ST. CATHARINES, ONTARIO, A TOWN of 130,000 residents twenty minutes northwest of Niagara Falls, New York, is no stranger to fleeing Americans. It was the first stop for slaves brought into Canada by the Underground Railroad in the 1800’s. Thanks in part to the Toronto Anti-Draft Programme, it is still home to a number of Americans who left the U.S. to avoid Vietnam. And for the time being, the quaint town known in Canada as the Garden City is home to San Angelo’s Brandon Hughey, the second known American—and the only Texan—to desert the Army since the war in Iraq began, in March 2003.
Hughey, an eighteen-year-old former private from the 1st Cavalry Division in Fort Hood, fled his unit on March 1 of this year, the night before he was scheduled to deploy to Iraq. Since then he’s been embraced by the international anti-war community and become a minor celebrity in his new country. A Canadian Broadcasting Company news show filmed his border crossing, and about a dozen newspapers reported, often sympathetically, on his saga. “Deserter Treads on Slaves’ Path: St. Catharines, Ont., Is Again Sheltering Fleeing Americans,” shouted a headline in Canada’s National Post. Supporters in St. Catharines helped him set up a Web site— brandonhughey.org—to express his views. Peace activists invited him to speak at anti-war rallies. He had little money and no work permit, but a Quaker couple who housed draft dodgers during the Vietnam War, Rose Marie Cipryk and Don Alexander, agreed to take him in. He’s been living with them ever since.
In May I sat down with Hughey at a diner in St. Catharines for breakfast. He was quiet and articulate, if slightly nervous, often looking at the table as he answered questions. Although he was open to discussing his plight, he was clearly less interested in talking about the details of his escape than in making the case for its necessity. “I don’t want to sound rude,” he interjected after I asked him to describe his flight north, “but are we going to discuss any of the issues? Because I have done this before, and the stories didn’t discuss the Army or why I left. Okay. Sorry to interrupt.”
Hughey has argued at length on his Web site that he was prepared for combat but fled because he believes Operation Iraqi Freedom is a violation of international law, a war never approved by the United Nations. Following that logic, Hughey and his attorney, Jeffry House, who himself moved to Canada from Wisconsin to avoid the Vietnam War draft and is currently working as a human rights lawyer in Toronto, reason that he is guilty only of doing what they say the soldiers being investigated in the Abu Ghraib prison scandal failed to do: refuse an illegal order. The two are now hoping to persuade the Canadian Immigration and Refugee Board to grant him refugee status; to do so, House will have to convince the panel that if Hughey returns home he will face persecution.
That shouldn’t be too difficult a task. If Hughey were to set foot again in his home state anytime soon, persecution might be the least of his worries. Reaction to his story here has mostly ranged from angry to murderous, with some residents calling on the government to execute the former soldier. (During a time of war, a deserter can still face capital punishment, though the most likely sentence would be up to five years’ imprisonment.) “If I sat at his court-martial today,” wrote one reader in response to a front-page article about Hughey in the San Antonio Express-News, “I would recommend the ultimate punishment, death. He deserves it!” Another reader was more direct: “He should be brought back and shot.” But Hughey wouldn’t need to move as far south as Texas to face hostility. When I crossed the U.S. border to visit him, a guard asked about the purpose of my trip. “So he’s hiding in St. Catharines?” he said in response. “Why don’t you bring him back here? I’d love to get ahold of that little shit.”
Hughey told me he has received e-mails from hundreds of critics like the ones who wrote to the Express-News. But he said he’s also been sent letters from Texans who support his actions. “I want to thank you,” wrote a woman from Midland, “for your courage in refusing to obey orders that you knew in your heart and soul to be morally wrong.” “There are people here in the States that understand what you had to do,” wrote a resident of Dallas, who said that he had considered moving to Canada during the Vietnam War, when he was eighteen. “The war in Iraq is an illegal, unjust military action on the part of the United States.”
Despite all the anger directed toward Hughey, letters like these make him believe that it won’t be long until there are other soldiers joining him. “I think public opinion is going to change just as it did for the Vietnam War,” he said. “And a lot of soldiers will desert to Canada, especially if a draft is reinstated. It’s going to be harder this time than it was in the sixties, but that’s basically what I’m going to try to do. I want to set a precedent.”
FEW PEOPLE WHO KNEW BRANDON HUGHEY in high school would have ever predicted that he would go on to become viewed internationally as both a brave hero and a spineless coward. He had always been a quiet, independent kid who flew under the principal’s radar—smart but not a show-off, making A’s and B’s without cracking a book. His main love was cars, and he entered a work-study program bagging groceries at Albertsons so he could save up $3,500 to buy an ‘87 Pontiac Firebird. His only real goal was to go to college, a dream he shared with his father, David, a data processor who’d raised Brandon and his younger brother, Brian, alone. But while Brandon