ImageUS Army, Miami, Florida native. Joined in 2003 served in Iraq as a combat engineer with the First Cavalry division 2004-2005. Facing re-deployment to Iraq he went AWOL in September 2007 from Germany. He is currently seeking refugee status in Canada. “Some people call us (deserters) cowards, but I don’t think you’re a coward if you stand up for yourself, if you refuse to kill innocent people.”

U.S. Army deserter comes to Sudbury as conscientious objector

By Dennis St. Pierre, Sudbury Star (Ontario, Canada). October 19, 2007

Four years ago, living in poverty and trying to work his way through university, Michael Espinal took the gamble of his life. And lost.

“I knew there was a 50-50 chance,” Espinal says of his perceived odds of being sent to Iraq once he joined the United States Army in late 2003.

But the benefits of enlisting proved too tempting to resist, says Espinal, at the time a 23-year-old resident of Miami, Fla., struggling to pay for college while bouncing from one low-wage job to another. The army offered not only a steady paycheque, but two veritable luxuries for low-income American youth – paid university tuition and medical insurance, he says.

“I didn’t care for the army, but what caught my eye was that they pay for your school and they give you (health) insurance,” says Espinal, now 27.

“They were offering what nobody else was offering at the time and I jumped on it.”

It wasn’t long after Espinal completed basic training that his hopes of avoiding combat faded. Within a few months of enlisting, he was stationed in Kuwait and bracing for the inevitable. By fall 2004, he found himself in the middle of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

For the next several months, Espinal says, he was involved in some of the U.S. Army’s most-destructive and deadliest activity in Iraq – in Baghdad, Ramadi and Fallujah. He says he witnessed – and participated in – authorized missions that saw hundreds – perhaps thousands – of innocent Iraqis killed, injured, imprisoned and humiliated, their homes destroyed, their families ripped apart.

In Espinal’s view, he and his colleagues committed numerous human rights abuses and criminal acts. When his first tour of duty in Iraq ended, he resolved not to return.

As a result, Espinal now is taking another life-altering gamble. Having deserted the military rather than return to Iraq, he is again testing the odds by seeking refugee status in Canada. If his claim fails, he faces deportation and imprisonment in the U.S.

Espinal and his partner, Jennifer Harrison, who are expecting their first child in April, have been living in Sudbury for the last few weeks. They are the first Americans to attempt to settle in the city with help from the War Resisters Support Campaign.

War Resisters is a country-wide coalition of community, faith, labour and other organizations and individuals helping U.S. soldiers who seek asylum in Canada rather than fight in Iraq.

To date, War Resisters officials say, their campaign has helped more than 200 U.S. soldiers, although hundreds of other deserters are believed to have come to Canada on their own. Military figures show more than 11,000 men and women have deserted the American military since the invasion of Iraq, with many continuing to live in the U.S. under the radar of authorities.

Since their arrival in Sudbury last month, Espinal and Harrison have been living with the family of Daryl and Alan Shandro, active members of the War Resisters Support Campaign.

The American couple’s presence in Sudbury was kept low-key for the first few weeks, until it was able to secure legal representation and contact federal immigration officials.

The Shandros and other supporters of the War Resisters are appealing to the public for donations of cash and various items Espinal and Harrison will need to set up their own household in Sudbury. They say they would like to live here permanently.

In any event, the couple expects to be in Sudbury for months, well into 2008 at the very least. Their refugee claim may not be resolved until the Supreme Court of Canada rules on two similar claims made previously by other American army deserters. Those earlier claims have yet to be placed on the Supreme Court’s hearings’ list, which means a realistic timeline for a ruling would be mid- to late-2008.

Meanwhile, Michael Espinal is considered by his government to be a common criminal. But the only criminal acts he and other deserters may have committed, Espinal says, occurred while following orders in Iraq.

“I decided I wasn’t going to jail” for refusing to return to Iraq,” he says. “I’m not a criminal. If I’m a criminal, it’s because I went to Iraq and did bad shit.”

During his tour in Iraq, Espinal was classified as a combat engineer with the First Cavalry Division. One of his primary duties, he says, was to set explosives to demolish buildings and to blow in doors during house raids by American troops. He says he was involved in a major assault on Fallujah, a mid-sized city about 70 kilometres west of Baghdad that was devastated by American bombing raids and ground force attacks that reportedly killed hundreds of civilians and left much of the city in rubble.

“Our job was to knock down buildings, blow up buildings,” Espinal says.

“We got orders to knock down this one building … and we found out the next day we had the wrong building. We had the wrong intel. People were sleeping in that house. It was a three-storey building. We were just told to bring it down.”

While it was clear several Iraqis died in that ill-advised bombing, such details were not relayed to the soldiers, Espinal says.

“We’re just told to move on, to continue with the mission.”

During the Fallujah campaign, the Sunday Times of London described the city as a field of rubble “stretching as far as the eye can see.”

