“I know I’m not the only 22-year-old soldier thinking this way. The fear of death is always there, but I don’t want to go back to Iraq because I don’t believe in that war.” by Mike Howell, Vancouver Courier, March 17, 2006
In a cluttered bedroom of a Strathcona bungalow, a U.S. military deserter talks about the day he witnessed a friend shoot a man in Iraq.
Kyle Snyder, 22, remembers having to report what he believed was an unnecessary shooting, although his friend thought the Iraqi man posed a threat.The man was raking rocks on a roadside in Mosul. Snyder discovered later that the man lost a leg because of the wounds.
“I saw my friend completely change into this demon,” says Snyder, who served almost four months in Iraq last year as a gunner on a Humvee military vehicle. “I saw his soul die right in front of me.”
On the other side of the border, in a Bellingham coffee shop, Doris Kent wipes tears as she tries to make sense of her son’s death on Oct. 15, 2004 in Karabilah, Iraq.
His name was Corporal Jonathan Santos. He was 22, just like Snyder. Recruited out of high school, just like Snyder. And looking to go to college, just like Snyder. A suicide bomber in a car killed Santos, another soldier, an interpreter and 17 Iraqi civilians. A third soldier suffered major head injuries but survived.
“At his funeral, his coffin was not open because of the head injuries he received,” Kent explains, her voice breaking. “I did not want that to be the last thing his two brothers saw or my mother or Jonathan’s other grandmother saw.”
Snyder didn’t know Santos or his mother.
He’d like to meet Kent but wonders what could he possibly tell her about a war that he first thought was justified-only to find out when he got to Iraq that he wasn’t there to build roads or schools.
“I would be upset at the fact that I wouldn’t know what to say to her because of my belief that this war is based on lies. I can’t go and say to a mother, ‘Look, your son died for a lie,’ because that eats up a lot of pride in that woman, I’m sure.”
He takes a long drag on his Kool cigarette before finishing his thought. He’s soft-spoken and introspective to the point that the constant thinking about war gives him nightmares.
Dressed in a red, hooded jacket, black toque and baggy jeans, the five-foot-four Snyder looks as if he’d be more comfortable on a skateboard than manning a machine gun.
“I would say that I believe her son-instead of fighting for the president and his administration-that he ended up fighting for the men beside him. When a war turns into that, the war is dead wrong.”
Tomorrow, on the steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Snyder will read his “letter of resignation” as a member of the U.S. Army. More a symbolic gesture, Snyder’s words will be heard by hundreds of people expected at an anti-Iraq War rally on the grounds of the gallery.
This weekend marks the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. So far, more than 2,200 U.S. soldiers have been killed and another 17,000 injured. Snyder is one of two U.S. military deserters living in Vancouver who filed a refugee claim. Another 20 soldiers across Canada have also filed for refugee status.
Some, like Snyder, served in Iraq, while others were about to be deployed there. The latest civilian death toll in Iraq is reportedly more than 30,000.
The most famous deserter is Jeremy Hinzman, a 27-year-old member of the 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. In January 2004, Hinzman fled to Toronto with his wife and young son, just days before his unit deployed to Iraq. Hinzman drew international attention when he requested asylum and commenced a refugee claim.
In March 2005, the Immigration and Refugee Board rejected Hinzman’s claim, refusing to hear his argument that the Iraq War violates international law. A Federal Court of Canada judge has since reserved her decision on whether the refugee board should reconsider Hinzman’s case.
It’s a ruling that Snyder is eagerly anticipating, since his application for refugee status is based on a similar argument. No date has been set for his hearing. He is fully aware, however, that a negative judgment in the Hinzman case would certainly crush his and other deserters’ chances of remaining in Canada.
The debate over deserters intensified last week when U.S. border guards in Idaho arrested Allen Abney, a Kootenay man who deserted the U.S. Marine Corps in 1968 and fled to B.C. The Canadian citizen was on holidays at the time of his arrest. The penalty for deserting the U.S. military ranges from one year to life in prison-a sentence Snyder says he’s ready to serve if Hinzman goes to prison.
