Image By Mark Larabee, The Oregonian. July 16, 2007.

James Burmeister worked at Wal-Mart and in pizza joints in Eugene until he joined the U.S. Army 18 months ago because he wanted to make a difference.

His recruiter told him a tour in Iraq would give him the opportunity to build schools and support war-weary Iraqis, so against the advice of his parents, he signed up.

But once in Iraq, he was assigned to a “small kill” team that set traps for insurgents. They’d place a fake camera on a pole with a sign labeling it as U.S. property, giving the team the right to shoot anyone who messed with it. Burmeister, who provided perimeter security for the team, said he could never get over his distaste for the tactic.

After being wounded by a roadside bomb, he was sent to Germany to recover. In May, on the eve of being sent back to Iraq, Pfc. Burmeister went AWOL — absent without leave — taking his family to Ottawa.

The 22-year-old Oregon native is one of about three dozen U.S. soldiers who’ve applied to Canada for refugee status under the Geneva Conventions. Thousands have deserted since the war began, and many are believed to be living illegally in Canada, officials there said.

Desertion is a normal part of the military. Since it became an all-volunteer force after the Vietnam War, the Army’s rate of desertion has remained relatively constant, at about 1 percent. That contrasts with a high of 3.4 percent in 1971, when more than 33,000 soldiers deserted to avoid combat in Vietnam.

Desertion is a felony. Burmeister’s application gives him a legal way to stay in Canada and avoid prosecution. But it’s not like the Vietnam era, when thousands of Americans — both deserters and draft dodgers — were allowed to become Canadian citizens after fleeing there.

Canada’s immigration laws are much stricter now, and its courts have set the bar high for political refugees.

Refugees must prove that they would face persecution — not just prosecution — if sent back home. So far, Canadian judges have ruled against every soldier as cases wind their way through the courts.

Burmeister has yet to have a hearing. But he is working with the War Resisters Support Campaign to publicize the issue and lobby Canada’s Parliament for support for AWOL U.S. troops. The group helps them with places to live and sets them up with attorneys.

Public support for the deserters is growing, said Joel Harden, a spokesman for the group. He cites a recent poll in Ontario that found 54 percent of Conservative Party voters agreed with the group’s objectives.

The number is not surprising to Harden, given that Canada refused to send troops to Iraq after the United Nations declared the conflict illegal. He said Vietnam-era deserters are looked upon favorably because they made significant contributions to Canadian society.

“Canadians are opening their hearts to these guys,” Harden said.

Still, Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board has denied every application it’s heard for refugee status. Two U.S. Army soldiers, Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Hughey, lost their cases in both federal court and the federal appeals court and are seeking to appeal to the supreme court.

Hinzman served in Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne in a noncombat position after applying for conscientious objector status, which was eventually rejected. Facing deployment to Iraq, he sought asylum in Canada in January 2004. Hughey fled to Canada in March 2004 before his Army unit went to Iraq. He once told an interviewer that he believes it’s a soldier’s duty to refuse an order that he knows to be illegal and immoral.

Harden said he thinks things will end favorably for U.S. troops in Canada. “I’m pretty confident that we can find a political solution to this problem,” he said. “If the decision of the military and the Bush-Cheney government is that they’ll be prosecuted, then they ought to be welcome here.”

Enlisted to help Iraqis

Ottawa is a long way from the halls of Junction City High School and music classes at Lane Community College. Burmeister wrestles with the thought he may never get to go home again.

He was born in Portland and grew up in Eugene. After high school, he played bass, saxophone and bass clarinet in bands and worked in dead-end jobs. But he wanted to do something “big in my life.”

Army recruiters capitalized on that sentiment, he said.

“They drove it into my head that I would be doing so much to help, building power plants and schools and handing out school supplies to kids,” he said.

After basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., his first assignment was with the 1st Battalion, 18th Infantry, a mechanized infantry battalion based in Schweinfurt, Germany. He met his wife, Angelique, there. They have a son, Cornell, 2.

Burmeister said he started having doubts about going to Iraq when his training focused on combat tactics, how to kill and how to raid buildings. By August 2006, he was a gunner atop a Humvee in Baghdad, about 15 miles south of the fortified Green Zone.

When the team wasn’t setting traps, it patrolled areas hoping to draw out the enemy. Burmeister says he hated when they would set out the fake camera.

“As soon as anyone would mess with it, you were supposed to lay waste to them,” he said. “I completely disagreed with that tactic. I can’t see how that’s helping anyone whatsoever.”

On Feb. 15, his Humvee hit a bomb, knocking Burmeister unconscious. He lost hearing in his right ear; shrapnel embedded in his face. He was sent to Germany to recover. On May 4, on the eve of being sent back to Iraq, he and his family boarded a plane for Canada.

“I kind of felt stuck,” he said. “I thought people needed to be free there. But when I went there it was all about captures and kills and it felt like we messed things up over there.

“This felt like my last option.”

Canada “a bad idea”

But experts say it’s not a good option. Most deserters turn themselves in, said J.E. McNeil, director of the Center on Conscience and War, a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., providing legal advice to U.S. troops.

“Going to Canada is a bad idea,” McNeil said. “This is not Vietnam. At that time, you could walk in, set your bags down and stay.”

She said a better option is to return to the military. Most who do are discharged under the “other than honorable” classification, she said. Few have been convicted of desertion, she said.

In July 2005, Army Sgt. Kevin Benderman was given a dishonorable discharge and sentenced to 15 months in prison for refusing to deploy, but he was acquitted on the more serious charge of desertion. The Army’s court-martial of 1st Lt. Ehren Watada for refusing to deploy ended in a mistrial in February. He was the first officer to refuse to go to Iraq.

McNeil said the Army provides a safety valve for deserters, allowing them to surrender and be processed out of the service. She estimates about 5,000 are doing that each year, although she calls that a “lowball figure.”

“People going AWOL from the Army is nothing new,” McNeil said.

The Army said 19,390 soldiers have deserted between 2001 and 2006, an average of 3,231 a year, or about 1 percent of the entire force.

“The vast majority of the soldiers who desert have been on active duty for less than six months, and the reasons for deserting typically cited are personal problems, money problems, things like that,” said Lt. Col. Robert Tallman, an Army spokesman .

Tallman said a soldier’s commander determines the appropriate discipline, which is intended to not be punitive but corrective and rehabilitative. Those soldiers who do not turn themselves in must spend the rest of their lives looking over their shoulder and live with the stigma of being a deserter, he said.

Burmeister’s mother, Helen Burmeister of Cheshire, Ore., worries that her son will never be able to come home for a visit. But she’s proud of his decision to leave the Army.

“I don’t support the war,” she said. “I don’t know anybody who supports what’s going on in Iraq.”

She said representatives of the Army twice called her at work to tell her that her son was making a mistake and should turn himself in.

“It took guts for him to do what he did,” she said. “I told them I hadn’t heard from him.”