- This profile, by Maggie Gilmour, was posted to Toronto Life, July 2009
Army recruiters called my house 20 times when I was in high school, and I knew that the only way I’d be able to afford an education was if I joined. My sign-up bonus would be $8,000, and my college and health care would be covered. I was 17 when I joined the reserves. Five months into my training, I discovered I was pregnant. They gave me an honourable discharge, and I moved in with my boyfriend, Mario. We had our first child, Christian, then our second, Rebecca. We had no health insurance, and the stress made me a terrible person: I threw shoes at my husband, threw the TV off the balcony. In January 2006, I rejoined the army. Mario and I got married that same month.
That October, my unit left for Iraq, and I spent three months patting down civilians as a gate guard. Most of my fellow soldiers treated me like a sister, but not all of them. Some of them would hound me: “You look so fine, I want to get with you.” It was the most attention I’d had in my whole life. When I got back to Mesquite from Iraq, I realized how much I missed Mario and how badly I wanted out of the army—it was too hard on our relationship. We left Texas in January 2007 and drove north. By the time we got to Kansas City, I was having second thoughts. I wrote out a pros and cons list. If I left, I’d lose my furniture, which was at the base in Fort Carson, Colorado Springs, and my salary—$1,200 every two weeks. If I went back to Iraq, my marriage wouldn’t survive, and I’d lose my peace of mind.
We crossed at the Rainbow Bridge, said we were going shopping, and the guards waved us through. For three months, we lived with a family in Oakville who had volunteered to house resisters. That April, we moved to a one-bedroom apartment at King and Jameson. For nine months, I worked at Cobs Bread in Kensington; then I had my third kid, Katie. Mario took a course to operate a forklift, but neither of us has a work permit. We sit around waiting for the government to decide what to do with us—they put a stay on my deportation order this past March. When we first arrived in Canada, I still felt paranoid and unhappy—like I was back in Iraq. Now it’s our home.
In October 2006, Private First Class Rivera deployed to Iraq with the 704th Support Battalion out of Fort Carson. She arrived at Forward Operating Base Loyalty in eastern Baghdad to find a different war than the one she expected. Instead of driving a truck, she was guarding a gate. Instead of doing "lots of rebuilding" as she'd thought the Army would be doing, most of the troops seemed to be dedicating their time to raids on civilian homes. She didn't like the way a lot of guys acted when they returned from patrol. "We tore their house up!" she recalls one soldier saying, jocular and triumphant. She observed that he seemed pretty happy about it. "Hell fuckin' yeah!" he replied. "They prolly killed my buddy." Rivera began to imagine what it would be like if foreign soldiers broke into her apartment in the middle of the night and dragged her and her husband, Mario, out of bed in front of their 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. She also disliked the fact that "Hajji" was her unit's preferred term for Iraqis. She didn't know the word was a title for a Muslim who'd made the pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca; all she knew was that the way they said it made it sound just as mean as "sand nigger."
At the same time, Rivera missed her husband and children more than she ever thought she would. She had always loved them, but one of the things that gnawed away at her was that on some level, her decision to enlist—even if it meant going to an unknown and dangerous place—stemmed from a desire to escape her family situation.
She and Mario's money crunch had forced them to shuttle between their parents' homes in Mesquite while trying to save for their own place. This made for friction. Rivera felt that her mother—an insurance agent who became the sole breadwinner when Rivera's father was hurt at his munitions factory job—resented her and felt burdened by the young family. To make matters worse, tension developed between her mother and Mario. Rivera, who is Anglo but took her husband's surname, was convinced that her mother refused to accept Mario because he's the son of first-generation Mexican and Honduran immigrants.
As she worried about money and became exhausted from juggling work and kids and family feuds, Rivera grew increasingly stressed. The more frustrated she became, the more frequently she became enraged at her husband. If he was working, she felt unsupported at home. When he took time off to be with her and the kids, she grew angry because he wasn't making more money. But when she lost her temper, he'd just stare straight ahead and refuse to fight, which fueled her fury. She'd hurl a shoe or two at his head or fling a radio out the window.
At FOB Loyalty, when Rivera recalled those heated moments she felt horrible and missed her family even more. She got in trouble with her commanders for spending an excessive amount of time talking to Mario on the phone, though one night the habit may have saved her life. One mortar explosion after another rocked the base while she was talking to her husband. When she returned to her bunk, a sizable piece of shrapnel lay on her pillow.
The final turning point came one day in December. An Iraqi man walked through the gate with a little girl, and Rivera moved to frisk them. She assumed the man was coming to file a claim for reparations in exchange for damage caused by American forces. Rivera stopped dead when she turned to the girl. The child looked to be the same age as her daughter, Rebecca. The toddler screamed and wailed inconsolably, her cheeks streaked with tears. Rivera felt sickened by the girl's cries and wondered what had happened to her and why her mother wasn't there. Long after the pair had disappeared, Rivera couldn't stop thinking about them. Seeing that little Iraqi girl weeping was a watershed moment for her. From then on, she couldn't shake the feeling that everything was wrong. The bloodshed. The loss. The fact that her children were on the other side of the world, learning and saying and doing new things each day that she was missing and would never be able to recapture.
She came home in January for two weeks' leave, and she and Mario took the kids to Texas to visit their families. Rivera had trouble sleeping. Every time a car door slammed, she'd flatten herself onto the floor. Her mother-in-law, Reyna Rivera, recalls her having panic attacks and crying on the floor, begging God for a way to avoid another stint in Iraq. "She wasn't stable enough to handle that, and she shouldn't have been there in the first place," Reyna says. "To think of her going back—my God."
Mario, searching for options online, came across the Web site for the War Resisters Support Campaign in Toronto. He called Zaslofsky, the coordinator, who told him the organization would help provide legal aid and temporary housing. The idea at first struck Rivera as ridiculous. They didn't know a soul in Canada. At the same time, she couldn't bear the thought of going back to Iraq. Deliberating and praying over where to go and how to hide, she let her scheduled flight date out of the United States pass. She knew that 30 days after going AWOL she'd be listed as a deserter, the authorities at Fort Carson would alert law enforcement and a warrant would likely be issued for her arrest. She didn't want to live as a wanted criminal in her own country, so Canada began to look like a better option. While her commanders searched for her by calling relatives and left messages on her phone recommending she return within the month to receive more lenient punishment, she and Mario loaded the kids into their Geo Prizm and drove north. On February 18, 2007, they reached Niagara Falls and drove over the Rainbow Bridge. It was a gray, dreary day as they made their way across the river gorge. Dark storm clouds gathered behind them, but as they emerged on the other side of the bridge in Ontario, the sun came out. Rivera took it as a sign that they did the right thing.