Published on Sunday, June 18, 2006 by the Buffalo News (New York)
Against the Iraq War, Buffalo Veteran Heads to Canada
by Mark Sommer
TORONTO - Sgt. Patrick Hart was eager to get his first look at quarterback J.P. Losman.
The rabid Bills fan had received a weekend pass from his unit in Fort Campbell, Ky., to attend the Aug. 20 preseason game against the Packers.
But Hart was anxious for other reasons, too.
His company was headed to Iraq in five weeks, and the nine-year Army veteran - whose three enlistments included nearly a year in Kuwait - opposed the war.
He left Buffalo, where he grew up in the Riverside area, the next day. But instead of returning to his base, he drove across the Peace Bridge to Toronto, met with a war resisters group and then deserted the Army.
Hart filed for refugee status with the Canadian government, joining about 20 other American deserters seeking asylum north of the border.
Ten months later, he expresses no regret about a decision many of his fellow countrymen would consider an act of cowardice or treason. The Iraq War, Hart believes, is being waged over oil and to line the pockets of multinational corporations while poor and lower-middle-class recruits serve on the front lines.
"When I enlisted in the Army, part of my oath was to defend the Constitution against all enemies - foreign and domestic. I can't go over there and put other kids in harm's way for lies. I'm not going to do that," Hart said in a recent interview in the two-bedroom apartment west of downtown overlooking Lake Ontario, which he shares with wife, Jill, and 4-year-old son, Rian.
He met Saturday with Cindy Sheehan, the mother of a slain Army soldier and a symbolic leader against the war, in a rally and and picnic in Fort Erie.
Still looking like a soldier, Hart, 32, has short hair under his Bills cap, and his heavily tattooed arms include melted skulls and tribal blackwork designs. Hart has yet to find work, but the family receives assistance from the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto and family members.
Hart grew up in Riverside, an admittedly "horrible" student. After graduating from Emerson High School in 1991, he worked dead-end jobs for a year before enlisting in 1992.
Hart served as a logistics technician and was stationed in Germany. Being in the Army then, he said, gave him a sense of purpose.
"I was so proud and motivated to be part of something bigger," Hart said.
His proudest moment was helping the air drop of medical supplies, food and clothing to the war-torn former Yugoslavia.
When Hart returned home three years later, he thought his honorable discharge might help him land a factory job at Powertrain or Dunlop Tire, but he found himself once more bouncing from one low-paying job to another.
Hart married his girlfriend of five years, Jill, in 2000, and re-enlisted later that year. The couple spent the next four years assigned to Fort Riley, Kan., where Rian was born.
While the statue of Saddam Hussein was being toppled in Baghdad, Hart and the rest of the 172nd Chemical Company were being flown to the Kuwaiti desert.
Even then, Hart says, he didn't understand why the United States was waging war in Iraq.
"I was fully ready and prepared to go to Afghanistan," he said of the then-Taliban-led country that shielded Osama bin Laden. "I didn't see the correlation with Iraq."
Despite harboring second thoughts, Hart re-enlisted in January 2004, because his son needed medical coverage for epileptic seizures. The Harts feared Patrick might not find a job on the outside that provided health care.
At Fort Campbell, Hart watched on the Internet as George Galloway, an outspoken member of the British Parliament, castigated a U.S. Senate panel in May 2005 over the war. Galloway derided Iraq's alleged ties to al-Qaida and the events of 9/11, and going to war over weapons of mass destruction that never materialized.
"Right then and there, I started thinking about going to Canada," Hart said.
His parents, Jim and Paula Hart, who traveled with him, offered their son unconditional support.
When Hart told his wife of his decision two days later - when he was officially AWOL - she was furious.
Jill Hart had volunteered at Fort Campbell, helping prepare families for deployment as she had at Fort Riley. As he expected, she told him she would have to report him to higher-ups. She also warned him that e-mails sent to her would be forwarded to his commander.
"I said I love you more than anything in the world, but you're breaking the law. The way I was raised is, you don't break the law," Jill Hart said.
Her devotion to the Army crumbled days later, when she said the commander warned the family's health coverage was about to be cut off.
"I hope Rian doesn't have another seizure," she said the commander told her.
"When the commander said those things to me, everything flashed. I've bought into all this propaganda for nothing. They don't care about me, they don't care about any of these families, they only care about the one who can pull the trigger," Jill Hart said.
Jill and Rian Hart joined Patrick in Toronto about a month later.
Maj. Crystal Oliver, an Army spokeswoman, said it was policy to curtail medical benefits to soldiers after they have gone AWOL for more than 30 days, and are officially considered deserters.
The Army won't talk specifically about Hart but issued a general statement about deserters, who from Oct. 1, 2003, to April 30, 2006, have left the Army at a rate of 192 a month, according to the Army's own figures.
"Soldiers serve in an all-volunteer Army because they choose to," said John Emmert, a Fort Knox, Ky., spokesman. "AWOL and desertion are crimes that go against Army values, degrade unit readiness and ultimately reflect negatively on us all."
Hart acknowledges he is looked at as a coward by many. Pointing to his nine years of service, he says, "I went with the whole intention of fighting. I had no idea we were going to sit in Kuwait."
Hart's attempt for refugee status in Canada faces an uncertain outcome: No American ever has received asylum north of the border as a refugee. Two American deserters, Brandon Huey and Jeremy Hinsman, have had their refugee claims rejected by Canada's Immigration and Refugee Board, and are under appeal.
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