Desertion is one of the most serious crimes of which a service member in the United States Armed Forces may be convicted. During a time of war, any Soldier convicted of desertion faces the possibility of receiving the death penalty or life imprisonment. Fortunately, the days of being killed for deserting one's post are far behind us; however, such an act does not go unpunished, something Army Sgt. Patrick Hart was made painfully aware of back in 2011.
Following in the footsteps of those soldiers who fled to Canada during the Vietnam War, Hart travelled north across the boarder with his family in 2005. He was vocally opposed to the War in Iraq, and chose to desert the Army rather than serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Hart and his family expected to receive the same sympathy afforded to those who deserted in the 1960's and 70's, but what they encountered was much different.
The Canadian immigration system has been reluctant to provide shelter for those Americans who deserted their country on the heels of the Iraq War. The country that once welcomed those servicemembers opposed to the Vietnam War, no longer shares such sympathies.
So after five years of wrestling with the Canadian bureaucracy, Sgt. Hart returned to the United States with his family and turned himself into military authorities. For his crime, Hart received a two-year prison sentence at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He was eventually released in 2013.
Sgt. Hart's story has become all too common. In fact, there are an estimated two-dozen servicemembers in Canada still waiting to hear their fate. The problem is that Canada's immigration policies have become more restrictive since the Vietnam War, which leaves deserters with few options other than to try and claim refugee status. However, military deserters from the United States do not qualify as refugees under Canadian and international law. Moreover, because desertion is a crime in the United States, those that flee to Canada become criminally ineligible for citizenship under Canadian immigration law.
There have been at least three other soldiers – that were either deported or left Canada – for deserting the U.S. military. Some deserters face jail time for abandoning their duties, while many receive dishonorable discharges. The Army estimates that since the beginning of 2006 nearly 20,000 soldiers have deserted.