year.
“I think he's at peace with it now, and he's willing to hang in as long as he has to,” she said.
Getting the bill passed would create a humanitarian option for leaving the military, she said.
“Allowing people to choose not to kill no matter what, letting people make a moral choice. Canada has done that so many times in the past, let's entrench an ability to do that.”
Mr. Watson is writing a book about his experiences and said while he hopes it has a happy ending he must keep waiting patiently until the saga is actually over.
“I hope and pray the Canadian government will recognize we are not criminals. We are peacemakers.”
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