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      Tuesday
      Sep212010

      Church of Misfits Shelters War Resister 

      Rodney Watson. (Photo: Bayne Stanley)

      First United Church in East Vancouver describes itself as “a community at the margins.” The surrounding neighborhood on East Hastings hosts perhaps the largest outdoor assemblage of addicts, pushers, prostitutes, and mentally-disturbed persons in North America. The church itself houses as many as three hundred homeless people a night.

      First United also is the place of sanctuary for an American war resister, 32-year old Rodney Watson. Since he can be arrested by Canadian and US authorities if he ventures outside, for one year Watson has taken asylum from war in an asylum of homeless misfits.  

      Next week the Canadian parliament is expected to hear a bill proposing  humanitarian grounds for granting asylum in the country. Watson’s application for permanent resident status is on hold. About 40 other American war resisters are seeking asylum in Canada, where nearly 80,000 were given protection during the Vietnam War.

      Each day Watson waives goodbye to his Canadian wife and two-year old son as they venture out of the church to shop, go to the parks and enjoy the amenities of Vancouver’s celebrated urban life.

      An African-American from Kansas City, Watson joined the US army and was dispatched to Iraq in 2006. Back home, he had been holding down a well-paying job in an auto shop until the economy slowed down and he was laid off.

      He grew up around the gangs of St. Louis –- Bloods, Crips, Folks, MS 13 -– and saw several friends die in the streets. When he lost his job, a dope dealer friend fronted him some weed to make a little money. Watson refused, and the dealer happened to be murdered the next day. It was a sign. Watson joined the Army.

      He signed up as a cook on a three-year contract, imagining that he would open a diner back in Kansas City one day. Instead he was deployed to a unit defusing car bombs in Mosul.

      Think Hurt Locker without the Academy Awards.

      Every day Watson suited up and went looking for car bombs. He examined thousands of cars. It was 120 degrees and, he recalls, “I could hear my sweat sizzling.”

      He has no idea how he survived. Perhaps a sheik he befriended was looking out for him. Otherwise it was random luck, the kind that runs out.

      Just before his Army contract expired, Watson received word he was going back to Iraq on a unilateral extension of the contract, under the Army’s stop-loss policy.

      He went home to Kansas City on a brief leave, and measured his options. His luck around car-bombs was sure to end in an explosion at some point. He was tired of the racial epithets in the Army towards the “sand niggers”, as Iraqis were called. “It reminded me of home.”

      Keeping his thoughts to himself, he considered going to Mexico. Then while watching Tyra Banks one day, he was struck by some televised footage of Vancouver. It looked wonderful, an oasis of the North.

      “So I hugged my parents good-bye, told them I was going back to Fort Hood,” he said, then took off for the Canadian border by Greyhound.

      At the border, he remembers how a Canadian agent looked him over –- a nervous black American, of military age -– then smiled, said “c’mon” and waived him through.

      In Vancouver, he had $2,000 and nowhere to go. For a time he lived in a hotel for $20 a night, and walked the streets looking for work. He took a chance and told someone at a hostel of his plight. “You’re not going anywhere,” he was reassured, and soon he was doing construction work as an immigrant without papers. That lasted for two years, until the day that the letter came from the immigration authorities.

      Instead of turning himself over for deportation back to a US prison, Watson joined the small Canadian underground of resisters first built during Vietnam, which still exists to offer support, housing, jobs, and legal advice to anyone resisting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

      That’s why he took refuge in the First United Church on September 18, 2009, one year ago this week. With Watson, when he entered the sanctuary, were two members of the Canadian parliament and the First United pastor, Rev. Ric Matthews, a native of South Africa. Rev. Matthews takes Christianity seriously. In a letter this year to President Obama, he wrote that he hopes for “meaningful conversation” about the issues of “war, personal accountability, conscientious objection and basic justice” underlying Watson’s case. He hasn't heard back.

      Watson still sits in his self-made prison. When the wife and child go outside, he admits it hurts a bit. He has difficulty sleeping sometimes. His weight has increased. He keeps himself busy corresponding with his 643 Facebook friends. And he waits. The military could invade the church at any moment.

