During the idle hours Joshua Key spent guarding a children's hospital in the Iraqi city of Ramadi, where he'd been stationed as a soldier in the US Army, it was the daily visits from a little girl that kept him sane.
Oblivious to the turmoil around her, the girl of about 6 or 7, whom he called "little sister," would run up to his post and say breathlessly the only English words she seemed to know: "Mister, food."
Each time, he'd hand her his field ration, often sacrificing the one item he could stand to eat — the beef enchilada. Eventually she began bringing him homemade flatbread and water from the Euphrates River. The little sister's smile reminded him of his own kids, and he looked forward to seeing it on those days when time seemed to stand still.
One of those visits changed the course of his life. Key remembers it vividly — he was perched on a rock, watching her run towards him, when suddenly, the sound of a gunshot pierced the air.
"Her head exploded like a mushroom and she fell," Key told VICE News. "I went into shock."
The single shot — the distinct sound of an M-16, like those carried by his own squad mates — devastated him.
"I wanted to file a mission statement because I assumed it was one of my guys that did it, and I was told it was none of my business."
Key, a welder who signed up for the Army to build bridges in the US but found himself on the front lines of the Iraq war, became so consumed by questions about what Americans were doing in Iraq and so traumatized by the little girl's death that staying there in good conscience was no longer possible.
Joshua Key in 2008. (Colin Perkel/CP)
So he fled, to Canada, where he now lives, with his wife and three kids.
He's one of 24 remaining American war resisters fighting for the right to stay, after years of being labeled criminals by the Canadian government, which automatically deemed them inadmissible to the country.
At one point, 200 members of the US Army sought refuge in Canada over the Iraq war. Most either left voluntarily, or have since been deported. But these two dozen have hung on, choosing to battle for their sanctuary through the courts, knowing that a return to the US would almost certainly result in a military trial for desertion.
But now, a critical moment is approaching. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has until September 16 to decide whether the government will continue his predecessor Stephen Harper's legacy of opposing the resisters in four specific cases this fall — a decision that will be an important signal for others enmeshed in similar fights.
A recent poll showed that 63 percent of Canadians agree Iraq war resisters should be allowed to become permanent residents of Canada. And it was Trudeau's father, Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, who granted safe haven for thousands of Vietnam draft dodgers and resisters in the 1960s and 1970s. Although the government isn't saying anything officially about its intentions, there is hope, for the first time ever, among this generation of Iraq soldiers.
That feeling was palpable at a recent meeting in Toronto of the War Resisters' Support Campaign, which has been helping the majority of conscientious objectors to the Iraq war who slipped across the border into Canada. Group spokesperson Michelle Robidoux said the campaign had received reassurances from Immigration Minister John McCallum's team that there was "good news in the works."
At the end of July, campaign officials had met, for the first time in the campaign's dozen years of existence, with the most senior bureaucrat in charge of their cases in Ottawa.
Frank Showler at his home in Toronto, Ont. (Anthony Tuccitto/VICE News)
It's an important development for the eclectic group that's been meeting weekly at the United Steelworkers Hall, a non-descript brick building in Toronto, since 2004, planning events, fundraisers, and speaking engagements to ensure the resisters don't fade from the spotlight. The campaign office is cluttered with mountains of paperwork, a whiteboard calendar populated with important upcoming dates, shelves filled with books on their cause. Posters promoting past events and media clippings line the walls.
The campaign workers, a group made up of anti-war activists spanning different generations, have become like family to some of the resisters. The campaign's work goes beyond protest and advocacy; it also offers practical advice and insight to the former soldiers, some of whom have been living in this legal limbo for a decade.
"They laid it out as best as they could," Key said about his first conversation with Robidoux. "She said, 'Things are uncertain here, we don't know what is going to happen, but we will do everything we can to help.'"
For some in the network, it's an issue of deep personal significance. There's Frank Showler, a Canadian and conscientious objector during World War Two who later helped Vietnam resisters fleeing to Canada. Among the Vietnam generation in the group is Carolyn Egan, an American who moved to Canada with her partner, a draft dodger, and became a force to be reckoned as a pro-choice voice in her new home's abortion rights movement.
There's no official count of how many draft dodgers and deserters were admitted to Canada during the Vietnam War, but one informed estimate places it between 30,000 to 40,000, according to statistics from immigration authorities. Most stayed beyond the war, "making up the largest, best-educated group this country has ever received," said a Citizenship and Immigration Canada website.
The recent developments are especially welcome news for one person in the room: Phil McDowell, an Iraq war resister who has been in Canada since 2006.
While he's spoken out extensively in the past about his opposition to the war, McDowell declined to be interviewed for this piece because his is one of the four cases set to go to court in November.
'We invaded their country for no good reason.'
McDowell, an IT graduate who joined the US military shortly after 9/11, but became disillusioned with the Iraq war during his deployment, refused to return to the Gulf when he was called in for a second tour.
As with many of the resisters, it was the way the US army treated Iraqi civilians that made McDowell question the mission, which he supported when he went to Iraq, and eventually run.
Key also describes these interactions in graphic detail — he recalls blowing open the doors of civilians' homes, running in with teams of five to six men, dragging out any male over five feet tall to be interrogated, and holding women and children at gunpoint. One incident in particular sticks out — seeing Americans kick around the heads of dead Iraqi civilians like soccer balls.