Whatever the outcome, Snyder points out that he is still alive and can’t imagine the grief that Kent and other mothers of dead soldiers are experiencing in the United States.
“It’s messed up, man. It’s messed up.”
Snyder has had plenty of time to think about the war, why he deserted his platoon and why he joined the Army in the first place. He shares an old house on East Pender Street that a branch of the U.S.-based nonprofit The Catholic Worker provided for him. He receives $70 a week from a local war resisters campaign to help him get by.
This wasn’t his first stop, though.
Snyder left Iraq in April 2005 after his commander granted him a two-week leave to visit a woman in Prince George. The pair met over the Internet and exchanged letters for more than a year.
No matter what happened in Prince George, he knew he wouldn’t return to Iraq. Disillusioned and aware that this country provided a haven for draft dodgers in the Vietnam era, Snyder was big on Canada.
“I wasn’t lying to my commander about where I was going, but if he did not see that I was not coming back there was something wrong with him as a leader.”
He flew from Iraq to Kuwait to Frankfurt to Dallas to Vancouver to Prince George. He was dressed in his uniform and carrying only his duffel bag.
Snyder stayed with his friend, whose name he didn’t want published, until August 2005. Their relationship didn’t work out, he says without getting into detail. So he caught a Greyhound bus to Vancouver.
“At that point, I had nobody in my life, so I hooked up with the war resisters campaign. Since then, I’ve been involved in this political agenda that is really, really confusing to me.” Adds Snyder: “I don’t understand why I can’t start a life, why I can’t just go to a job, come back, go to sleep and basically have a normal life.”
He wouldn’t be here, he says, if he’d been doing in Iraq what he signed up to do-operate heavy machinery to build roads and schools as a member of the 94th Engineer Combat Battalion.
He enlisted Oct. 22, 2003, eight months after the war started in Iraq and more than two years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
Snyder was finishing his Grade 12 diploma at a school in Utah when recruiter Staff Sergeant Joel Williamson-he’ll never forget his name-sold him on the military.
He says Williamson promised him a college education, a dental plan, medical insurance and money for childcare. At the time, Snyder and his then-fianc‚e Erin wanted to have a child.
She later got pregnant, only to lose the baby in the womb because of complications that Snyder claims could have been avoided with medical treatment. The military wasn’t there to help, says Snyder, who spent most of his teenage years in foster care in Colorado after his parents divorced. At 19, he was looking for a better life.
“I believed everything that this professional man came up and told me-that all these benefits would be there. I never before in my life had a man in a suit with medals come up to me like that. So I looked up to him. ‘Wow,’ I said, ‘this guy wants me.'”
As he learned, there was no college education in the Iraqi desert. Nor was there any road building or goodwill work being done for the Iraqi people. Snyder began questioning his role in the military while stationed in Germany, where he was trained to fire a 50-calibre gun attached to a Humvee military vehicle.
“I didn’t quite understand that. If I’m supposed to be building roads, why am I learning to use a 50-calibre weapon? It didn’t make sense.”
Deployed to Iraq, Snyder became a security escort for high ranking U.S. military officials. As he did this, he witnessed the hate Iraqis had for the U.S. military.
“I don’t think I saw one person there that was happy to see me or the other soldiers. It might have been that way in different cities, but not in Mosul. People would throw things at your convoy and give you these looks.”
In a journal entry two months into his tour, he wrote: “Shots were fired at us right in the middle of downtown during broad daylight. Children’s screams I will never forget. The smell of fresh blood. I need someone. How can I be loved if I am witness to such things almost weekly? I am a monster. Emotionless and like a machine.”
Snyder was stationed at Camp Merez, where a suicide bomber killed 22 people, including 18 soldiers in a mess hall one week prior to his arrival. t made for a nervous tour, and he began to consult with his 30 platoon mates about deserting the military. He says they gave him their full support-and still do, via email.
