Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Iraq Veteran Finds Sanctuary In Canadian Church

Rodney Watson Tells Why He Would Not Be
"Stop-Lossed" Back to Iraq

by Gerry Condon

Rodney Watson is one of the bravest and nicest men I have had the pleasure of meeting. He is an African American from Kansas City, Kansas. He is a very religious young man, 32 years old. His dream was to one day have his own restaurant. In 2004, when an Army recruiter told him he would be trained as a cook, he signed up for a three year hitch.

When Watson was deployed to Iraq in October 2005, his superiors told him he would be supervising the dining facility. Instead, he was given an M16 rifle and told to search for explosives on the perimeter of his base in Mosul.

The Army had not trained Watson to inspect or detonate explosives, so he was unhappy with this assignment. But this was not all that was bothering him. He was appalled at the blatant racism of some of his fellow soldiers in Iraq. He saw U.S. soldiers spitting upon and kicking the Koran and beating Iraqi, even civilians. “I had to sit there and watch it,” he told the Vancouver Courier, “and my hands were tied.” He did not report the abuses. “I didn’t want to be labeled a snitch – not with people walking around with machine guns.”

Watson finished his twelve-month tour of duty in October 2006 and returned home, only to be told he would be going right back to Iraq. His three-year contract with the Army would have ended in the spring of 2007, but the Army was unilaterally extending it so that he could complete another tour of Iraq. Rodney Watson was being “stop-lossed.”

On a two-week leave, Watson pondered his situation and decided he would not be a slave to the U.S. Army or cannon fodder for the war in Iraq. Instead, he left a goodbye note in his father’s bible and made his way to Vancouver on the west coast of Canada. The Army has since charged him with desertion.

With the aid of the War Resisters Support Campaign in Vancouver, Rodney Watson sought sanctuary in Canada as a political refugee who would be persecuted for his beliefs if he were forced to return to the U.S. Despite widespread support in Canada for U.S. war resisters, Watson was denied refugee status and the Conservative government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper ordered him deported.

The Canadian people have been much more welcoming than the Canadian government. So Rodney spoke with the Ric Matthews, the pastor of the First United Church in downtown Vancouver, a progressive congregation that opens its doors every night to homeless people who would otherwise be sleeping on the streets.

Canadian churches have a long tradition of granting sanctuary to refugees who are rejected by the politicized refugee board but who truly do face persecution in their homelands. Two U.S. war resisters who have been deported from Canada, Robin Long and Clifford Cornell, were court-martialed by the U.S. Army, convicted of desertion, and sentenced, to 15 months and 12 months in prison, respectively, as well as dishonorable discharges.

Pastor Matthews spoke with his congregation and they agreed to provide Watson with sanctuary, the first time a Canadian church has done so for a U.S. war resister. Since mid-September, Watson has been living in a custodial apartment in the church, where he has received a steady flow of supporters, journalists, and even Members of Parliament. So far the Canadian government has respected his church sanctuary.

Last week Gerard Kennedy, a Liberal MP from Toronto, flew to Vancouver to meet with Watson. Kennedy has introduced a bill in the House of Commons that would grant sanctuary to U.S. war resisters who would not fight in the illegal U.S. war and occupation of Iraq. If his bill passes, it will be legally binding, unlike two similar parliamentary motions that the Conservative government has chosen to ignore.

Watson’s Canadian fiance and their one-year old son are joining him for the holidays and beyond.

I have had the good fortune of visiting Rodney Watson several times in Vancouver, and I spoke with him recently to see how he is doing. Although many Canadians know his story, very few people in the U.S. are aware of the stand that Rodney Watson is taking on behalf of all war resisters. I asked Rodney if he would elaborate his story for an American audience and he graciously agreed to do so.

Rodney, as an African American man, you certainly recognize racist behavior when you see it. How were you affected by the racism you witnessed in Iraq?

"The racism I witnessed in Iraq was something that really angered me – the mistreatment and abuse that some racist soldiers or civilian contractors would afflict upon the Iraqi civilians. The Army is full of good soldiers but, as we all know, there are some that just don't deserve to wear the uniform because of their racial hatred.

At the same time as I was witnessing these crimes in Iraq, my fellow Americans were still suffering from the effects of Hurricane Katrina – mostly poor black people. As I watched the military spend millions of U.S. dollars in a country that had no weapons of mass destruction, people back home were begging for help after the storm from a government that moved very slowly to aid those in need.

I now wish that President Obama, being African American, will help the youth that are killing each other every day in the streets of America and concentrate on helping the American people that are in need of jobs, housing, food, and health care. Because I think these problems are more important right now than WAR!

I pray that God will direct the steps of the President and change his mind on certain issues and for him to use the Love and popularity he has received to rebuild America instead of “nation building” in the Middle East.