      Meanwhile, the homeless addicts around First United treat his family reasonably well. But he’s aware that his transition in life has been from The Hurt Locker to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

      Howling incoherent arguments continually erupt, and sometimes fist-fights too, on the doorstep of the place he calls home. It, too, is a war zone.

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      Reader Comments (6)

      Hi Tom,

      This is an extremely well written post.It's almost a narrative, but I'm not sure we should "glorify" a member of the arm forces who decided to run--when thousands of Americans have stayed to fight-putting themselves in harms way. Even if the person you mention thought he would be a cook--out of harms way, safe, didn't he volunteer for the army? How does his fear justify running and hiding?

      Isn't it time you give equal coverage to a soldier who stayed and fought, even if it meant doing a job they had not volunteered for, a job I presume you don't respect or consider very worthwhile. How about it, Tom? Any chance you will honor the hard work and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform with an article?

      September 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Strickberger

      Mr. Strickberger,

      If you read through all the articles, while apposed to the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, etc... Tom Hayden regularly writes on behalf of veterans and men and women in the armed service. Particularly concerning the lack of reporting (accurate reporting) of Department of Defense data, the human and financial costs of wars, neglected contractors, the dramatic increase in suicide rates, and the discounted injuries that fall under the category of non combat-related.

      Hayden certainly is not overlooking the hard work and sacrifice of men and women in uniform, and it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise.

      September 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlbert

      Terrific article and narrative. Raises many issues, without bias.

      Hundreds of thousands of men and women are leaving families, jobs and country, signing multi-year contracts to serve in the U.S. military - putting their lives at risk. Beyond basic training, paychecks and rations - and (if possible, agreed upon and budgeted) medical care upon injury and schooling - what fact-based description of United States war tactics is military leadership obligated to provide to soldiers committing their lives to serve?

      September 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPaul van Winkle

      Yes, he volunteered and now he's volunteering not to serve, after having risked his life more than most of us ever will in a war situation. Only he and others who do that know what that means, really. I don't think how we judge it is nearly as important as how he sees it...he did it, doesn't want to do it any more. I hope that Canada continues this policy that has caused such a good feeling towards Canada in the hearts of many people and maintained the right of an American soldier to have a place to go for refuge when he decides to not live up to the original contract either.

      September 22, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLee Boek

      Great article. One thing I think was missed in the back and forth comments above.

      According to Tom's account, Rodney committed to being a cook. The agreement appears to have been broken by the military. Rodney then served his term defusing bombs for God's sake.

      Then he was "stop-loss-ed". A "unilateral" extension of his contract. "Sorry son, I know we told you you were done, you fulfilled your commitment, but we have the power to send you back and that is just what we are going to do." This practice takes unfair advantage of our brave men and women who have fulfilled their commitment, treats them like slaves, it is abuse on steroids. It makes a mockery of our basic human rights and has ruined many of our brave soldier's lives. You just keep sending them back till they get killed or go totally nuts and kill their fellow soldiers at Fort Hood.

      So here he is, actually witnessing the horrors of war that we can only imagine, if we try. Funny how so many of these arm chair warriors above don''t get that. How many times have you been splattered with your best friends brains? How many children have you see killed? How many brown skinned families have you destroyed?

      He came to a different conclusion about the whole thing as a result. What sane person wouldn't. He knew continuing to defuse bombs would probably kill him. Maybe he go tired of the endless killing.

      For what. A pack of lies? A criminal act committed by a bunch of Saudi''s living in caves that our government decided to called a war for questionable motives? Against a population that is totally innocent of the alleged crime?

      He decided to leave his country. That is huge. He decided to give up his US citizenship over this. How many of you arm chair warriors are willing to do that?

      Personally, I think Rodney is far braver than any of you arm chair warriors passing such harsh judgment.

      October 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDuncan Dow

      Thank you, Duncan Dow, for expressing some of the same thoughts I had.

      October 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJill Sheridan

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