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This interview was originally published in Autostraddle, October 19, 2009
When Private Bethany Smith, now known as Skyler James, 21, was outed as a lesbian by her comrades, she expected her “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” discharge to follow shortly afterwards. It didn’t. Instead, James, who was 19 at the time, was told they’d “deal with the paperwork” following her next turn in Afghanistan. In the ensuing time, James endured so much harassment and persecution in the US Army that she went AWOL and fled for Canada, where she wants to stay and is seeking refugee status.
Autostraddle has also interviewed Lissa Young and Dan Choi about their experiences with DADT ending long military careers, but Skyler’s is a very different story.
Furthermore, Skyler is sick of her story being botched (we can’t imagine a headline like the CBC’s “Lesbian Deserter Appeals for Refugee Status” went in the scrapbook) (Also doesn’t that make it sound like she’s deserting the lesbians? Who would ever want to desert the lesbians?) and speaks to Natalie, candidly, about the reasons she left the army, seeking refugee status in Canada and her life now. Auto Straddle: Why did you join the army? Skyler James: Growing up in the United States I was made to believe that joining the army – or really any part of the military – was the best thing you could do, the best thing to do to make your parents and your country proud.
So, when I turned 18 – and with a lot of pressure from my parents – I joined the army. Auto Straddle: What was the army like for you? Was being gay a problem? Skyler James: I was thinking it would very much be a good guy/super hero role. And of course being in the army is much more complicated than that.
At first the whole being gay thing – and DADT– was OK. I just thought ‘OK, I will keep things under wraps and not be so gay.’ And then things changed.
After basic training, I was moved to my regular duty station in Fort Campbell, Kentucky. Apparently, I had been seen by some of my peers holding hands with another girl in the mall. Before this, I think people thought I was just ‘the weird girl with the short haircut.’ But now, there was all this hatred and skepticism.
Auto Straddle: What happened then? Skyler James: Well, at first, it was a lot of talk: ‘Oh, there is the lesbian…I saw her at the mall,’ and a lot of verbal taunting. And then, not even a week later, the physical abuse and threats began. Other soldiers – those who were supposed to have my back – would pick me up and shake me violently. And others – including sergeants – would just stand by and watch.
Then, I began being assigned to do work – physical labor – that would normally require 3 soldiers. And I started to get punished for things that one should not get punished for: I dyed my hair and I was punished. You can dye your hair in the military – just not an “unnatural” color… so I suppose no pink or green. But I dyed it blonde.
I began regularly receiving hate letters and death threats.
So, I thought ‘OK, I am not safe.’ I asked my immediate supervisor for a meeting with the first sergeant and was denied. Eventually, though, I spoke to the first sergeant and told him that I was gay and being mistreated because of it and wanted to be discharged under DADT.
He just shook his head and said, “We will take a look at this when we get back from deployment.”
So, I had to stay and deal with the daily harassment and the fear that, once deployed – most likely to Afghanistan – those who were meant to be on my side would be the ones who killed me. Auto Straddle: So, basically, the army – in a cruelly ironic turn of events – disobeyed its own discriminatory policy in order to retain as many people as possible for war? Skyler James: Yes. Exactly.
Auto Straddle: And what happened next? Skyler James: Well, the hate mail and threats continued.
Some of the worst things said included: ‘We are getting the keys to your room… and we are going to beat you to death while you sleep.’ And ‘If you don’t go back into the closet and stop being who you are, we are going to kill you.’
That last letter I received, the one that said ‘We are going to get keys from the supplies sergeant’s office, come into your room while you are sleeping and murder you’ was the turning point for me. I was like ‘I am not safe here… I cannot stay… if I go to war with these people, they are going to shoot me.’ Auto Straddle: And then you left? You went AWOL? Skyler James: Yes, another solider and I – he was a friend of mine – decided to leave the base together and flee to Canada. We grabbed the help numbers we knew we would need upon arriving in Canada, hopped in his pickup truck and left. Auto Straddle: Was there not security stopping you? Skyler James: There is security coming into the base…. but not really leaving the base. We were just able to leave. Auto Straddle: How did you get across the border? Skyler James: Neither one of us had a passport or a birth certification. But immigration at the border in Windsor just asked us for our military IDs. We showed them. They then asked “Where are you going and what are you doing here?” and we told them they we were going to visit friends in Toronto. This is where the War Resisters Support Campaign (WRSC) was based.
