Earlier this week Ryan Johnson and his wife crossed into Canada to escape serving in the military. Over the past month they have traveled across the United States and then into Canada with help from a new underground railroad that has formed to help war resisters. During a stop in New York, Johnson joined us in our studio to explain why he is heading to Canada. [includes rush transcript]
Last month, 80 US soldiers were killed in Iraq, making it the deadliest month for the US military since January. The number of American soldiers killed since the launch of the invasion has topped sixteen hundred.
As the brutal US occupation of Iraq continues, an increasing number of American soldiers are saying no to war. Military recruitment goals have been down for months, and the Army in particular is facing it’s biggest challenge to date in signing new recruits.
A growing number of US soldiers are crossing the border into Canada to seek asylum. Some say this is the first echo of the tens of thousands of war resisters who went north more than 30 years ago to escape the Vietnam War.
Today, in a Democracy Now exclusive, we speak with US war resister Ryan Johnson. He recently came to our studios with his wife Jennifer just before heading to the Canadian border. I began by asking him the reasons for his decision.
Ryan and Jennifer Johnson, speaking recently in our Democracy Now! studios in New York
We go now to Toronto to speak Ryan Johnson. We are also joined on the line by Rob Shearer of the Toronto Catholic Worker. He is part of a network that is helping Ryan and soldiers like him to seek asylum in canada.
Ryan Johnson, speaking from Toronto
Rob Shearer, member of the Toronto Catholic Worker which is part of a network that is helping Ryan and soldiers like him to seek asylum in canada.
Photojournalist Andrew Stern and Rick Rowley of Big Noise films are both working on documentary projects about Ryan and the new underground railroad that is helping war resisters to leave the military. They can be reached on their websites, AndrewStern.net and bignoisefilms.com
War Resisters Support Network
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AMY GOODMAN: Today we speak with U.S. war resister, Ryan Johnson. He recently came to Democracy Now! studios with his wife Jennifer just before heading north to the Canadian border. I began by asking him about his reasons for his decision to leave.
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, I mean, there’s several reasons. I was in the army and, you know, just seeing the things that have been going on. And it was a hard decision for me to go. I just know that after everything that is over with, if I had stayed, it would have been more difficult for me to get a job in the area that I live in. And, you know, I just wanted to start over. Plus, you know, it’s just like a real big political decision. It puts the issue of the war being illegal more international, instead of just being here at home, and there just isn’t enough media about what’s going on with the soldiers.
AMY GOODMAN: When did you decide to enlist?
RYAN JOHNSON: I enlisted November of 2003. I went to basic of March 2004, though. So there was like six months from the time I enlisted to the time that I actually went.
AMY GOODMAN: And why did you enlist?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, the town I’m from — well, not just the town, the area, the Central Valley, that I’m from, it’s mostly agriculture. And that’s about all that we have is like agriculture, fast food jobs. It’s difficult to get a job there that pays over minimum wage.
AMY GOODMAN: Where do you live?
RYAN JOHNSON: I live in Visalia, California.
AMY GOODMAN: Right near Fresno?
RYAN JOHNSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, how did the military become an option?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, after two or three years of just like going from one job to another, because I had had like over eight jobs in two years, and none of them had, you know, really been able to sustain any sort of normal life for me. So we happened upon the army website and, you know, they promised that it will be a steady job, and you’ll have a place to live and you’ll have food, which all those are things that I hadn’t had yet, so it sounded good at the time.
AMY GOODMAN: And did you meet with anyone, a recruiter, to make your decision?
RYAN JOHNSON: I was actually going to do Army National Guard so that I could, you know, just have pay here, and I went to speak to the recruiters, and I ended up talking to a regular army recruiter, and —
AMY GOODMAN: And what did they tell you?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, they, you know, they promised everything. They said that, you know, I could get a big bonus for joining, and they have non-combat jobs, so, you know, there’s no — there’s a less likely chance of going to Iraq or anything like that. And —
AMY GOODMAN: Did they say you would go to Iraq?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, actually my father is deceased, and I told them that, and they said, “Oh, well, you know, since your father’s deceased, you won’t have to go, because there is a clause that says that if you have a family member that is deceased, you won’t have to go.” But that’s only if it’s after you join the military they died and they had to have died in combat. They didn’t tell me that. So I was under the impression that I wouldn’t go.
