First in Flight

Last March, when Army private Brandon Hughey, of San Angelo, deserted to Canada, some Texans openly called for his execution. But three months later, Hughey is very much alive—and hoping more soldiers will follow his lead.

August 2004By Comments

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 was still in elementary school, David lost his job, and a two-year stretch of unemployment without welfare benefits wiped out the family’s college savings.

Then, in the summer before his senior year, Brandon got a call from the local Army recruiter. He hadn’t thought much about the military before, but the man made a pretty good pitch over the phone: In exchange for four years of active duty overseas, Brandon would receive a $9,000 signing bonus—certainly more money than he’d ever see at Albertsons. It was July 2002, a time when the Bush administration was beginning to make its case about weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein, but when he approached his father about signing the papers, David was supportive of the idea. Maybe the Army would be better than sending Brandon right to college, he thought. Maybe it would help him survive the job market he’d face, the one where kids with college diplomas were working at McDonald’s. Not long after their conversation, the two drove to the recruiter’s office together and signed the paperwork.

A year later Brandon completed boot camp, and initially, at least, he seemed to do well. His commanding officers told David that his son was a good tank driver with a lot of heart. But sometimes Brandon found himself objecting to the rigid chain of command. Occasionally he’d even respond to an order by asking, “Why?” Even though his superiors gave him a healthy dose of push-ups and stern lectures about obeying supervisors, his need for answers only persisted over time. By mid-December, when he was stationed at Fort Hood, Brandon was spending the bulk of his free time on the Internet, searching for information about weapons inspectors and U.N. resolutions and the legality of preemptive war. Operation Iraqi Freedom had been fought for nine months; there were no WMDs and little evidence of a link between Saddam and 9/11. Brandon told his father that he thought the war was illegal and that he wanted to leave the Army.

But by then he had few options. When he approached his superiors in early February of this year, he was told that if he opposed the war, he should have designated himself a “conscientious objector” on his recruitment form. His only other chances for general discharge were technicalities, and he couldn’t very well pretend he was crazy—or pregnant. So with his deployment date looming, Brandon panicked. He went AWOL for three weeks in February, driving around the Hill Country and as far as Utah in a silver Mustang he’d bought with his boot camp earnings, trying to clear his head. When he finally returned, he met with the sergeant major but was again told that leaving the Army was not a possibility. He would have to rejoin his unit and prepare for Iraq.

Which was the same position he found himself on March 1. That night he was in his room surfing the Internet, trying to shake the images of violent war footage he’d seen on the nightly news, when a soldier from his unit knocked at the door. Their deployment date had been moved up, he was told; he should be ready to leave for Iraq the next day. “I’ll be there,” Brandon responded. But as he said the words, he knew he wasn’t telling the truth. Brandon then imagined ways he might kill himself. “What would they say then?” he thought.

Instead, he sat down at his computer and typed an e-mail to a peace activist in Indiana he’d read about named Carl Rising-Moore. A Vietnam veteran, Rising-Moore had been traveling around Canada drumming up support for the Freedom Underground, a network he hoped would help sneak American deserters out of the country. Over the next few hours the two exchanged a flurry of e-mails and phone calls. Brandon ended their last conversation by telling Rising-Moore that he’d made up his mind: He wanted to go to Canada, and he had to leave Texas that night. Two days later, wearing New York Knicks caps and telling the guard they were heading to an NBA game in Toronto, the two crossed the border outside of Buffalo during rush hour.

AT THE HUGHEY HOME IN San Angelo, David Hughey sat at his kitchen table in May surrounded by paintings of bluebonnets and binders filled with documents. The pages were highlighted and footnoted and tagged as though they were being prepared for a presentation. “I’ve been doing a lot of reading in the past three months,” he said, “and it’s easy to see what my son sees now.”