Then a series of unfortunate events happened: we were robbed while in Toronto; we headed to Kingston, where we pawned off some items for money…and then tried to make it to Cornwall. We were about 12 km from Cornwall when we ran out of gas. Here we called the War Resisters Support Campaign. Auto Straddle: And then? Skyler James: Joel Harden – from the Ottawa chapter of the WRSC – came and helped us; he listened to us and heard our stories. He brought us to Ottawa.
The WRSC helped us fill out paperwork as refugee claimants seeking refugee protection. Once the paperwork was in place, I secured a job. I have always worked, always been a law-abiding citizen. At the moment, I am working at a call center. Auto Straddle: How have people reacted to you and your story? Skyler James: Most people have been incredibly kind and supportive; they have told me that I am courageous and wish me the best. The negative comments I hear are primarily from the internet. It’s the anonymity, I think. I wish people would not comment unless they know the whole story. Auto Straddle: What consequences do you face/do you fear if you deported back to the US? Skyler James: Well, my life is very much here now; I have great friends, I am integrated into the community, I volunteer. It would be awful to be pulled from all of this.
And then, I am super scared of everything if I have to go back: seeing the same people who caused me physical and emotional pain, being court-martialed by the same people who caused me to fear my life. These things are incredibly troubling. There are two likely outcomes: I could be sent to a military prison or I could be sent back to Fort Campbell to finish my time.
Honestly, the latter scares me the most. If I were sent back there, I would fear for my life – I would fear that I would be murdered. Fort Campbell is the most infamous army base in the US for gay bashing.
Of course I will be court-martialed for being AWOL, as anyone would be. But, I think because of the time period in which I left (a time of war) and, above all, because of who I am – a lesbian – I will be punished more harshly. I fear that I will face physical abuse, persecution and/or excessive/unwarranted punishment because of my sexual orientation. Auto Straddle: Where are you now in terms of your immigration process? Skyler James: In Nov 2008, the Immigration Review Board (IRB) denied my claim that if I were deported back to the US, I would face persecution on the basis of my sexual orientation. They claimed that there was not enough evidence. Well, I feel for cases like this, there never is “enough evidence.”
ven through all of this, I like my country and I love my state, Texas.
At the moment, we just finished a judicial review. My case is being examined by another federal court judge; this judge is going to decide whether my case should be reviewed again by the IRB. If he says yes, then my case will go back to the IRB, and a different member will review it. If he says no, the deportation process effectively begins. A pre-removal risk assessment will be done, which attempts to assess the risk I face of persecution if I return to the US.
My lawyer and I are submitting a humanitarian and compassionate considerations application, along with my application for permanent residence in Canada. So, friends and people I volunteer with are writing letters about why I should be allowed to stay, what an asset I am to the community and so on. Hopefully this will help my application. Auto Straddle: What advice would you give a gay individual looking to join the army? Skyler James: Don’t join! Seriously.
If you are gay and you’re already in the military, keep your head down, don’t do anything crazy. Try as hard as possible to not let your peers find out.
If your peers do know, and they are treating you poorly – seek help. Unfortunately, the response you receive often depends on what your superiors are like. Auto Straddle: Would you have done anything differently? Skyler James: How I answer this question really depends on my mood: there is a part of me that wishes that I had never joined the army; but then, there is another part of me that thinks the reason I am who I am today is precisely because I joined. Auto Straddle: What would you say to people that question your patriotism? Skyler James: Even through all of this, I like my country and I love my state, Texas. I used to be able to say I would do anything for my country, but after everything that has happened and how it has been dealt with, after learning what I learned about the army and how it is run… I don’t think I would die for my country, although I would do almost anything else. Auto Straddle: Is there anything else you would like to add? Skyler James: Riese rocks!