AMY GOODMAN: And what did you think you would be doing?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, the job that I was signed up for was warehouse worker, so being a warehouse worker I figured I wouldn’t really be seeing combat in Iraq anyway. That’s how they made it sound.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you get a big bonus for signing?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, at the time I thought it was good. I got like – what was it? — $40,000 for college.
AMY GOODMAN: $40,000?
RYAN JOHNSON: Yeah. Because, you know, one of the things that I had wanted to do was go to college. That’s one of the reasons I joined, and $40,000 for college sounded really good at the time. After I got in, there was people that had the same job as me that went like a couple days after I went to sign up that had like $35,000 for college, plus they had choice of duty station and like $2,000 bonus. There was one guy that had $7,000 bonus on top of all the other things.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, did you go to college? Did you use – were you given cash to do that or they said they would pay directly to the college if you went?
RYAN JOHNSON: You go through this program. You have to sign up and everything. And your commander has to okay for you to go to college. But no one was being okayed to go to college because we were just so busy with the deployment. By the time that I got out of basic and everything, and all of the soldiers I had talked to, they — none of them had gone to college while they were in. I mean, there’s like a very small percentage of people that actually take advantage of that.
AMY GOODMAN: November 2003, that means the invasion, the occupation, was already on when you signed up?
RYAN JOHNSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: And what was your impression of it?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, the things that you see on TV and the things that you hear about, it sounded like we were doing like a lot of good things over there. We’re rebuilding and, you know, we’re bringing democracy to the country, because that’s what you hear on TV. That’s what you hear people talk about. That’s all you hear about it. So that was my impression of what was going on.
AMY GOODMAN: When did it start to change?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, I went through A.I.T. and I had heard some of the stories that the instructors had told us of what was going on over there. And our drill sergeants had impressions of like people that have been taken captive and stuff like that. But then when I got into regular army, I started talking to soldiers that had already gone over there and come back, infantry men and tank drivers and stuff like that, and the stories that they were giving me were just – they were horrifying. One of my sergeants that had gone over there, he was an infantryman, and he was telling me that he doesn’t remember actually killing anybody. He hasn’t — he’s not sure that he has. But watching his friends that were next to him being shot in the face, and, you know, just some of the stuff that he had seen while he was there. He had post-traumatic stress disorder, and he’s over there right now for a second time.
AMY GOODMAN: As you started to ask questions, what did you do?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, first I just — I wanted to, you know, just find out what I was looking at when I got over there, what it was going to be like, so I would just — people that I met, I would be like, “So I see you have a combat patch. Were you in Iraq?” They were like, “Yeah.” And I would ask them about — I would just ask them like how it was, and some of the people made it sound like it was — they had no problem with being over there. You know, they didn’t have any post-traumatic stress disorder and stuff like that, and they were ready to go back. You know, they wanted to. And I wasn’t — it kind of — that’s the part that kind of started scaring me that, you know, there was people going over there and they were killing people, and they were coming back without any problems. But other people that I was talking to that had, you know, actually come back and been really hurt by it, seen a lot of really bad things and done a lot of really bad things that — that’s what began to get me thinking that it wasn’t the best thing to do.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Ryan Johnson. He came into the Democracy Now! studios with his wife, Jennifer, a little while ago before they headed for the Canadian border. We’re going to speak to them in Toronto in just a minute. They have made it across the border. But first, we will continue with the interview when I ask Jennifer about her husband’s decision.
AMY GOODMAN: We return now to the conversation with Ryan and Jennifer Johnson, who came into our studio just before they crossed the Canadian border. Ryan a war resister. I asked Jennifer about being with Ryan every step of the way and joining in this decision. I asked for her thoughts.
JENNIFER JOHNSON: It has been really hard seeing a lot of the stuff that’s happened, and we were just at Pablo’s court-martial. We went down to San Diego, and just seeing what they were going through. It has been a big decision.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Ryan’s right in doing what he’s doing?
JENNIFER JOHNSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Have you supported him all along the way?
JENNIFER JOHNSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you think he should have signed up for the military?
