“All we want is to find a home so our kids can grow up in a stable environment and go to school and make friends,” Brandi Key says as she towels off her six month old baby in the front seat of the Dodge Caravan which has recently become the family’s temporary home. Brandi is the wife of Joshua Key, a 27-year-old former soldier who deserted the US Army. The pair, in Nelson last week, are driving across Canada with their four kids in search of a home, and Canadian refugee status.
The Keys are living in a van because of Joshua Key’s opposition to the US-led war in Iraq. While many opponents of the Iraq war base their opposition on media reports, Key’s opinion is based on what he witnessed when he fought for eight months in Iraq’s Sunni Triangle.
Key never thought he’d end up in Iraq in the first place. When he first enlisted, he signed up to be a bridge builder in a non-deployable unit. Despite this, the Army trained him in explosives and landmines, and sent him to Iraq in April of 2003.
Key describes himself as a patriotic citizen who grew up learning “all-American values.” Raised by his grandparents in a small town in Oklahoma, Key became a welder and was earning $7.25 an hour before he joined the Army. With a rapidly growing family, he desperately needed a better job to make ends meet. After a visit to the local military recruiting office and then a score of 50 percent on an aptitude test, Key was told he could pick between three different jobs.
“I decided on a bridge builder in a non-deployable unit,” he explains with a slight southern drawl. “This was my incentive to join the Army. I wanted to be close to my family. Other guys were offered money incentives.”
Key felt that his situation was so desperate that he signed a contract with the US military even though his wife was pregnant with their third child. “They don’t usually let guys in who have three kids. They told me they were hiding the fact that my wife was pregnant. After I signed the paper it didn’t matter anymore. The Army was the only option we had.”
During basic training in May 2002, Key learned that his legally binding contract could be changed by the military at any time. “In the first few days of basic training, you learn that you are just a number and to keep your mouth shut unless spoken to. We were told that we were going to learn how to be the worst damn killers in the battlefield. I was already thinking; what the hell are you talking about?”
‘Breaking you down’
Key’s first duty station was in Fort Carson, Colorado where he was put on a rapid deployment unit. “This meant I could be sent anywhere in the world in just a day’s notice. This wasn’t what I had signed up for. I was mad and decided to ask my platoon leader what was going on.”
According to Key, even after going through the proper procedure to ask a question, the response from the platoon leader was to “get the hell out of his office. For two weeks after that I was punished severely. They call it ‘breaking you down’ so they can rebuild you to military conformity,” he explained.
This was the first experience of many that made Key want to quit. “I knew that if I quit I would be sent to jail and the Army would take all my money. When you’ve got a wife and kids to support, you just stick with it and keep going.”
In February, 2003 all the equipment from Key’s unit was being loaded onto trains to send to Iraq. “We were told that Saddam Hussein was an evil tyrant and he had to be crushed. I believed there were weapons of mass destruction and war was justified. I felt like I better get it over with now so that my kids don’t have to deal with him (Hussein) in the future.”
Raiding and stealing
Key’s unit was the second to enter Iraq after the invasion. Soon after arriving, Key saw evidence of an extremely disorganized U.S military. “There wasn’t enough food or water for the troops. We were told to steal water from other troops before we left on a mission so we’d have enough.”
They were in Ramadi for three weeks before it got violent. Key’s job was to patrol streets and raid homes. “We’d use explosives to blow up the front door, then six of us would run in, grab the males and send them off for interrogation and hold the women and children at gunpoint while we completely destroyed their home. Soldiers could steal whatever they wanted.”
It was an adrenaline rush at first, but after a while Key couldn’t figure out why they were raiding homes. “I started seeing the mothers faces screaming and hollering; they don’t look at it as though it’s your government who is doing this to them, they see you as being the enemy. They look at you as though they would slit your throat at any minute if they could,” he explains.
When Key’s unit moved to Fallujah, he saw the enemy fighting back for the first time. “We went from not knowing what a mortar attack was to being under attack every single night.” Even though he was being shot at, Key felt that the Iraqis were just fighting for their country.