A stronghold of anti-American, pro-Saddam Hussein Sunni Muslims, Fallujah’s pre-war population of about 350,000 was estimated to have dropped by at least 150,000. About 20 per cent of all structures in the city were destroyed and 60 per cent of all buildings were damaged, according to Western media reports.

But such reports were few and far between and only scratched the surface of the damage inflicted by American troops, Espinal claims. He says he participated in dozens of house raids, patrols and gunfights which caused countless Iraqi casualties and arrests, without once coming across what appeared to be a legitimate target.

“I participated in between 80 and 120 raids,” as well as numerous checkpoints, patrols and searches, he says.

“I didn’t witness anything that was (an apparent threat). I didn’t see any terrorists, I didn’t see any major weapons stash, none of that. Not one time. Not one time.

“They would brief us later and say, ‘we got somebody we were looking for.’ But they would never mention the name. Or, ‘we found what we were looking for,’ but we were never told what that was.”

Espinal refuses to discuss graphic images or details of individual deaths and injuries he witnessed, offering only a general characterization of the aftermath of his unit’s actions.

“Too many people take that stuff as entertainment. But what I saw is not entertainment; it’s not a movie,” he says. “A lot of people died, civilians, who were very innocent. I don’t want to talk about how they died and the embarrassment they went through.”

Espinal says his unit typically would conduct three or four house raids in a given night.

“It would always be between two, three, four in the morning, while they were sleeping. We would put charges in the doors to blow them up so a squad could go in and do the house raids,” he says.

“When you’re blowing up someone’s door in the middle of the night, if someone’s sleeping on the other side of that door, they’re dead. That’s it,” he says. “If a kid got up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom and walked by that door, he’s dead.

“Over there, a house is maybe two rooms, so if somebody’s behind that door when we blow it in, they’re gone.”

In most house raids, regardless of whether a threat was found, property was destroyed or damaged and the inhabitants assaulted, Espinal says. Men and boys – if they were at least five feet tall – were routinely taken to unspecified detainment areas, he adds.

“In one of our first raids there were four males and two or three females and we were asking, ‘which one of these guys is the guy we’re looking for?’ And we were told, ‘just zip-tie (plastic hand restraints) them all up and we’ll deal with it later.’ There was nobody (dangerous) there. But anybody over five feet and male, they were taken away. There was no saying, ‘he’s just a kid.’ It was, ‘he’s over five feet, he has facial hair, we’re taking him. That’s how it was. Or if they talked back to us, we took them.

“By the time the raids were over and we were heading back to camp, there would be six or seven or eight 50-tons (trucks) just loaded with people … You were cramming 30 or 40 people in each (truck), just thrown in there and shipped off, who knows where.”

In addition to setting the explosive charges to blow in doors, Espinal says, he often was called upon to take part in the armed raids of Iraqi homes.

“Guys would go in and just tear up the house – kick in walls, knock over shelves, carve up mattresses, go through their ice box or refrigerator. Basically, anything they had was destroyed.

“If they had any U.S. currency, it was taken from them. Whatever they had, if we wanted it, it was ours and there was nothing they could do about it. If there were males over five feet tall and we were taking them away, the females would be yelling about what we were doing with their families and we couldn’t tell them. Kids would be crying. It was chaos.

Then we would just take the males and leave without telling them were they were going. Then we’d go to the next house for the next raid and do it all over again. We would do three or four in a four-hour period and other units would be doing the same thing, taking places down like dominoes. That would be your basic early morning in Iraq.”

Iraqis who tried to fight back during house raids were either shot or “smacked down” and then detained, Espinal says. In many cases they were humiliated and abused in other ways, he claims.

“There are certain ways, in their culture, to treat females (but) we didn’t follow any of that. They got touched, yelled at. They got thrown to the ground. Mud, shit, whatever, would be dragged into their house. Their religious artifacts would get smashed up. I saw soldiers take out their Bibles and throw them at them and replace their books with Bibles and American stuff. I saw soldiers go into their refrigerators and take their food and bring it back to camp. When we were in that house, we could do whatever we wanted to their stuff and there were no ifs, ands or buts about it. It was ours and we could do whatever we wanted.

“Guys would be chewing tobacco and spit on the floor, spit on their beds, spit on their clothes, break their dishes, break their vases, rip up any paperwork they had, rip open children’s toys. That was a basic raid – going in there and just destroying whatever they had.

“If we were in a raid and there were children in the way, you weren’t allowed to tell them to get out of the way. You were not allowed to talk to them. If they got in the way, they got in the way. You threw them to the ground and zip-tied them and threw them on the back of a 50-ton and they were sent to, wherever.”

Invariably, regardless of the soldiers’ conduct or whether a threat or legitimate target was uncovered during a night of house raids, “we were told, ‘job well-done,’ ” Espinal says. “We were told, ‘we completed the mission tonight, we got the mission done right.’ Unless the mission was destroying people’s property, I don’t know what the mission was.”