What part of your story are the media not telling?

The media is not telling the story of the racism that I witnessed directly. There was a soldier in my unit in Iraq who was caught dealing drugs to an undercover military C.I.D. agent and the result was that every BLACK soldier in my unit had to report to a formation to be questioned and finger printed by the FBI. Why didn't they just detain him when the deal went down instead of treating all the Black men in my unit like potential CRIMINALS!!!!!!!!!

What would you like to say to the American people?

My message of PEACE to the people of the U.S. is that we can achieve Peace if we truly reach out to our enemies with diplomacy and stop fighting, instead of risking the lives of these Brave Men and Women to fight low level fighters who attack and then run and hide.

To take the notion that America is ONE NATION UNDER GOD seriously and rebuild the U.S. into a land of equal treatment among all of the different races of America with Love and true unity. In all honesty, the KKK are Terrorist. Those who would kill their fellow man over money or drugs are Terrorist. The people in power who sit in their big fancy houses and just watch black youth kill each other are Terrorist. What I'm saying is that we have a lot of problems in our own country that are of a GREAT EMERGENCY. The people are crying out for HELP!!!

Do you have a message for your fellow soldiers?

My message to the soldiers is that I pray for your safety, even the ones who might think I'm some kind of coward or traitor. I pray that the Lord of Lords and King of Kings Jesus Christ will keep you all under his protection and your families as well. It has been an honor to serve along side of most of you that I have encountered in the Army. And I know the bad apples will have to answer to God one day. Even the ones in high places who led us into battle based on lies will answer to God almighty for their LIES. Last but not least I pray that the Lamb of God will put an end to wars that you all are involved in, for JESUS is the Prince of Peace and not The Prince of War!!

What kind of support are you receiving and what are your immediate needs?

I have the basics here living in Sanctuary, but if any creative minds can and want to help me, I would highly appreciate it. I have a son who is one-year-old. He and his mother are my heart and soul and they are put before any of my needs. It is hard for me to ask for help when I know there are many people in the U.S. who are in greater need than I. But if there are those who wish to give a helping hand, I would be ever so grateful.

What would you like for Christmas?

All I want for Christmas is to turn on the T.V. after helping my son open his gifts, to be joined together by his mother on the sofa with maybe some hot cocoa, and see President Obama say that he changed his mind and that he is bringing our men and women HOME!!!!!!

Is there anything else you would like to say?

I signed up for three years in the Army and served over two-and-a-half years and completed a one-year tour in Iraq. When I returned to Ft. Hood, Texas my unit was informed that we were to redeploy again to Iraq or Afghanistan within four months. I must say that I was upset about risking my life again for a war I did not understand or agree with, especially after seeing the things I saw over in Iraq. I am not a coward, I would not have a problem fighting a war against anyone who is a direct threat to our borders or who could harm my family or fellow Americans. I would be on the front lines for that.

My prayers go out to the soldier who is now imprisoned for a rap song that he made that expresses his anger about being stop-lossed, because just like him, I signed up for three years and I left before the military could stop-loss me. I feel his pain because while at Ft. Hood I would see young men and women whose dreams of being civilians again were stolen from them when they were ordered to redeploy. Some took it with stride while many others talked about suicide because they wanted out that badly.

I have laid down my sword and I have taken up my cross. Now my fight is for Love, Peace, and Freedom. I no longer walk by sight but by Faith and I Know God is the only one who can truly Judge me."

Rodney Watson is one courageous man, indeed. But none of us can make it alone. He and all the war resisters need and deserve our active support. By supporting war resisters we can also speed the end of the illegal wars and occupations being pursued by the U.S. government and military and their corporate sponsors. And we begin to heal the wounds of war that are affecting our entire society.

Please send Rodney Watson a Christmas or New Years card and maybe a gift for his son.

His mailing address is: Rodney Watson, c/o First United Church, 320 East Hastings St., Vancouver, BC V6A 1P4, CANADA. You can also say hi to Rodney on his Facebook page, War Resister in Sanctuary.

The War Resisters Support Campaign is providing legal, moral and material support for Rodney Watson, even as they continue to mobilize political support for the estimated 300 U.S. war resisters in Canada. Please consider making a special holiday donation toward their vital work on behalf of our war resisters.

Checks can be made out to the War Resisters Support Campaign and mailed to: 1143 E Pender St. Vancouver BC V6A 1W6.

Or you can donate online at


Gerry Condon is a writer and activist based in Seattle, Washington, where he directs Project Safe Haven, a war resister advocacy project, and serves as president of the Seattle area chapter of Veterans For Peace. In 1968, he refused Army orders to deploy to the Vietnam War and fled to Canada and Sweden, where he spent six years organizing against the war and for amnesty for all war resisters. Gerry Condon can be reached by email at