This article, by Nathaniel Hoffman, was published in the Boise Weekly, August 12, 2009
Robin Long ran away twice in order to find himself.
The first time he ran--during his junior year at Timberline High School--Long wandered the United States for more than a year, hitching rides, working odd jobs and eating at soup kitchens.
The second time he ran, Long took a stand against the Iraq War, shirked U.S. Army orders, fled to Canada and became the first U.S. Iraq War resister deported back to the United States. He ended up in a military lockup in San Diego for a year.
In Canada, Long found a community of Iraq War resisters and a cause, according to his attorney, James Branum, who represents many Iraq War resisters.
"He really found his own voice there," Branum said. "He's a lot more confident and assertive and speaking out for what he believes in, more than he was before."
Long has argued that the U.S. war in Iraq is illegal under international law, that former President George W. Bush deceived the public and the military with false evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and that there was no connection between the Sept. 11 attacks and Iraq.
"When I joined the Army in 2003, I felt honored to be serving my country. I was behind the president. I thought it was an honorable venture to be in Iraq. I was convinced by the lies of the Bush administration just like Congress and a majority of Americans," Long wrote in a Nov. 6, 2008, letter to just-elected President Barack Obama. "But just because I joined the Army doesn't mean I abdicated my ability to evolve intellectually and morally. When I realized the war in Iraq was a mistake, I saw refusing to fight as my only option. My conscience was screaming at me not to participate."
Long was the first of at least five runaway soldiers who have been deported from Canada. A handful of high-profile cases are still in process in the Canadian immigration courts, and the Canadian Parliament has voted twice to grant Iraq War resisters sanctuary.
Upon his forced return to the United States, Long was arrested, court martialed, pled guilty to desertion with intent not to return, and received a relatively lengthy 15-month sentence in the naval brig at Miramar in San Diego. He was released last month after serving 12 months of his sentence.
Long's deportation from Canada and his involvement with anti-war groups has earned him some notoriety as a prominent Iraq War resister. In Canada, he is a poster child in the roiling debate over whether to offer sanctuary to U.S. military deserters.
"I guess you'd call me a celebrity because I stood up for what I believe in and I served 15 months," Long told BW during a recent visit to Boise.
Robin Long was never fond of rules. In 2001, sometime during his junior year in high school and soon after the Sept. 11 attacks, the 17-year-old dropped out. He left the strictness of his mother's house for the freedom of the road, hitching rides across America.
"I wouldn't call myself homeless because I chose to be that way," Long said, during a lengthy interview last month in Boise.
Long went to California and Florida and came back to Boise where he met a trucker at a truck stop. The trucker hired him on for a few months and convinced him to get a GED and attend a U.S. Department of Labor Job Corps training program in Bristol, Tenn.
Long entered Job Corps in January 2003, taking courses in welding. But soon after he enrolled, Army recruiters visited the Job Corps center and chatted him up, convincing him to sign onto the delayed entry program. Delayed entry is a form of enlistment that gave Long a year to finish his welding courses before starting basic training.
"You think these guys are cool," Long said. "Young kids don't think that a recruiter can ever lie to them."
Long was recruited just as plans to invade Iraq solidified. Recruiters fanned out across the United States, boosting military rolls, and venues like Job Corps proved fertile ground for recruitment.
In March 2003, the U.S. invasion began. On May 1, 2003, President George W. Bush declared victory in the war.
In October 2003, though Long said he had expressed moral objections to the war in Iraq to his recruiter, a staff sergeant, Long enlisted in earnest.
This was a key moment in Long's story. Per Army protocol, he was briefly discharged from the delayed entry program and then reenlisted in the Army. He could have walked away at that point, but Long said the recruiter sweet-talked him into continuing with the Army, saying that he would not go to Iraq.
"I was prepared to fight for my country, but not in Iraq," Long said.
An eight-hour bus ride landed him at Fort Knox in Kentucky, home of the Army Armor Center and also of the Army's recruitment command.
