July 5, 2010

Phil McDowell, U.S. soldier, a different kind of war refugee

photo: Aaron Lynett/National Post

Aaron Lynett/National Post
Former American soldier, Phil McDowell, started to question the legitimacy of the War in Iraq when earlier claims of weapons of mass destruction were found to be false.
Terrine Friday, National Post · Saturday, Jul. 3, 2010

Phil McDowell joined the U.S. Army in 2001, a month after the attack on the World Trade Center. He was a proud American who wanted to serve his country during a time of war.

Nine years after his army debut, his patriotism has not wavered, but his country considers him a deserter.

Mr. McDowell is one of few refugee claimants of his kind in Canada. Even though he had a change of heart about the war in Iraq during his four-year term, he completed his tour. Less than two months after retirement he was “stop-lossed,” meaning his contract was renewed against his will.

“I got a letter about a month and a half later saying that my discharge wasn’t supposed to happen,” he said.

Originally from Warwick, Rhode Island, Mr. McDowell, 30, was deployed to Iraq for one year in early 2004.

“It was a really interesting experience for me. I grew up in middle-class New England and had a bachelor’s degree when I enlisted. I was initially surprised with the number of people who joined because they had no other option,” he recalled.

During his tour, Mr. McDowell said he took orders without contest and excelled in performance among his comrades.

“I was promoted very quickly and I was even Soldier of the Month,” said the retired Sergeant. He was later Soldier of the Quarter for his battalion.

Mr. McDowell said he started to question the legitimacy of the War in Iraq when earlier claims of weapons of mass destruction were found to be false.

“I just became uncomfortable with the answers I was getting from my superiors, that we were there to help people.”

He returned to the U.S. in 2005 and served there for the remaining year left in his contract.

Less than two months after he was discharged, he received notice he had been “stop-lossed.”

The stop-loss program, which extends a soldier’s contract without consent, was adopted in 2002 and only recently expired. It applied to all American soldiers, including those like Mr. McDowell who joined the forces before the program was implemented. The U.S. government started phasing out the policy in January, 2010, announcing it would reactivate the program should “extraordinary circumstances” arise. Due to the increasing number of soldiers retiring from service, there has reportedly been a significant drop in the number now available for redeployment.

Mr. McDowell said the stop-loss required him to report to Fort Hood, Texas, for training, after which he would complete another Iraq tour.

“They said it was a mistake and I was not supposed to be discharged. I had my discharge paperwork but my commander said it was no good.”

Against his family’s wishes, Mr. McDowell reported back to his unit. A few weeks later, he decided to leave the country.

Mr. McDowell is among hundreds of American soldiers who fled the U.S. during the war in Iraq to seek asylum in Canada, but he is one of few who completed his contracted term whilst in opposition to the war. He says he believes the war in Iraq is illegal.
“If I had been stop-lossed for something else besides Iraq, I wouldn’t have been happy about it but I would’ve felt I had to stay,” he said. “But considering the situation with Iraq, I felt I couldn’t go back.”
Canada’s government does not allow special treatment for any conscientious objector seeking asylum in Canada. The federal government’s Balanced Refugee Reform Act, which includes a drastic reduction in wait times and will increase by 2,500 the number of refugees Canada will accept every year, was passed into law this week. (Last year, more than 22,000 refugees were granted resident status in Canada, one-third of whom required government assistance.)

Citizenship and Immigration Canada spokesperson Karen Shadd said former American soldiers who seek asylum in Canada will still be able to request a hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board, but she maintained the federal government does not believe in a legal provision to protect them from deportation and possible imprisonment.

Liberal MP Gerard Kennedy last September tabled Bill C-440, a private member’s bill that would allow conscientious objectors to wars not sanctioned by the United Nations to seek refuge in Canada legally. Mr. Kennedy said he has cross-party support and the scope of the legislation — whether or not it would apply solely to Americans — would be determined at a later date.

“Bill C-440 would make Canada a haven for all military deserters, regardless of their country of origin, including deserters with a criminal history,” countered Ms. Shadd. Americans who seek asylum in Canada can still request a hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board, she said, but the federal government does not believe in a legal provision to protect them from deportation and possible time in prison.

A stop-loss claim would be considered on its own merits, much like any other application or appeal.

Mr. McDowell says the federal government’s sweeping view of American asylum seekers as deserters is flawed. “This is about the war in Iraq, this is not about all wars,” he said.

Mr. McDowell works as a solar technician and is putting the finishing touches on a hand-made boat. He lives with his wife in Toronto, and he is now one among more than 60,000 refugees awaiting a summons to appear before the Immigration and Refugee Board.

In the meantime, he will celebrate the Fourth of July in Canada.

-This story is from the National Post

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