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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 17, 2006

Deserters pick exile over war

By Ana Radelat
Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON — Swept up by a wave of patriotism after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Chris Magaoay of Maui joined the Marine Corps in November 2004.

The newly married Magaoay thought a military career would allow him to continue his college education, help his country and set his life on the right path.

Less than two years later, Magaoay became one of thousands of military deserters who have chosen a lifetime of exile or possible court-martial rather than fight in Iraq or Afghanistan.

"It wasn't something I did on the spur of the moment," Magaoay said. "It took me a long time to realize what was going on. The war is illegal."

Magaoay said his disillusionment with the military began in boot camp in Twentynine Palms, Calif., where a superior officer joked about killing and mistreating Iraqis. When his unit was deployed to Iraq in March, Magaoay and his wife drove to Canada, joining a small group of deserters who are trying to win permission from the Canadian government to stay.

"We're like a tight-knit family," Magaoay said.

The Pentagon says deserters like Magaoay represent a tiny fraction of the nation's fighting forces.

"The vast majority of soldiers who desert do so for personal, family or financial problems, not for political or conscientious objector purposes," said Army spokesman Lt. Col. Bryan Hilferty.

Since 2000, about 40,000 troops from all branches of the military have deserted, the Pentagon says. More than half served in the Army. But the Army says numbers have decreased each year since the United States began its war on terror in Afghanistan.

Those who help war resisters say desertion is more prevalent than the military has admitted.

"They lied in Vietnam with the amount of opposition to the war, and they're lying now," said Eric Seitz, an attorney who represents Army Lt. Ehren Watada, the first commissioned officer to refuse deployment to the war in Iraq.

Watada, of Honolulu, refused to join his Fort Lewis, Wash., Stryker brigade when it was sent to Iraq last month.

Watada said he doesn't object to war but considers the conflict in Iraq illegal. The Army has turned down his request to resign and probably will court-martial him.

Critics of the Iraq war have demonstrated on the lieutenant's behalf. Conservative bloggers call him a traitor and opportunist.

Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said deserters aren't traitors because they've done nothing to help America's enemies. But he rejects arguments that deserters have a moral right to refuse to fight wars they consider unjust.

"None of us can choose our wars. They're always a political decision, " Davis said. "They're letting their buddies down and hurting morale and morale is everything on the battlefront."

Jeffry House, an attorney in Toronto who represents Magaoay and other deserters, said there are about 200 deserters living in Canada. They have decided not to seek refugee status but instead are leading clandestine lives, he said.

Like many of the people helping today's war resisters, House fled to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War. About 50,000 Americans sought legal residency in Canada during the Vietnam era.

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Correction: Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada is not in military custody at Fort Lewis, Wash. Information in an earlier verison of this story was incorrect.