Long said he had long been interested in the military and that he was eager to serve his country. But his initial experience in basic training soured him even more on the path he'd chosen. Long immediately felt that much of his training was aimed at dehumanizing the enemy. He was marched around the base to cadenced chants of "blood, red, blood," was lectured to about "the enemy" and was repeatedly told that he would be going to the desert to "kill rag heads."
"I never put two and two together that going to the military and killing people was the same thing," Long said.
In May 2006, after he had fled to Canada, Long spoke to BW, further explaining his growing objections to the war:
"Also, the people who were coming into my unit had just come from Iraq, and they were telling me horrific stories. A couple people had pictures of people that had [been] run over with tanks, and a lot of people were proud of what they were doing and a lot of people were grossed out by the total disrespect for human life ... And another thing was that my superiors were telling me, 'You're going to the desert to fight rag heads.' It wasn't like I was going to Iraq to liberate the people. It was like I was going to the desert to kill rag heads. They were trying to make people less human."
Long continued to wrestle with what he believed was the immorality of what he was being asked to do, while still following orders. His assignment was to train second lieutenants--"butter bars"--in how to command a tank. One day, one of the butter bars--who outranked him--hit him in the face with a snowball, and Long was encouraged to punch the guy in the face, which he did.
In training exercises, Long often played the part of Iraqi forces and even of the media. He felt that a "shoot first, ask questions later" mentality ruled the war games. During one of these war games, after a group of American troops "mowed down" a large gathering of "Iraqis," including two American service members who were among the group, the advice offered was to get closer before shooting so they don't kill Americans by accident. Long was also shot at in war games while playing a reporter.
"It's OK to just shoot the media when they get in your face," Long said.
By 2005, Long was sure he could not fight in Iraq. He heard about conscientious objector status for the first time, but when he asked about it, he was ignored and then discouraged. An Army chaplain asked if he was opposed to all wars, and Long said that if the United States was attacked and his family was in danger, he would not be opposed to fighting. But he also told the chaplain that he would not be "the strong arm for corporate interests." Or for oil.
He was advised that his personal stance against the Iraq War would not qualify for conscientious objector status. In April 2005, Long was given a high-priority notice to support the Second Brigade, Second Infantry Division, based at Fort Carson, Colo., in Iraq. He was to report to Fort Carson on May 2, his 21st birthday.
Long said he and his "battle buddy" at Fort Knox were the only two soldiers called up to Fort Carson. After the call up, Long had the same dream four nights in a row: An 8-year-old Iraqi boy, who reminded him of his brother, was running at Long with an AK-47. Long dropped his gun and was shot. He told his commanding officer about the dream and the officer was incredulous, Long recalled.
"A fuckin' dream ... you're telling me about a fuckin' dream," the officer told him.
Long was given PCS, or Permanent Change of Station, leave and came back to Boise for 10 days to get ready for his deployment.
The Army had made at least one positive change in Long's life. His service had helped reunite Long with his family. He hadn't spoken with his mother for about three years before she attended his graduation from basic training, and they remained in touch. Long stayed with his mother while in Boise, but inside, he was still not sure whether he would report to duty for Iraq."I didn't want to bring shame upon myself or my family," Long said. He considered going to Iraq and not shooting his gun.
His mother, who declined to be interviewed for this story, dropped him off at the Boise airport. He had a ticket to Colorado Springs. But instead of flying to Fort Carson, he called a friend and hid in his basement in an East Boise subdivision for a few months.
Long became a deserter. At one point during his hiding, U.S. marshals came to the door, but they were just there for his friend who had missed jury duty. A short time later, Long hitched a ride to Canada.
"If I go to Canada--that's what they did in the '70s--I won't have to stay here in hiding anymore," Long said.
According to media accounts, more than 25,000 U.S. soldiers have deserted military duty since the Iraq War began. Lt. Col. Nathan Banks, a Pentagon-based Army spokesman, said that less than 1 percent of the Army is AWOL, and that the numbers are not a problem for his branch.