JENNIFER JOHNSON: I was behind it. I was the one that wanted him to go down and check it out. And I thought it was good at the time. They promised us a lot of stuff. But after hearing things, I don’t agree with what’s going on.
AMY GOODMAN: You had been married for a few years?
JENNIFER JOHNSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You guys are a very young couple. When did you get married?
RYAN JOHNSON: 2001.
AMY GOODMAN: You were 18?
RYAN JOHNSON: I was 18, and Jennifer was 24. Or 21.
JENNIFER JOHNSON: I’m 24 now.
AMY GOODMAN: So about 21.
JENNIFER JOHNSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You got married right out of high school? Did you graduate, Ryan, from high school?
RYAN JOHNSON: I did not graduate from high school. I dropped out a year and a half before that, before we got married.
AMY GOODMAN: Was that an issue in going into the military. Did you need to have graduated?
RYAN JOHNSON: Yeah, it was, because, well, I went back and got my G.E.D. But even still, it’s really difficult to get a job without a couple of years in college in my area. But that still put me behind the curve, not having a high school diploma.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, it’s been quite a while since you enlisted, November 2003. It has been about a year and a half. When did you decide you’re not going to go to Iraq?
RYAN JOHNSON: We had been thinking about it for like quite a while after I got to my duty station. I had been talking to soldiers and stuff. But the decision wasn’t completely made until — it was the Wednesday before I was supposed to deploy.
AMY GOODMAN: Which was when?
RYAN JOHNSON: What was that? It was January 12 or 13 of 2005. And, yeah, it was January 12 or 13. And we were supposed to deploy January 15.
AMY GOODMAN: You were going to go to Iraq?
RYAN JOHNSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: So what did you do?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, we just collected like all the information we could possibly get on becoming AWOL, you know, just off the internet and through talking to people. And I was scheduled to leave at – I was scheduled to be in my unit at 8:00 a.m., so we could deploy at 9:00. And I was — we left at 3:00 a.m. January 15. So just like four or five hours before I was supposed to deploy.
AMY GOODMAN: Where was the base? Where were you going – supposed to be going?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, we were going to go to Kuwait, and we were going to spend less than a month in Kuwait, and then we were going to drive the 350 miles down a airport drive to Al Ahmadi.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you talk to other people who were going to Iraq, other soldiers? Did you say you weren’t going to go?
RYAN JOHNSON: No, because, well, I had been considered AWOL once before. I didn’t actually go AWOL, I was stuck in a snowstorm. And when I got back, I was treated very, you know, pretty badly. I mean, I was — they made me stand in the corner of the room the entire day, which was like eight hours. And, you know, if I said I was tired they would have me do pushups and situps and jumping jacks, and whatnot, which, I mean, which is pretty standard. I mean, but — at one point I had to go outside for formation, and one of my sergeants instructed me to talk to a different sergeant and tell him what had happened. And he was a sergeant, first class, and he was just like, “Okay, I understand you were stuck in a snowstorm, whatever.” Then my other sergeant came outside, and he was like, “Why aren’t you doing pushups? Why aren’t you still down on the ground?” And I was like, “Well, he didn’t tell me. He was alright with the fact that I was gone.” He said, “No, you get down and do pushups.” And I was doing pushups, and he came back and he said, “Did you know that you were considered a deserter because you were considered AWOL?” I said, “Yeah, I guess I could be considered a deserter.” And he said, “I could shoot you right now because of that. Legally, I could shoot you.” He said, “Do you want me to shoot you?” I said, “You have to do what you have to do, sergeant.” And he said, “Well, I’m going to talk to the first sergeant about it.” And he left me outside doing pushups. But, you know, it’s — I didn’t talk to anybody about it. I just – I left because of that fact, and I just knew that people wouldn’t want to — wouldn’t want to hear it. You know?
AMY GOODMAN: So, Ryan, where did you go?
RYAN JOHNSON: I went back to Visalia.
AMY GOODMAN: And now, it’s been, what, five months?
