In a war fought by voluntary soldiers, the line between military deserter and war resister can be slim.
At the age of 19, Boise native Robin Long enlisted in the United States Army seeking a job with steady pay, medical benefits and a chance to go to college. Two years later, while stationed in a non-deployable unit at Fort Knox, Kentucky, Pfc. Long and a handful of troops from his unit received orders to go to Iraq. Long was given three weeks leave before his report date.
But instead of reporting for duty at Fort Carson, Colorado on April 10, 2005, Long went AWOL (absent without leave) and spent several months hiding out in a friend's basement in Boise. In June 2005, Pfc. Long hitchhiked to Canada. Once there, Long spent several months living as a vagrant out of soup kitchens and hitchhiking coast to coast.
Now 22, Long is settled in Ontario and is engaged to be married to a Canadian woman with whom he is expecting a child.
Was it a personal decision or a political decision to go AWOL?
A little bit of both. It was mostly political because I really didn't feel like [the Bush administration] had proven that there was any reason for us to be over there. They hadn't proven there were weapons of mass destruction. It wasn't sanctioned by the United Nations. It also was a war of aggression. They [Iraq] were no threat to us. And after seeing Abu Ghraib and the killing of civilians ... you can look at anything on the Internet and see people have been tortured and civilians have been killed for no reason. Also, the people who were coming into my unit had just come from Iraq and they were telling me horrific stories. 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.
Some people would argue that you knew all that going in to the Army.
Yeah you could say that, but when I joined ... I made it apparent that I didn't want to go to Iraq. I didn't believe in the war that was going on over there so that's why I was stationed at Fort Knox. They kind of stayed true to their part of the bargain until the numbers started getting really low. They didn't have any new people enlisting so they were just taking anyone they could.
Do you still have family in Boise?
Do they support your decision?
Well, my mom and my stepdad support my decision, but the rest of my family ... I guess it's because they really don't understand.
What do you mean by the rest of your family?
They don't really talk to me. My brothers and sisters do, but my grandparents ... I haven't really been in contact with them. I don't know that they're mad at me so much as they are afraid to talk to me because of the government.
Did you apply for conscientious objector status before going AWOL?
I tried to get conscientious objector status but my first sergeant told me he couldn't find the forms to apply and he didn't feel like looking for them. I didn't know about conscientious objector status until about a month before I got orders and that was when I first tried to do it. Shortly after that, I got orders, so I never really got a chance to apply for it. Leaving was kind of like a spur of the moment thing. It was my only option other than live underground in the United States and be running for the rest of my life or go to Canada.
In the Armed Forces Enlistment Oath you swore to "obey the orders of the President of the United States," and as you were swearing to obey those orders was there ever a moment when you said to yourself, "You know, there's a war happening that I'm promising to participate in despite the fact that I don't really believe in it?"
I guess I was kind of not being mature. I was 19 years old at the time I was swearing in. 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.
What about the couple of guys from your unit who were also singled out to go with you? Did you talk about your plans to leave with them?
I was supposed to get on a plane and report to Fort Carson and I was still planning to go. But there was another guy, who's actually a Canadian citizen, he was my battle buddy--in combat you have a battle buddy who is always with you--and he didn't show up either. He just went back to Canada. On the day we were supposed to report he called me and said, "I bet you wonder where I am." And I said, "No, I'm not there either."
Have you talked to any of your old friends, coworkers or comrades from the Army since you left?
I haven't talked to any of them.
Do you feel guilty for leaving them?
Most of the people there had come from Iraq, they had been in the army for a while or they came straight out of basic so we weren't really that close.
Did you consider trying to get a dishonorable discharge by testing positive on a drug test or putting on weight?
I thought about it, but having a dishonorable discharge limits how you can live. Even McDonald's won't hire you with a dishonorable discharge. It's really hard to get work unless you want to work under the table, so I thought that coming to Canada was a better option because at least here, I can get a job anywhere I want. I won't have to worry about that dishonorable discharge following me around for the rest of my life.
What legal ramifications do you face?
Well if I go back to the States, it's definitely going to be jail. They're giving people anywhere from a year in prison at Fort Leavenworth to three or four years.
Is your plan to stay in Canada?
Yeah, I love Canada. In the States, it's a melting pot of different cultures and everyone loses their culture. And up here in Canada, they celebrate individual cultures and they have a good social net with things like free health care.
Are you willing to go to prison for your decision if it comes to that?
Yeah, if it came down to that, I'd be willing to go to prison because I know I did the right thing and I can sleep at night and my conscience is still good.
For more information on Long's case or the War Resisters Support Campaign, visit www.resisters.ca. .