"We are more focused on the global war on terror than the fact that we have individuals that choose not to serve at this current time," Banks said.
The Army does not have a program to apprehend deserters; most are picked up on other charges by local law enforcement and handed over to the military. Banks said that nine out of 10 deserters have financial problems or face failures as a soldier, rather than claim moral qualms with the war.
Some estimates put the number of war resisters who've fled to Canada at a few hundred. Fewer than 50 of these have applied for refugee status, according to Karen Shadd, a spokesperson for Citizenship and Immigration Canada, the nation's immigration agency.
Shadd said that immigration cases are private in Canada unless made public by the petitioner. Five Iraq War asylum cases, including Long's, have been heard in public and all of them rejected, with Canadian immigration officials arguing that none of the deserters were in need of Canada's protection.
Shadd said that the Canadian government has a fair asylum policy and does not want to make a special case for Iraq War resisters because it could be interpreted as unfair by asylum seekers from other countries.
Long's deportation and conviction, however, have factored in the cases of other Iraq War resisters in Canada. In at least one case, Long's 15-month sentence and dishonorable discharge was cited as evidence of politically motivated prosecutions in the United States, giving one Canadian judge pause.
The town of Nelson, B.C., is now known as Resisterville for the growing number of Iraq War resisters and the numerous Vietnam War alums and draft dodgers who live there. But Long did not know that when he arrived. He bummed around Canada for six months before hearing about the War Resisters Support Campaign, a group that provides financial support for U.S. military deserters in Canada and helps them with their legal options.
It was in Nelson that Long met a French Canadian woman named Renee Arthur. He returned with her to the town of Killaloe in Ontario for two winters. The couple had a son, who is now 3 years old.
In Canada, as he awaited a resolution to his amnesty application, Long discovered an environmental and peace activist community. He sat in a tree to protest the clearing of a cedar grove for a parking lot. He bought an '82 VW Vanagon and converted it to run on waste vegetable oil. And he started a small company called Food Not Lawns to convert people's lawns into vegetable gardens.
Renee Arthur has multiple sclerosis, and Long worked to provide her with healthy organic food, apprenticing on an organic farm. Long also began to speak out on the war. He was interviewed by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, calling the war in Iraq illegal and asserting that President Bush had lied about Iraq.
He wore dreadlocks and an anarchist-style black sweatshirt with a sew-on patch.
He lost his immigration case. Then he was caught.
In 2007, Long returned to Nelson to seek work. He picked fruit for a time, but in October, while in Nelson, Long was questioned by a Canadian police officer and detained on national immigration hold. Having lost his bid for amnesty, Long was no longer welcome in Canada, but he still had the option of appeals.
Long bailed out from a Vancouver jail but was required to check in every month, prohibiting him from returning to Ontario where his son lived. In June 2008, the Canadian immigration authorities said he had not checked in with them--Long said he did--and on July 4, 2008, he was arrested again. After a series of hearings, Long was escorted through the Peace Arch to Whatcom County, Wash., on July 15 and handed over to the Washington State Police, who delivered him to Fort Carson to face court martial.
It was the first time that a U.S. Army deserter from the Iraq War had been deported from Canada, and Canadians were not happy. The Canadian Parliament had passed a nonbinding resolution a month prior asking the conservative government to grant U.S. war resisters sanctuary in Canada. The government ignored the resolution, which has since passed a second time, after two members visited Long in the brig and read some of his writings on the floor of the Canadian Parliament.
"Our prime minister, Stephen Harper, is not respecting the will of the people or the will of parliament," said Olivia Chow, who represents downtown Toronto in Canada's parliament and visited Long in the brig. "He's anti-democratic, which makes a mockery of the claim of fighting in Iraq for democracy, by him rejecting parliament's decision to not deport war resisters."
Long's deportation garnered a brief in The New York Times.
"I believe I was a headliner," Long said. "I made every paper in the United States pretty much, when I got deported."
Long believes that his deportation and the handful of Canadian deportations since were meant to be an example to U.S. soldiers that Canada would not welcome them.