RYAN JOHNSON: A little over five months.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you end up going to Pablo Paredes’s court-martial in San Diego?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, one of the groups that I was talking to was the G.I. Rights Hotline. And they were organizing things for Pablo Paredes’s case, protests and whatnot. And I had heard about it through them, and I decided that it would be a good thing for me to go to just to, you know, see what I might be going through at that time, because I hadn’t yet made the decision to go to Canada. And I went, and I was there for like five or six days with Pablo and Camilo and Aidan.
AMY GOODMAN: Pablo Paredes, Camilo Mejia —
RYAN JOHNSON: Pablo Paredes, Camilo Mejia, and —
AMY GOODMAN: Florida Army National Guardsman who was court-martialed and served almost a year in jail.
RYAN JOHNSON: Yes. He was sentenced to a year and ended up doing nine months.
AMY GOODMAN: Aidan Delgado.
RYAN JOHNSON: Aidan Delgado, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: Also went to Iraq.
RYAN JOHNSON: Yes, who also went to Iraq and became a conscientious objector while he was there.
AMY GOODMAN: And what kind of influence did that have on you?
RYAN JOHNSON: You know, it was really inspiring to be around those people, because, you know, Camilo had already been to Iraq. And he came back, and then he – you know, it took that for him to stand up and say that this isn’t right, you know, actually seeing it and being there. And Camilo, he did the same thing. He didn’t come back and go through the same things, but he had to see what was going on there to realize that it was — it was not really a good thing to be there and to be going through that, and he stood up to his commanding officer and first sergeant and said, “I’m not going to take part in this. I’ll stay here, but I will not take part in the fighting.”
AMY GOODMAN: And so you were at the court-martial. Were you at the court?
RYAN JOHNSON: No, there was only very few people that were allowed to go inside the court. So I stayed outside with all of the protesters and everything. And they would — the people that could go into the court-martial, they would call back with information what was going on, letting us know what the judge was saying and what had been happening.
AMY GOODMAN: Were you concerned about being caught?
RYAN JOHNSON: No. That’s — that’s one of the least of my concerns, really. I was concerned that if I got caught, they would still try and force me to go to Iraq. That was my only concern. But jail time was not a big deal to me.
AMY GOODMAN: So why have you decided to go to Canada?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, if I eventually turn myself in, because you can’t run forever, eventually you have to build a sustained life and get a job and everything, I would do my time or whatever and I would get out, but then I would have to go back to Visalia, because that’s the only place that I would have to live. And then, not only would I be a high school dropout, but I would also have jail time on my record. So there is going to be no way of me getting any sort of decent job there. And I would just – I’d be stuck in the same place I was before. So there was that, and then going to Canada is like — it’s a really big political decision you have to make. You have to decide that you want to really get the word out there about what’s going on with the soldiers, and this makes like an international type thing. You go there and it gets the word out there a little bit more than just staying at home and going to jail and everything.
AMY GOODMAN: And you’re willing to do that?
RYAN JOHNSON: I would love to be able to just show people, you know, that it’s not worth it and that this war is illegal.
AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Johnson, a war resister, spoke to us with his wife Jennifer in our studios at Democracy Now! here in New York, then headed north, crossed the border into Canada and is now in Toronto, where he joins us on the telephone. Ryan Johnson with us at the Catholic Worker house, also Rob Shearer, who is with Toronto Catholic Worker, part of a network that’s helping Ryan and soldiers like him to seek asylum in Canada. We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Well, Ryan, how was your trip?
RYAN JOHNSON: It was great. I made it to Toronto, obviously. It’s nice here.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you get there?
RYAN JOHNSON: We took my car. We drove from California. We went across the — just drove across the border.
AMY GOODMAN: Did you have any problems crossing the border?
RYAN JOHNSON: Not at all. We expected them to ask for I.D. and birth certificate, and they just asked us a few questions. We said, you know, we were going shopping. They were like, come on in. Went straight through.
AMY GOODMAN: How did you end up at the Toronto Catholic Worker?
RYAN JOHNSON: I was staying at someone else’s house, and Jeremy Hinzman advised me to contact them because they might have a place for me to stay a little bit longer term than just couch surfing at different people’s houses.
AMY GOODMAN: And Jeremy Hinzman is another U.S. soldier like you who went to Canada. He actually applied for political refugee status and was recently — that request was rejected, and he has appealed the decision.