“I know I’m not the only 22-year-old soldier thinking this way. The fear of death is always there, but I don’t want to go back to Iraq because I don’t believe in that war.”
Jonathan Santos was barely 22 when he wrote his last letter to his mother.
It arrived in Bellingham two days after his family learned of his death in Iraq. He died Oct. 15, 2004-the 1,096th U.S. soldier to die since the war began in March 2003. Santos printed his words-just over 200 of them-on two small pieces of white paper. He started it “Dear Mom,” ended it “I love you” and signed it “Jon.”
In between, he told his mother to wish everyone a happy Halloween. He knew his brother Jared’s birthday was approaching, and asked his mother to withdraw $100 from his account to buy Jared a pair of new shoes. In return, he needed some of his mother’s famous biscotti. He had milk, he wrote. Then he summed up his thoughts like this:
“Don’t worry. We are doing great things for God and country. Notice I didn’t say [for] Bush. Soldiers from bottom to top are not motivated by some political agenda. We love our country and are willing to die for it. In the name of freedom, we will fight any threat. We’re doing great things. I don’t care who is in office for the next four years as long as they are a patriot and have this love [for] this country, then I will have no worries. That’s my political stance. Maybe you understand now.”
Two months later, just before Christmas, Santos’ family got more insight into their soldier’s life when a box of his belongings arrived home.
n it was a journal Santos kept for 92 days during his peacekeeping mission in Haiti and for another 37 days in Iraq.
His mother, who changed her last name to Kent after she remarried, knew her son had aspirations to be a writer, but didn’t know he kept a journal.
“It was hard for me to get through that,” she says over the din of coffee being made at her neighbourhood Starbucks.
She points out the coffee shop used to be an A&W restaurant. Her son ate lunch here many times while attending nearby Sehome High School. Santos probably thought about going to college here, too. That’s the main reason he joined the military in July 2001-to make enough money to go to college.
Although his mother was willing to help pay the costs, Santos wanted to earn his own way. He thought about going to USC or UCLA in California.
Joining the military in peace time-before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and before the invasion of Iraq-gave him no reason to think he wouldn’t get to college.
Even in Iraq he was confident, or at least hopeful. His journal entry for his 22nd birthday on Sept. 23, 2004-three weeks before he died-reads, in part:
“So this is my birthday wish. I wish that this time next year I have left the Army behind me and I live in Los Angeles, CA in a nice place where I am truly and incredibly and indefinitely happy.”
Five days later, another entry gives the reader a sense of how that dream could be interrupted. He writes about receiving mail from his youngest brother Justin, his mom and a friend.
“They were talking about how they want me to return safely from Iraq. And I promised them I would. I never lie. But it is sure dangerous here what with rockets, mortars, IEDs [bombs] and sniper attacks. I wanted to be an ATL [team leader] and now that I am one, I’m up in the turret exposed to all of the hazards Iraqi insurgents put out there. Be careful what you wish for. You may just get it. I made the Angel of Death.”
Kent is a mess of tears for the two hours she talks to the Courier about her son’s life, which ended for her with a knock at the door at 6:30 on a Saturday morning. Her husband, U.S. Navy veteran Chris Kent, opened the door to two army officers. She remained in bed. The silence at the door scared her.
Before she let the officers tell her anything, she woke her two other sons-now 14 and 16-so the family could be together. They sat in the living room.
“I could see their faces, but I can’t hear them. But I know they’re saying, ‘On behalf of the United States Army and the President of the United States, we regret to inform you that your son Corporal Jonathan Santos was killed while on active duty in Karabilah, Iraq.'”
Kent never wanted her son to join the military. Mother and son argued about it for three months. It was a tough argument for Kent to win since Santos’ father, both grandfathers, four uncles and his stepfather all served in the military.
“When I realized Jonathan was asking for my support and not my permission, I realized that I needed to be there for him, and so I actually signed the papers.”
He was 17, and recruited out of high school. In the U.S., Kent says, any high school that receives federal funding is obligated to allow military recruiters in that school.
