February 9, 2009

Activists take up war resister's case

Supporters rally for soldier in brig who refused to go to Iraq and had fled to Canada


MIRAMAR — Antiwar activist Dawn O'Brien of Oceanside frets plenty about her three Marine sons, two of whom have served in Iraq.

She worries almost as much, though, about another young soldier – the one who is sitting in the brig at Miramar Marine Corps Air Station because he refused to fight.

Pvt. Robin Long, 25, enlisted in the Army in 2003. Ordered to Iraq in 2005, he fled to Canada. He was deported last year, the first to be sent home under a crackdown on the estimated 200 war resisters who have taken refuge north of the border.

After a court-martial last August, Long was sent to Miramar to serve his 15-month sentence. O'Brien and others in San Diego County's small but fervent community of peace protesters have taken up his cause.

“We knew this kid made a moral decision, and he was honestly being punished for it,” said O'Brien, president of the local chapter of the antiwar group Military Families Speak Out. “It's not illegal to refuse to fight in an illegal war.”

That many of the county's current and former service members may disagree doesn't deter them. Antiwar activists held their third monthly vigil yesterday evening across Miramar Road from the air station's north gate, carrying signs that say “Free Robin Long” and “REALLY Support the Troops.”

“We've been trying to figure out ways that we can help him out,” said Dave Patterson, president of the San Diego chapter of Veterans for Peace.

Miramar officials say the vigils haven't caused disruption.

“They're exercising their rights,” said Maj. Jay Delarosa, a base spokesman. “We don't see anything wrong with it.”

The activists have taken turns visiting Long each Sunday afternoon. They have put money in his prison bank account so he can call family and supporters. They are flying his mother in from Boise, Idaho, this weekend to visit.

They also send money each month to his girlfriend in Canada, who has multiple sclerosis and is raising the couple's 2-year-old son. And they are lobbying to have his sentence reduced and his dishonorable discharge erased. Unless his prison term is cut, Long will have great difficulty crossing the border after his release.

Long grew up in a military household, and eagerly joined the Army. He has said he grew disillusioned after hearing Iraq war veterans brag about killing people and seeing them show off pictures of dead Iraqis.

He questioned the war's legitimacy after learning that Saddam Hussein had no apparent connection with al-Qaeda and that no weapons of mass destruction had been found. So he left for Canada instead of returning to Fort Carson before his unit's deployment.

“When I realized the war in Iraq was a mistake, I saw refusing to fight as my only option,” Long wrote in November in an open letter to Barack Obama published on the Web site of the war-resistance support group, Courage to Resist. “My conscience was screaming at me not to participate.”

Long traveled to Nelson, British Columbia, where he supported himself picking fruit and running an environmentally friendly landscaping business. His application for refugee status was denied, and he was ordered deported.

His attorney, James Branum, said Long rises each morning at 5 and works as a supply clerk at the brig. In the evenings, he lifts weights four nights a week and watches TV or plays cards. He has received more than 3,500 letters since arriving at Miramar in September.

After his release, Branum said, Long's goal is to return to his family in Canada and become a massage therapist.

Even after Long is released later this year, local antiwar activists, like Chuck Winant of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, are preparing for more resisters to come to Miramar.

Canadian immigration officials have ordered four more deserters deported. The reception has been quite different than it was during the Vietnam War, when Canada welcomed tens of thousands of American draft evaders.

“I stand firmly with those soldiers who say the hell with this war,” Winant said.

Steve Liewer: (619) 498-6632; steve.liewer@uniontrib.com

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