Among the several members of the US Armed Forces who became disillusioned with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and openly broke ranks, is Private Kimberly Rivera, from Texas. She was the first female US military to seek refuge in Canada. Her decision was described by journalist Will di Novi, in July 2008:
“After an aborted stint in the Army reserves at 17, Kimberly spent almost five years working for minimum wage at Wal-Mart. Struggling in her role as the primary breadwinner for her young family, she decided to enlist in the active duty Army.
“The military is one of the most socialistic programs in America,” she says. “You get healthcare, you get rent paid for, they provide you with food, even a clothing allowance once a year.”
Kimberly was assigned to the 2nd Brigade combat team, 2nd Infantry Division, at Fort Carson, Colorado. Though driven to the military by economic need, she felt pride at the prospect of getting her combat patch overseas.
“The things that we were doing over there for me were real, they weren’t on false pretenses,” she says. “This was the best thing I could be doing for my country and people around the world, and for my family back home.”
When her unit deployed to Iraq in October 2006, these feelings started to change. As a guard at the front gate of her forward operating base in Baghdad, Kimberly regularly worked fourteen-hour shifts, and she became traumatized as fellow soldiers and civilians died all around her. She had difficulty sleeping and stopped eating at one point.
On December 21, 2006, her base was hit by a heavy mortar attack as she was talking to her husband on the phone. Mortars exploded ten feet away as she helplessly clutched her rifle.
“I found shrapnel on my bed,” she recalls. “It would have been right where my head would have been if I had decided to go to my room instead of the phone.”
The following Saturday she watched as an Iraqi father came to the base with his 2-year-old daughter. He was placing a claim for loss due to Army negligence. The little girl was shaking and crying in silence.
“I wasn’t seeing that little girl,” Kimberly explains, reliving the experience. “I was seeing my own daughter about her same age back home” In January 2007, Kimberly returned home to her family in Texas on a two-week leave.
“I was really messed up when I got back, with feelings I’d never had before. Sometimes I just got angry, just completely explosive,” she remembers.
Concerned by her change in demeanor, Kimberly’s husband Mario mentioned the website of the War Resisters Support Campaign.
“I laughed at him,” Kimberly recalls: “Canada, are you kidding me? We don’t know anything about Canada. We don’t have any friends, relatives, anybody in Canada. And it snows!’ ”
Unwilling to return to the front lines, Kimberly skipped her flight back to Iraq at the end of the month. She and her family started driving east, uncertain where they were headed and quickly running out of money. Mario mentioned going to Canada a second time, and Kimberly confronted the hardest decision of her life.
“I still had pride, I still had a sense of loyalty,” she says. She weighed “what we were leaving behind, what the punishment would be,” against “having peace, my soul having rest, not feeling useless and worthless, wanting to be able to live.”
Five years after her arrival in Canada, she received a final deportation order, returned on September 20th, detained and awaiting a likely military court martial. A newsletter from “Courage to Resist” organization states that
“her husband Mario and their four children are staying with Mario’s parents in Texas His family is not well off. His dad is a roofer, and his mom is physically disabled. The children miss their mom Kimberly badly. Katie thinks she is lost and wants to rescue her; she is anxious and nervous, and closes herself off from people. Gabriel holds a picture of her and kisses it and tries to reach through the picture to grab her. Christian has ADHD, diagnosed with depression. Rebecca hides her feelings a little bit. Every time she talks with her mom on the phone, tears come out and she looks physically sick. She is crying but trying to hide it.”
The human toll of the wars has affected all of us. Many veterans return with serious mental problems. One of the ugliest consequences we experienced in Orange County was reported January 14, 2012 by Nicole Santa Cruz and Alan Zarembo, Times Staff Writers : “A 23-year-old former Marine who some say was distraught after combat service in Iraq has been named a suspect in the serial killings of four homeless men in Orange County. Itzcoatl Ocampo of Yorba Linda was chased by bystanders Friday after the most recent stabbing death behind a fast-food restaurant in an Anaheim shopping center parking lot. Ocampo remained in police custody without bail Saturday and is expected in court on Tuesday.”
The sacrifice of many who thought these wars were conducted under noble premises is honorable. The dissent of soldiers who changed their mind after realizing that the premises were not so honorable, and seeing the tragic consequences, needs to be treated in a fair and humane way.
To help the Rivera family, please visit: couragetoresist.org/rivera-family.