RYAN JOHNSON: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Rob Shearer, can you talk about what you’re doing at the Toronto Catholic Worker? What this idea of modern day underground is?
ROB SHEARER: Sure, yeah. I mean, I think it’s first of all important to point out that from 1965 to 1973 there were 50,000 draft age Americans who made their way to Canada, refusing to participate in what they considered an immoral war. And so, Canada has always in some ways tried to be a place of asylum for people who want to resist the empire, so to speak. Sorry. So the Catholic Worker is part of a network of organizations and, you know, political organizations, faith-based organizations right across the spectrum saying that we are committed to make sure that if people want to make decisions based on their conscience to not fight in what is an illegal and immoral war, then we will do our best to support them.
AMY GOODMAN: What is the Canadian government’s response to what you’re doing?
ROB SHEARER: I think in some way the Canadian government is apathetic about it. I mean, we have to remember the majority of Canadians don’t support the war, and the Canadian government, in fact, doesn’t support this war. I mean, I think basically what the very polite Canadian response is going to be to kind of see it through the courts. I mean, I think we’re seeing that with Jeremy Hinzman, who was a soldier in the 82nd Airborne Division, who came over here in January 2004. He was, as you mentioned, he was just rejected on his first refugee hearing. But there’s going to be a whole process of appeals and, I mean, many people in the war resistance movement here — and I believe Jeremy himself — are quite confident that when it gets up to the higher levels of the court there’s greater chances of success and hopefully buying into that Canadian history of being a place of asylum for people who are trying to escape and make judgments based on their conscience, often out of their faith, as is in Jeremy’s case.
AMY GOODMAN: In October we went to Canada to interview Jeremy Hinzman and Brandon Huey. Since they couldn’t be in this country, we thought we would go to them and interviewed them at the studios of CBC, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, with their lawyer who was a Vietnam War resister from the United States who is now doing legal work in Canada. Brandon Huey also joined us. He made his case last week appearing at a hearing in a bid to gain permanent asylum as a refugee. Can you talk about his case?
ROB SHEARER: To be honest I’m not that familiar with Brandon’s case. I wouldn’t want to speak too much to it. I can speak on a broader level insomuch as I know that there’s a good number of people who — of resisters from the U.S. military who have shown up. The last time I spoke to Jeremy, which, you know, was a few weeks ago, there was something like eight or nine families who were seeking refugee status or who had left, and that’s only taking into account, of course, the military quotient there. We certainly get calls all the time from civilians in the United States saying that living in the midst of the hysteria and the empire that’s there is getting more and more unlivable. And then there’s lots of debates about whether it’s wise to abandon that and jump ship and come to Canada or not. But we certainly do hear a lot of requests from people.
AMY GOODMAN: In looking at The Toronto Sun, they said that the person who heard Huey’s case from the Immigration Refugee Board, Brian Goodman, said that Huey’s bid for refugee status rests on whether human rights abuses in Iraq by coalition forces are systematic or not.
ROB SHEARER: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me end with Ryan Johnson. What significance do the people who have come before you who have gone to Canada, like Jeremy Hinzman, like Brandon Huey and the people who have resisted in the United States, like Camilo Mejia, like Pablo Paredes, Aidan Delgado, what impact do they have on you?
RYAN JOHNSON: Well, because of them, I found out about the movement. I found — we found Jeremy Hinzman’s site before I went AWOL. And one of our first thoughts was to go to Canada, and we found the G.I. Rights hotline, and we were looking at that. Then we found stuff on Camilo Mejia, Aidan Delgado, and, you know, it kind of inspired me that people were doing this. It let me know that there were other people like me that weren’t wanting to go to the war and that there’s people just trying to get it out there to, you know, soldiers and civilians alike, letting them know that they’re not the only ones that don’t believe in it.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ryan Johnson, I want to thank you very much for being with us, again, speaking to us from Canada. He successfully crossed the border with his wife, Jennifer, a U.S. soldier resisting war. Also, Rob Shearer of the Toronto Catholic Worker. Photojournalist Andrew Stern and Rick Rowley of Big Noise Films are both working on documentary projects about Ryan and the new underground railroad that’s helping war resisters leave the military. You can reach them at their websites AndrewStern.net and BigNoiseFilms.com.