Even in his eight-man squad, Espinal says, he was far from alone in terms of soldiers who abhorred what they were doing.

“Of the eight I was with, four of them did not agree” with the mission. “The rest of them were officers.”

Some soldiers risked the consequences of resisting certain orders or duties, Espinal says. Such resistance included placing a smaller amount of explosive on a house door to lessen the risk of death or injury to the inhabitants, or refusing to open fire during a checkpoint or patrol when at least one member of a squad began shooting, he says.

“If you were are a checkpoint and (an Iraqi) didn’t stop and one person in your squad opened fire and the rest of you didn’t open fire, you got in trouble. You would get into trouble for not returning fire on people who were just celebrating something by shooting their rifles into the air … We would get into trouble for giving water to them, or food, or interacting with them. We could be walking down a street and see an Iraqi beating his wife and we weren’t allowed to interfere in that. That was their problem.”

Consequences for such dereliction of duty included a demotion in rank and a cut in pay, the withholding of mail and packages sent from home, 24-hour checkpoint duty and a particularly dirty job – burning human waste collected from latrines in large barrels, Espinal says.

“You pour gas and kerosene on it and you keep stirring it and burning it until it’s gone. It wasn’t the best job.”

When his tour in Iraq ended in mid-2005, Espinal says, he served alternately at Fort Sill, an army training base in Oklahoma, and at a military recruiting office in his hometown Miami.

At Fort Sill, he says, he was shocked by the degree to which the quality of training had dropped for new recruits who were heading to Iraq. At the recruitment office, he says he was disgusted by what he viewed as immoral tactics used to persuade poor, minority teenagers to enlist.

In mid-2006, Espinal says he received orders sending him to an American base in Germany. Though he feared a second tour in Iraq was in the offing, he says he was virtually assured he would not see combat, particularly since he previously had suffered a foot injury and hearing loss from explosive blasts.

Given that Espinal expected to spend only a few months in Germany before being returned to the U.S., Harrison accompanied her partner on the trip. Once overseas, however, it soon became clear he was headed back to Iraq, Espinal says.

“They sent me to a (commanding officer) from another unit and that captain took out my medical record, shredded it in front of me and got me another medical record and gave me the green light to go,” he says. “So one moment I’m not qualified to go and the next moment I’m ready to go.”

Espinal began inquiring about his options of filing an application as a conscientious objector – a designation granted in an extremely small number of cases to soldiers who are either discharged or moved to non-combatant positions. But Espinal says he was informed in no uncertain terms that conscientious objector applications could not be filed from his unit.

On Sept. 15, 2006, Espinal went AWOL. He and Harrison spent the next six weeks in hiding in Germany before getting a flight back to the U.S. The couple then lived basically in hiding in Miami for nearly a year.

While Harrison found a job, “I didn’t leave the house, basically,” says Espinal. Finally, “I couldn’t take it anymore,” he says.

The couple began searching the Internet for programs that were available to help deserting soldiers and came across the War Resisters in Canada. They contacted the group, arrangements were made and last month they drove across the border and into Ontario.

The desertion of American soldiers during the Iraq war has been compared to the experience of thousands of U.S. draft-dodgers who fled north to avoid service in Vietnam nearly four decades ago.

However, critics of the Iraq war deserters point to a clear distinction between the two scenarios. During the Vietnam era, young Americans were being forced into war by their government, via the draft, whereas all soldiers serving in Iraq voluntarily enlisted in the army.

Espinal makes no bones about that distinction, in his case.

“Yes, I volunteered,” he says. “But I didn’t volunteer to go to another country and destroy it, to go into innocent people’s homes and destroy them and mistreat them and if they fight back they get shot … Some people call us (deserters) cowards, but I don’t think you’re a coward if you stand up for yourself, if you refuse to kill innocent people.”

A U.S. Army spokeswoman has questioned the “unsubstantiated claims” made by Espinal, but said the military will not respond directly to those allegations.

“It is not uncommon for someone to make unsubstantiated claims against the U.S. Army after deserting his unit during a time of war,” said Maj. Anne Edgecomb of the Army’s media relations division at the Pentagon in Virginia, outside Washington, D.C.

However, “it would be inappropriate to address (Espinal’s) accusations directly,” Edgecomb said in an e-mail response to The Star’s inquiries about the case.

“Additionally, we don’t comment on specific cases of desertion,” she said.

The Pentagon has said in the past that the desertion rate during the Iraq war has been no higher than usual, but that the U.S. government wanted the deserters to be returned from Canada so they could be prosecuted.

In the four year-period from 2003 to 2006, more than 11,000 American soldiers, or an average of 2,750 per year, have deserted, according to Pentagon figures. That rate represents far less than one per cent of overall U.S. troop strength and is comparable or lower to the desertion rate from preceding years, the military says.

“Desertion in the army isn’t the huge problem it has been portrayed as by some organizations that assist soldiers who chose to desert, or by some of the soldiers themselves,” states the e-mail message from the Pentagon’s Edgecomb.