Dean Walcott, a former US marine who came to Canada in 2006 after serving two tours of duty in Iraq, still believes any hate Iraqis may have felt towards American troops was well-deserved. Walcott was working in a military hospital in Berlin in 2004 when a mortar set a tent city on the outskirts of Mosul on fire, obliterating the entire compound, and sending truckloads and planeloads of charred bodies to the hospital. You could hear whimpers from some of the victims that turned into screams as you got closer, he recalls.
"Toddlers, babies, completely incinerated. I couldn't even tell they were people, I thought they were bags," he said. "You always hear the phrase collateral damage, but there's no way to prepare you for what that actually means."
The images left him scarred, struggling with PTSD, and convinced that the war was immoral. But Walcott was stuck — anyone he asked for help suspected him of trying to get our of his tour early, he said.
"We invaded their country for no good reason," he told VICE News. "We polluted their water, we randomly searched their houses, we took away their weapons and cattle because there might be a bomb in that sheep, and the weapons of mass destruction nonsense never panned out because they were never there."
"I didn't know much about the Geneva Conventions and international law, but I damn sure knew that was wrong," added Key. "We were the executioners, we were the jurors, we were whatever we wanted to be. There was no one overseeing us."
Dean Walcott at his home in Peterborough, Ont. (Anthony Tuccitto/VICE News)
Key didn't decide to desert until a two-week trip home, when he called up a military lawyer, told him he'd developed post-traumatic stress disorder, and asked about his options.
"You could either go back to Iraq or go to war, soldier," he was told.
Key chose to run and take his family with him, packing their bags and going into hiding in Philadelphia. That's where he lived clandestinely for the next 17 months, before connecting with the campaign and traveling to Canada, knowing if he ever went back it would probably be in handcuffs.
Unlike the tens of thousands of people who deserted the American military over the course of the Iraq war, but did so silently, Key, who lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, has chronicled his journey in a book called A Deserter's Tale, as told to Canadian author Lawrence Hill.
For others, such as resisters Robin Long and James Burmeister, public statements have come back to haunt them.
In court martial proceedings, US Army prosecutors took examples of their quotes to the press in Canada and used them as evidence in court. Long, who had lived in British Columbia from 2005 to 2008, was sentenced to 15 months in prison and a dishonorable discharge after he was deported, while Burmeister received a sentence of nine months in military prison and a bad-conduct discharge. The same happened in the case of Kim Rivera, who was pregnant with her fifth child at the time she was sentenced in 2013 to 10 months in prison. She gave birth in military custody.
"It became clear that these guys were not only being punished for having refused to go back to Iraq, but they were punished for what they were publicly saying about what was happening," said lawyer Alyssa Manning, who represents 15 war resisters in Canada.
Commanders in the US can exercise discretion when deciding how to handle deserters. Only a fraction of those who deserted the US Army from 2001 to 2014 — 1,932 out of 36,195 — have been prosecuted. When it comes to those who deserted and left the country, however, that number jumps to 50 percent.
"Mostly it's been people, like my clients, who have been outspoken about what the US was doing out there on the ground in Iraq," she said.
The previous Canadian administration's hostility towards Iraq war resisters hadn't made Canada much more welcoming either.
When Rivera was deported in 2012 and arrested at the border, Conservative MPs cheered in jubilation in the House of Commons.
US war resister Rodney Watson, left, listens to then Canadian Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy during a news conference in Dec. 2009. (Darryl Dyck/CP)
At an election campaign stop last year in Winnipeg, Trudeau called that reaction "disappointing" and "problematic". He also called Vietnam resisters "extraordinary people... who contribute to our society, our community," and added that the Conservative government under then prime minister Stephen Harper had acted in a way that was "lacking compassion and lacking understanding."
Key's wife, Alexina, was in the crowd that day, and asked Trudeau about her husband's case.
"I am supportive of the principle of allowing conscientious objectors to stay, but I commit to examining that case with full compassion and an openness to allowing [Key] to stay," he said.
In 2009, then Immigration Minister Jason Kenney bristled at the way the Iraq resisters were being characterized, and labeled them "bogus refugee claimants" who were "clogging up" the immigration system.
"We're not talking about draft dodgers, we're not talking about resisters," Kenney had told Canwest News at the time. "We're talking about people who volunteer to serve in the armed forces of a democratic country and simply change their mind to desert. And that's fine, that's the decision they have made, but they are not refugees."
In 2010, he introduced Operation Bulletin 202, a guideline for immigration officers that classifies war resisters as criminally inadmissible to Canada and instructs them to flag cases to the immigration ministry.
Robidoux called the Harper government "particularly vindictive" and said she and her team are expecting a change in policy from Trudeau. The Liberals have indicated their support for war resisters in the past, passing a non-binding motion in 2008 to let them stay, and backing legislation that would've allowed foreigners who left their country's army or refused mandatory military service to avoid participating in an illegal war. That bill was defeated in parliament.
At a press conference in Vancouver in July, US army veteran Rodney Watson, who has spent the last seven years living in sanctuary at a church and has a son with a Canadian woman, joined Jenny Kwan, an MP from Canada's second opposition party, the New Democratic Party, to call on the government to act.
He appealed directly to the prime minister.
"I'm pleading with you ... to do the right thing and allow me to be free to be with my Canadian-born son," he said. "To be a part of his life, to be a great help, a great father, a great role model. I want to be a positive member of society."
Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk