What Do You Call a Woman Who Goes to Prison for Her Beliefs?
Amnesty International identifies her as a prisoner of conscience, she was the first American woman conscientious objector to flee to Canada, but mainstream media mostly ignore this Iraq war vet with PTSD — unless they’re labeling her a “deserter.”
A Texan married to a Texan, Private First Class Kimberly Rivera, 30, is a poor, pregnant mother of four who was sentenced to 10 months in jail on April 29 by the United States Army.
Her crime, after serving a tour of duty in Iraq in 2006, was seeking help from her military chaplain about her growing conscientious objection to the American war in Iraq, getting dishonest advice from her superiors, and thinking as a result that she had no realistic options other than returning to Iraq or emigrating to Canada. She and her husband and two children went to Canada in 2007.
Her story illustrates some of the chronic injustices of American life, not least the extra vengeance the society likes to visit on those who resist, and make that resistance public.
Economic Coercion Boosts Enlistment Rate
By 2005, Kimberly and Mario Rivera had two children and financial pressure, even though they both had jobs at the local Walmart, where they’d met. Kimberly, then 22, had her first child when she was 19 and the second two years later. They were living in Mesquite, Texas, a city of about 140,000 within the greater Dallas-Forth Worth metro area.
Surveying their limited prospects, Kimberly and Mario decided that one of them should join the military. Both of them needed to lose weight to qualify. Kimberly lost weight faster and enlisted in January 2006. Her incentives included an $8,000 signing bonus and family health insurance.
The enlistment process led Kimberly to expect to spend her time loading and unloading equipment at Fort Carson Colorado, where she was a wheeled-vehicle driver in the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team. But in the fall of 2006, her unit was ordered to Iraq, where she was a “gate guard,” as she put it in an interview with Courage to Resist in 2007:
“ I was a gate guard. This was looked down on by infantry soldiers who go out in the streets, but gate guards are the highest security of the Foward Operation Base. We searched vehicles, civilian personnel, and military convoys that left and came back every hour. I had a huge awakening seeing the war as it truly is: people losing their lives for greed of a nation and the effects on the soldiers who come back with new problems such as nightmares, anxieties, depression, anger alcohol abuse, missing limbs and scars from burns. Some don’t come back at all.
“On December 21, 2006 I was going to my room and something in my heart told me to go call my husband. And when I did 24 rounds of mortars hit the FOB in a matter of minutes after I got on the phone . . . the mortars were 10-15 feet from where I was. I found a hole from the shrapnel in my room in the plywood window. That night I found the shrapnel on my bed in the same place where my head would have been if I hadn’t changed my plans and gone to the phone.”
What Happens When Your Country’s Leaders Betray You?
Kimberly hadn’t thought that much about the war in Iraq during 2002-2003, when she was preoccupied with being a new mother and the Bush administration was preoccupied with lying the country into an illegal war. In Iraq, in 2006, her disillusionment grew quickly. She wrote somewhat telegraphically about her feelings later:
“Your basic role as a soldier being invalidated, finding out your job has no meaning. No reason. Higher command just let bad people past you, demanding they do not get the same treatment as others who come in the base every day.
“This Is the same as jeopardizing every men and women on the front line. That was the most angering moment for me. From this point on I had no pride in my work, No reason for being in Iraq. It was obvious to me that security was not the top priority for the troops and as one person not allowed to do my job efficiently and to the highest ability was the final straw. Finding that out is the hardest. It was my last reason for staying. For giving my life. You believe you are doing the right thing.”
Kimberly stopped believing she was doing the right thing in Iraq, and she stopped believing the United States was doing the right thing in Iraq. Americans were getting wounded and killed, but she saw more of Iraqi suffering. As iPolitics.ca reported in 2012:
“Rivera was troubled by a two-year-old Iraqi girl who came to the base with her family to claim compensation after a bombing by U.S. forces.
“’She was just petrified,’ Rivera explained. ‘She was crying, but there was no sound, just tears flowing out of her eyes. She was shaking. I have no idea what had happened in her little life. All I know is I wasn’t seeing her: I was seeing my own little girl. I could imagine my daughter being one of those kids throwing rocks at soldiers, because maybe someone she loved had been killed. That Iraqi girl haunts my soul’.”
What Happens When You Look For a Christian Answer to War?
Troubled by the war, Kimberly was reading the Bible in an effort to make sense of the conflict between her faith and her experience. She came to believe that, faced by Iraqi civilians and given an order to shoot, she would not pull the trigger. She knew this could put other soldiers in danger if she didn’t shoot. She took this concern to her chaplain for guidance.
This chaplain was not about to discuss religious questions with her, certainly not the peaceable aspects of Christianity. He was hard line, unyielding about her duty to fulfill her mission, basically telling her to suck it up.
He could have advised her of her rights, that there was a regulation, AR 600-43, that gave her the right to petition to be classified a conscientious objector. That might have been the Christian thing to do, but the chaplain didn’t do it.
In December 2006, Kimberly returned from Iraq on leave for two weeks. She researched her status, but did not seek legal advice. She came to the conclusion that the only way she could avoid going back to Iraq was not to go back to the Army, to go absent without leave (AWOL, as George W. Bush had done under very different circumstances).
“I guess the hardest thing for people to understand is the reason you join the military is not the reason you leave it,” she wrote later.
Canadians Provided Shelter – Except the Government
On Feb. 18, 2007, Kimberly and Mario Rivera and their two children, Christian and Rebecca, entered Canada and found sanctuary among the war resister community in Toronto. Kimberly became the first known US war resister to apply for refugee status in Canada.
Her legal struggle to stay in Canada lasted for the next five and a half years, supported by the War Resisters Support Campaign and others.
Among her supporters was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner like Barack Obama, but with little else in common. Archbishop Tutu published an op ed column in the Globe and Mail in September 2012, opposing the Canadian government’s effort to deport Kimberly, callong it unjust:
“When the United States and Britain made the case in 2003 for the invasion of Iraq, it was on the basis of a lie.
“We were told that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, and that these weapons posed an imminent threat to humanity….
“But those who were called to fight this war believed what their leaders had told them. The reason we know this is because U.S. soldiers such as Kimberly Rivera, through her own experience in Iraq, came to the conclusion that the invasion had nothing to do with weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, the presence of U.S. forces only created immense misery for civilians and soldiers alike.”
Should a Government be Swayed by Facts, Justice, or Mercy?
But Premier Harper and other government officials still supported the war on Iraq and that had politicized the American war resisters seeking shelter in their country. Twice the Canadian Parliament voted to support these political refugees, but the Harper government gave no ground. A large majority of Canadians, 64 per cent, wanted to allow conscientious objectors to the Iraq war to remain in their country, but the Harper government gave no ground.
On February 2013, in another case, the Federal Court of Canada ruled in favor of a war resister right to due process in Canada, since the American military justice system was so flawed that it “fails to comply with basic fairness requirements found in Canadian and International Law.”
In a reference clearly relevant to Kimberly Rivera’s case, the court also found that consideration should be given to evidence that soldiers who have spoken out publicly about their objections to U.S. military actions are subjected to particularly harsh punishments because of having voiced their political opinions.
And still the Harper government gave no ground.
Ordered deported, Kimberly Rivera surrendered to U.S. border officials on September 20, 2012, and was immediately taken into custody. Faced with a court martial and a possible sentences of five years on a military prison, Kimberly made a plea agreement that limits her prison time to ten months, but includes a dishonorable discharge. At her sentencing hearing April 29, she pled guilty to two counts of desertion.
Military Justice is to Justice as Military Music is to Music
Her attorney, James Branum, has also represented dozens of other conscientious objectors and is legal director for the Oklahoma Center for Conscience and Peace Research. While acknowledging that some war resisters have been sentenced to as much as two years, Branum told DemocracyNOW that Kimberly’s sentence was relatively harsh:
“… many other resisters receive little jail time or no jail time. And people that desert, generally, over 90 percent do no jail time at all. And so, we feel that Kim was singled out.
“Another thing, the prosecutor at trial said that he asked the judge to give a harsh sentence to send a message to the war resisters in Canada….
“… the Canadian government, in deporting Kim, said she would not face any serious punishment because of her political and conscientious objection to war. And in reality, that’s exactly what happened. That was the prosecution’s argument, that because she spoke out against the war, she therefore should be punished.”
So this Canadian-American collusion, that started with the illegal war in Iraq, continues to illuminate the likelihood that when you have authoritarian officials in charge, you get a judicial system that imprisons a poor, pregnant, thirty-year-old mother of four for her conscientious objection to an illegal war.
Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu asked: “Isn’t it time we begin to redress the atrocity of this war by honouring those such as Ms. Rivera who had the courage to stand against it at such a cost to themselves?”
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