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 US 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 US 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 US. Despite widespread support in Canada for US 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 Ric Matthews, 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 US war resisters who have been deported from Canada, Robin Long and Clifford Cornell, were court-martialed by the US Army, convicted of desertion, and sentenced to 15 months and 12 months in prison, respectively, as well as dishonorable discharges.
Pastor Matthews spoke to his congregation and they agreed to provide Watson with sanctuary, the first time a Canadian church has done so for a US 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 US war resisters who would not fight in the illegal US 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 fiancé 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 US 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.
Gerry Condon: 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?
Rodney Watson: 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 US 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?
Watson: The media are 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 fingerprinted 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?
Watson: My message of PEACE to the people of the US 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 US 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 Terrorists. Those who would kill their fellow man over money or drugs are Terrorists. The people in power who sit in their big fancy houses and just watch black youth kill each other are Terrorists. 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?
Watson: 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 alongside most of you 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?
Watson: 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 US 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?
Watson: All I want for Christmas is to turn on the TV 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?
Watson: 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 Fort 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 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 Fort 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 US 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 New Year’s 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.