Plagued by sympathy
According to Key, sympathy for the Iraqi people was one of his downfalls. “You’re told to treat the enemy as though they’re guilty until proven innocent, and to have no remorse and no regret.” During a traffic control point that Key was part of, an American tank blew up a car that passed through without permission. There was a father and his child inside. The father was dead and the boy was badly injured. Key bandaged him up and took him to the closest hospital.
“I wasn’t supposed to do this as it showed sympathy to the enemy.” Key and other U.S soldiers searched the car afterwards and there were no signs of contraband anywhere. “They just didn’t understand what stop meant,” he says sadly. There were signs everywhere that showed the military’s lack of control. At a scene in Ramadi, Key realized that no soldier was going to be held accountable for their actions. “We turned a corner and all I saw were heads and bodies. It shocked us all. There were American troops in the middle saying they had lost it. My squad leader told me to go and see if I could find evidence of a firefight and what went on. As soon as I stepped out of the tank I saw American soldiers kicking a head around like a soccer ball.
“That disgusted me and I told my platoon leader that I wanted no part of it,” says Key. “He couldn’t do anything about it, even with his authority, and told me to sit down in the tank. The next day I asked him if anything had been followed up on the incident. I was told to shut the hell up, that it wasn’t my concern.”
As a combat engineer, Key felt he was expendable. After seven months of fighting in the red zones, sleeping in bombed places, eating canned food, and showering once every three weeks, Key was sent to a green zone for two weeks of relief. It was here he experienced the feeling of being only a number. “They had a really nice chow hall. Me, my team leader who was a sergeant, and one other guy went to get some food. The colonel at the door stopped us and told us we couldn’t go in. We weren’t allowed to go in until we had pressed our uniforms. This was the way we were treated by our own people, I couldn’t believe it.”
One of Key’s friends received a book in the mail from his mother titled, America Sold it’s Soul for Saudi Crude. His opinion on the war started to change after he read that book. “When I got to Iraq I asked the people why there was so much trash everywhere. They told me it was from us. I didn’t believe it until I started reading. We’ve destroyed that country in the last 14 years. The U.S government planned, organized and orchestrated the whole thing. We’re just there for the oil.”
People criticize Key for abandoning the war and not honoring his contract with the military. Key’s response to this is that he was sent to fight an illegal war for his country and that it was the military who didn’t uphold their side of the contract. “I thought I was there to promote democracy, but I think I was there to prevent it.”
During a brief leave of absence in December, 2003, Key asked a military lawyer if there were any other options besides going back to Iraq. The lawyer told him he had to get back on the plane or go to prison. He decided he couldn’t justify going back to Iraq. Key packed up his family and moved to Philadelphia where they lived in hiding for 14 months.
Escaping the US Army
Key used his military training to plan an escape route if it was needed. “The military taught us how to evade terrorists and I knew my escape routes to Canada. I was always on alert, and I started to go a little crazy. I wanted something better for my kids.” Key talked to Jeffrey House—the Toronto lawyer who has represented other Iraq war deserters—who said he could help. The Key family arrived in Toronto in March of this year by crossing the border at Niagara Falls. “We had lots of luggage, and they wanted to know why. We told them we had four kids. They let us through and told us to have a nice time in Canada,” he says.
Now Key is touring Canada, telling his story to whoever will listen. “I have taken some major risks in leaving the military and I know that if people listen to my stories, they can’t tell me I have to go back and spend ten years in jail.”
In fact Key could face five or more years in jail if he returns to the United States. He recently applied for refugee status and is hopeful the Canadian government will grant his request. Despite that optimism, federal immigration officials ruled against the first claim by an Iraq war deserter. Jeremy Hinzman had his first refugee application denied last March.
While Key packs up his Dodge Caravan to move on to the family’s next destination, his 6-year-old son Zachary hops into the driver’s seat of the car. “Can I drive Dad?” he asks innocently. Key plucks him from the front seat of the car and tells him he can when he’s older. For now Key is in the driver’s seat, heading towards an uncertain future.
Rebecca Craigie is a journalist based in Nelson.