At his military trial, Long again went his own path. Army attorneys assigned to defend him urged Long to beg for mercy. He declined.
"Instead of making me look good, we put the Iraq War on trial," Long said.
Branum, an attorney based in Oklahoma who specializes in G.I. cases with moral opposition to the war, attempted to elevate Long's case to a moral argument against the Iraq War.
"We mostly focused on the issue of morality, that a person has a right to morality or at least should have that right," Branum said.
Long was charged with intent to shirk hazardous duty in Iraq, which carried a five-year maximum sentence. He pled down to desertion, and the Army agreed to a 15-month maximum sentence, which he was prepared to serve.
Branum said the plea deal allowed Long to open up about his feelings about the war.
He called to the stand Col. Ann Wright, a former high-ranking Army official who resigned in protest of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and he called other war resisters to testify as well.
"I talked about Jesus. I talked about Thoreau," Branum said. "Even if you disagree with Robin, our society has benefited from the civilly disobedient."
Branum also suggested a Nuremberg defense, that Long was legally correct to oppose immoral orders from the state. And he argued that the prosecutions and strong sentencing of war resisters were politically motivated.
"Robin, from Day 1, wanted to speak the truth to the Army," Branum said.
The Army prosecutors argued that Long's desertion and public profile were bad for morale and they showed video of his CBC interview to the judge, dreadlocks and all.
Long and other Iraq War resisters argue that since the United States is a signatory to the Geneva Conventions, the Iraq War was launched in violation of both international and U.S. law.
As Long writes in an essay called "The Contract":
"The order to go to Iraq was not a lawful one. It violates our Constitution. Article IV states that any treaty the [United States] is signatory to shall be the supreme law of the land. Last time I checked, the [United States] is signatory to the Geneva Conventions. There are certain laws in that treaty for declaring war, last time I checked, 'regime change' wasn't one of them. A country must be under attack or immanent threat of attack. Neither was true in the case of Iraq. President Bush had no right to interpret the Constitution as he saw fit, on the grounds it was a new world after 9/11, and the 107th Congress had no right to pass HJ Res. 114, which 'allowed' the President to invade Iraq. The Constitution was being ignored by the whole lot of them and they were derelict in their duty to uphold it."
In 2006, BW asked him about his oath to serve. "I never really ... I guess I was kind of not being mature," Long said. "I was 19 years old at the time I was swearing in. It also says to uphold and defend the Constitution of the United States and at first I thought, when they told us we were going over there, I thought, it was an honorable thing. I thought hey, there really are weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein really is a bad man in power. I really thought it was an honorable thing. But as the war kept progressing, then is when I started to see that things were not really adding up."
Long was one of two deserters serving time at Miramar, where he said many prisoners are sex offenders.
"I had to make sure people wouldn't steal pictures of my son," he said.
In addition to his incarceration, Long was stripped of his rank and given a dishonorable discharge. His discharge remains on appeal. As he tours the country speaking out in opposition to the war, Robin Long remains in the Army, getting military medical benefits, though he is no longer being paid.
He argues that his desertion was not dishonorable and that the unfavorable discharge status--a felony--affects his ability to return to his family in Canada and his ability to get work in the United States.
In Long's open letter to Obama, he asked for a better discharge status: "I ask you to please consider granting me presidential clemency or a pardon. I have given this to many different organizations and people to ensure that you receive a copy. I am so happy that you were elected President. I feel real change coming. You are the light after the storm, 'Hurricane Bush' if you will."
He has not heard back but continues the appeal.
His wife is unable to move to the United States because she receives full medical benefits for her MS in Canada and would not be able to get treatment here, Branum said.
After his release from the brig in San Diego, Long moved to San Francisco where he is living communally with other activists and studying massage therapy. He is being sponsored on a trip to Israel and Palestine in October to speak to Army resisters there and meet with high school students. But ultimately Long would like to return to Canada, to be reunited with his son and the community he found there.
"Canada has a long history of being a refuge from injustice," Long said.