A year later, Santos graduated and began basic training. It wasn’t long before he was deployed to Haiti in March 2004.
He became a linguist-trained in Arabic-with the 9th Psychological Operations Battalion. The unit delivered leaflets in the streets and broadcast to Haitians about the military’s presence.
“We did some humanitarian aid,” he wrote in his journal March 25, 2004. “Water distribution. We played music and people lined up with their buckets for some clean water. Little kids were dancing in the streets. It was magical. I got some pictures. Good ones.”
He returned home to Bellingham in July 2004 for 11 days to visit his family. They all knew about the dangers Santos would face in Iraq, but Kent never saw any fear or upset in her son.
“What he said to his friends was very different than what he would share with me because he didn’t want to me to worry.”
It was only last month that Kent heard from one of Santos’ high school friends about how her son really felt about being deployed to Iraq.
“He said, ‘Ms. Kent, I just need to say this. When I spent time with Jonathan when he was here before he went to Iraq, he was livid, he was so angry that he was going to Iraq. I just wanted you to know that.'”
Kent never thought the Iraq War was justified. She holds U.S. President George W. Bush accountable for all the dead and injured U.S. soldiers.
Without full support of the United Nations, how could America simply invade another country like that, she asks rhetorically. A supporter of former presidential candidate John Kerry, Kent says she’s often asked if she’s “anti-war.”
“And I say, ‘I hope and pray every American is ‘anti-war.’ I hope and pray that all of us believe that war is the very last resort to bring people to justice.”
She wants the debate in her community about whether she’s anti-war to stop. What’s important now, she says, is to care for the injured soldiers-physically and mentally-returning from Iraq.
“We need to say, ‘OK, you don’t have to go back, and you don’t have to go to another country to run away from it, either.’ We have to say that we’re going to be able to help take care of you here. And right now, our nation is not doing that.”
Kent recently appeared in an eight-minute documentary titled, The Corporal’s Boots. The film is about a travelling exhibit that displays a pair of military boots for every U.S. soldier killed in Iraq-all lined up in rows as if the soldiers were standing in them.
It premiered in February at Western Washington University, where Kent once worked as a health educator. Kent wants the film (available at www.indieflix.com) to be viewed by as many people as possible, especially those who believe the Iraq War is justified.
“I’m not asking for people to go out and protest in the streets. I’m not asking for them to fly to D.C. and stand in front of the White House. I’m just asking for eight minutes of their time. Maybe somehow a message will get to the White House.”
In the meantime, back on this side of the border, Snyder will wait out the Federal Court of Canada’s decision on the Hinzman case.
Snyder’s applied for a work permit and will pass the time reading his Anne Rice novels, plucking the guitar by his bed and writing more poetry in the stack of notebooks he keeps on a desk. Snyder also has plans for a book called Child of War. Writing is therapeutic, he says. He recites a poem he wrote last month, called “The Heart of a Gun.”
Solid when still, and untouched,
Yet untamed all the same,
It’s still like a human,
You kill other hearts,
When there’s someone to blame.
He puts down his notebook to explain the poem.
“I just think that’s all a weapon is good for anymore. It kills hearts as well as physical beings. I know it kills hearts and souls. Just having it in your possession, it’s like, man, you’ll never be the same.”
Kent would like to be in Vancouver when Snyder speaks, and maybe say a few words herself, but she can’t right now. When the pain of her son’s death isn’t so overwhelming, she would “do it with pride.”
Besides, her two other sons need her. Kent says if it wasn’t for Jared, 16, and Justin, 14, getting out of bed in the morning would be difficult. Those boys are her life, she says, noting how proud they are of their dead brother.
So, as mothers and soldiers and protesters and politicians mark this weekend’s third anniversary of the Iraq War, Kent will do her best to keep her emotions in check.
But that, she says, will be difficult to do at her son’s grave.
“I’ll be sitting at the cemetery crying. Because at this point, I feel helpless. I feel helpless that I can’t do anything to stop the deaths, to stop the killings.”