(Second of Two Parts)
Before he went AWOL to Canada, U.S. Army specialist Jeremy Hinzman led a somewhat double life. As a soldier in the 82nd Airborne, Hinzman, 25, never knew when he might get the call to go fight in a war he didn’t believe in. While many of his army peers were hanging out in Fayetteville’s seedy bars, Hinzman and his wife and son would spend many weekends in Raleigh, where they would grocery shop at Whole Foods and spend time with progressive friends.
With Sept. 11 came Pres. Bush’s promise of vengeance, and for Hinzman the realization that he may have to fire his M-4 at real people instead of targets. Hinzman had always told himself that if he were in combat, he would “aim high” and not try to kill anyone. In his heart of hearts, however, Hinzman said he knew such a plan was unrealistic.
“The more and more I was in the military, the more and more I found that that wouldn’t be true for the fact that I liked the people I worked with, and I would just feel like an ass if I did that and betrayed them in that way and not gave it my all in the heat of battle,” Hinzman said. “I knew I wouldn’t aim high, and that I may actually shoot to kill, and I didn’t want to put myself in that predicament.”
So, last year, before his unit received orders to ship out to Afghanistan, Hinzman submitted a conscientious objector application to the army asking–not to be discharged–but to be assigned to a noncombatant role.
Despite the CO request, Hinzman was ordered to go to war. Once in Kandahar, Hinzman found out there was a price to pay for his beliefs. Word circulated among the troops that he had filed the CO claim, and Hinzman’s first sergeant decided to make an example of the soldier who didn’t want to fight. For more than eight months, Hinzman was assigned to KP, washing dishes in a mess hall 12 to 16 hours a day, seven days a week.
“It just made me bitter,” Hinzman said. “I worked absurdly long hours for a long time. It was a lonely experience.”
Officially, Hinzman said, he was not told he was being punished, but that’s what it was, and he understood why the action was taken. “As far as [my first sergeant] was concerned, I said I didn’t want to soldier anymore, and that offended him,” Hinzman said. “I don’t blame him. I think if I was him I would have acted harshly towards a CO applicant as well. I empathize with him. He had to at least present a hard line. You would just have to be firm because it would open the door for people who were contemplating similar actions, or for people who just didn’t want to fight, or didn’t want to play the game anymore, to do the same thing.
“If you show, ‘Oh, the guy who did this, his life is hell,’ then people might hesitate or not do it.”
During an interview regarding his CO application, Hinzman said he would defend his camp if it were under attack. His honesty killed his application. The army might recognize the CO claim of a soldier who would never fight, but not one who just wanted to pick and choose his battles. Hinzman withdrew his application when it was clear it would be denied.
Last July, Hinzman was back at Fort Bragg, and things started to improve. A competent soldier, Hinzman was assigned to be his one of his company’s armorers, a position of great responsibility “because you’re in charge of millions of dollars worth of weapons,” he said.
Although Hinzman said he “wasn’t very good at telling people what to do,” he was assigned to important jobs on the post.
“I didn’t have to have my hand held,” he said.
Prior to filing his CO claim, Hinzman was a radio operator for his platoon, another position that carries with it a lot of responsibility. Had he reenlisted, Hinzman said he was on track to make sergeant.
Still, the thought was always in the back of his mind that his unit would get the call to Iraq. When the call came on Dec. 20, Hinzman and his wife, Nga Nguyen, consulted with their families and decided it was time to leave the country. The decision, after three years of his four-year tour of duty, means Hinzman will never collect the thousands of dollars in college tuition he would have received in exchange for his service, and, as an army deserter, Hinzman can never return legally to the U.S. unless he’s ready to face a court martial and likely prison term.
In Canada, Hinzman hooked up with Toronto immigration lawyer Jeffry House, who is helping the couple apply for refugee status. Since Hinzman could be imprisoned for his stance, he has a legitimate “fear of persecution,” one of the requirements to receive refugee status, House said. “I believe that he would basically be punished for his conscience, for his religious and political beliefs. I don’t believe that his conscientious objector application was dealt with in any sort of reasonable way.”
“On a practical level,” Hinzman’s chances of remaining in Canada are excellent, House said. “I don’t think Jeremy will ever be sent to the U.S.”
Hinzman also has public opinion on his side. While U.S. citizens strongly support the Iraq war, the large majority of Canadians agree with Hinzman that the war is “contrary to international law,” House said. “There’s a lot of sympathy for him here.”
House says there is no precedent for Canada deporting war resisters, and the U.S. is not likely to want Hinzman back. Since an article appeared in the Toronto Globe and Mail on Feb. 7, House said he has received dozens of calls from people offering money and support for Hinzman.
“He’s kind of a poster boy, and the question is will there be more?” House said.
For her part, Nguyen, 31, says she’s now just glad that her husband won’t be going to Iraq. She was able to put some of her things that have sentimental value in storage in Fayetteville. The rest didn’t matter. She and her 21-month-old son, Liam, would not have to be separated from Jeremy again. “I didn’t have any attachments to the other stuff,” she said. “I guess I was just happy that we were going to have this life where we were going to be together, and I was going to know for sure how Jeremy was doing. In Iraq, he might die.”
Leaving the U.S. –especially Fayetteville–didn’t make her sad, Nguyen said.
“I felt like, ‘OK, I have Jeremy back, and I know for sure he isn’t going to go,’ ” she said.
Life as a military wife has been riddled with anxiety during the war on terrorism, Nguyen said. Wives would watch TV news reports and read The Fayetteville Observer every day to find out if anyone from Fort Bragg had died.
“They would list names, and me being a military wife, that was always constantly in the back of my head even though I tried not to dwell on it,” she said.
Hinzman said he does not believe he has abandoned his fellow soldiers, all of whom shipped out to Iraq last month. If he saw them today, Hinzman said, “I’d hold my head up high. I would have more to be ashamed about had I not acted on what I felt was right and went [to Iraq]. Although I’m here, I think that would have been the easier thing to do, because the odds are I would have come back unscathed. I probably wouldn’t have had to act violently.”