David’s judgment of Brandon has taken a radical turn since Brandon left. He first heard about his flight not from his son but from military officials who wrote him saying that Brandon was absent without leave. A few days after Brandon had safely crossed the border, David received a phone call from Rising-Moore, who told him that if he wanted to pick up Brandon’s car, he could come meet him in Indiana. Two days later, David flew up to Indianapolis, where he and Rising-Moore talked at a local Denny’s. David’s first thought when he was told that Brandon was in Canada was “Oh, the hippies,” envisioning the kind of men who had protested the Vietnam War when he was a kid. And as he drove back to Texas, he felt deeply disappointed. He thought Rising-Moore had manipulated Brandon, and he blamed himself, for having raised his boys alone, for not having had much luck at good-paying jobs. “I always wanted the little house with the white picket fence and the wife and happy kids,” he said, “and none of that seemed to work out.”

When he got home, he didn’t speak to Brandon right away. He had no contact number, plus he was still ashamed, afraid to go out and face his neighbors. “The very same day the paper wrote an article about Brandon,” he said, his throat tightening, “there was a story on the opposite page about a man right next door who died [in Iraq].” So David became a political news junkie instead, searching the Internet for articles about his son. Some of them were hard to take. He discovered that Brandon was trying to get refugee status. If he was successful, some of the stories intimated, the landmark case might open the floodgates to other Iraq-war deserters. That notion only confirmed David’s view that Brandon was being used for a liberal agenda. When the Express-News contacted him for a quote, he called him one of the harshest things he could think of: a pawn.

But despite himself, the more he read about Brandon’s case, the more he came to respect him. Even if he didn’t agree with Brandon about the lack of justification for war, he was proud that he’d taught him to think for himself. Soon he was downloading and footnoting copies of the U.N. joint resolution papers, excerpts from Bush’s speeches, newspaper clippings, the U.S. Constitution, even the Federalist Papers, hoping to draw his own conclusions. He found Abraham Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech to contain a particularly compelling argument for Brandon. “It’s his logic that appeals to me,” David said, tapping the pages in front of him. “‘We know that a man may rightfully be wiser today than he was yesterday—that he may rightfully change when he finds himself wrong.'”

David said he’s still torn by Brandon’s opinion on Iraq. “Now we’re confronted with a predicament,” he said, referring to the fate of those soldiers who chose to fight. “You have to make sure their deaths weren’t meaningless.” He said that no matter what happens, his own life has changed forever. He’s more cautious now when he talks on the phone, fearing that the line may be tapped. When he loses a pen or misplaces a cup, he worries that the FBI has been in his house. “I’m going to write something in defense of my son,” he said. “After I send this letter from the heart of Bush country, I may have to move up to St. Catharines myself.” He is energized by Brandon’s plight, but the heavy sighs that punctuate his speech betray the toll it’s taken on him. “There’s a stigma: desertion, shame,” he said. “All this leaves me shaking my head. My house is divided.”

BRANDON HUGHEY IS IN LIMBO. Requests for interviews, once coming in a few times a day, now arrive only once a week or so. He applied for a work permit, but he’s still waiting for it to be processed. He doesn’t have a car to get around town in or know many people in his new community. Once in a while he takes a walk through the maple-tree-lined streets, but mostly he hangs out in his converted basement-bedroom in his host family’s modest two-story home, watching TV and playing video games on his Sony PlayStation, talking to his attorney, waiting for the legal system to hear his case. Now and then he receives another piece of hate mail in which someone calls him a chicken or a disgrace to his country, but he said he doesn’t let it get to him. “There were a lot of Nazi soldiers who went to Sweden once they realized they’d be slaughtering Jews in concentration camps,” he said. “These same people speaking out against me—would they call those deserters cowards?”

Hughey hopes to have his first hearing before the immigration board in September. If he succeeds, he wants to earn some money and then finally go to college, maybe be just another student again. But in the meantime, he’s pursuing a more public role. A few weeks after he first arrived in Canada, Hughey attended an anti-war rally in Toronto along with Jeremy Hinzman, of South Dakota, the first U.S. soldier to desert the Iraq war. Hinzman spoke to the crowd of six thousand, but Hughey chose to sit onstage, too shy to address the assembly. Three months later, despite all the backlash over his decision, he said that he’s no longer timid. “I’ve been invited to Montreal in August to speak at a conference,” he said. “[The attention] doesn’t bother me now. I choose the publicity. I’m choosing to accept this.”

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