“Ultimately, the success of the nation depends on the character of its citizens.” So said George W. Bush in his speech at the dedication of his presidential library in Texas last week. The library officially opened to the public May 1, the 10th anniversary of his famous “Mission Accomplished” speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, anchored just off the coast of San Diego. Bush, in his remarks at the library, along with President Barack Obama, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and others all failed to mention the word “Iraq.”
Violence in Iraq surged this April. In waves of attacks and counterattacks that resembled the high point of sectarian violence there from 2006 to 2008, 460 people were killed, and 1,219 people were injured, mostly civilians. At least 13 were killed on May 1, portending an equally violent month.
Amid this ongoing violence, a young, pregnant soldier has been sent to prison this week for desertion. She refused to return to the war in Iraq back in 2007. Pfc. Kimberly Rivera first deployed to Iraq in 2006. She guarded the gate at Forward Operating Base Loyalty in eastern Baghdad at a time when the base was under constant attack. She said of the experience: “I had a huge awakening seeing the war as it truly is: People losing their lives for greed of a nation, and the effects on the soldiers who come back with new problems such as nightmares, anxieties, depression, anger, alcohol abuse, missing limbs and scars from burns. Some don’t come back at all.”
Her attorney, James Branum, who defends soldiers who resist deployment, told me: “She felt that she morally could not do what she was asked to do; at the same time, she realized that she would put other soldiers in danger if she didn’t pull the trigger when the time came. She talked to a chaplain about it. The chaplain largely pushed her aside, did not give her the counsel that she really needed.” The chaplain should have advised her that she could apply to be a conscientious objector.
Not knowing what her options were, while on leave in Texas in January 2007, Kimberly decided she could not return to war. With her husband, Mario, and their two young children, she drove to Canada, and settled in Toronto as she sought refugee status. She and Mario had two more children there.
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Canada has a long tradition as a refuge for war resisters. During the Vietnam War, tens of thousands (the exact number is unknown) of young men fled the U.S. to avoid the draft, refusing to fight. After the war, most were granted amnesty and returned home. In 2004, Jeremy Hinzman became the first U.S. soldier known to flee there in opposition to the Iraq War. The War Resisters Support Campaign was formed in Toronto shortly thereafter. At least 11 have been granted permanent residency in Canada, recognizing their refugee status. Kimberly Rivera has this group’s support, along with that of members of the Canadian Parliament, Amnesty International and South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Despite the precedent and the outpouring of support, the Canadian government denied her refugee application. She turned herself in to U.S. authorities at the border on Sept. 20, 2012.
At her court-martial this week at Fort Carson in Colorado, the judge sentenced her to 14 months’ imprisonment, which was lowered to 10 months based on a plea agreement. James Branum said of the sentence: “The prosecutor at trial said that he asked the judge to give a harsh sentence to send a message to the war resisters in Canada. Many other resisters receive little jail time or no jail time. And people that desert, generally, over 90 percent do no jail time at all. And so, we feel that Kim was singled out.”
Kimberly Rivera refused to shoot at children in Iraq. She had the courage to dissent, to resist. Now she sits in prison, pregnant, away from her husband, Mario, and four young children: Christian, 11; Rebecca, 8; Katie, 5; and Gabriel, 2. George W. Bush was right when he said that the success of the nation depends on the character of its citizens - citizens, that is, like Kimberly Rivera.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.