Joshua Key, 28, was a poor, uneducated Oklahoma country boy who saw the U.S. army and its promised benefits â€” from free health care to career training â€” as the ticket to a better life. In 2002, not yet 24 but already married and the father of two , Key enlisted. He says his recruiting officer promised heâ€™d never be deployed abroad, but a year later he was in Iraq. Only 24 hours after arriving, as Key recounts in The Deserterâ€™s Tale (Anansi), he experienced his first doubts about what he and his fellow soldiers were doing there:
I was scared out of my wits that first day in Ramadi. Our own air force had just finished bombing these people, but as soon as we got out of our vehicles we began patrolling their streets, on foot. With nearly 100 lb. of weaponry, equipment and clothing on my back, I was about as mobile as a cow. It was just my platoon, 20 guys, walking single file through streets full of Iraqis. I could not stop thinking that anywhere, at any time, some half-starved sniper on a roof could have taken me out in no time flat. Iraqi kids surrounded me in swarms, hands out, asking for water and food. I kept hearing the last words [my wife] Brandi said to me before I flew out: â€œDonâ€™t you let those terrorists near you, Josh. Even if they are kids. Get them before they get you.â€
I was awakened at 3 a.m. that first night and told to get my ass up quickly because in one hour we were going to raid a house full of terrorists. Capt. Conde and some sergeants showed me and my squad mates a satellite photo of a house and a drawing of the layout of the inside. Our assignment was to blow off the door, burst into the house, raid it fast and raid it good â€” looking for contraband, caches of weapons, signs of terrorists or terrorist activity, then rounding up the men and getting out damn fast. The longer we stayed in any one location, the longer somebody would have to put us in the sights of a rocket-propelled grenade or lob mortars at us.
I had no idea what to expect. Would I charge through the door, only to be blown to bits by a grenade? Would somebody with an AK-47 knock my Oklahoman ass right back out that door? Would some six-year-old terrorist with two days of gun training be waiting to put me in his crosshairs? The minutes ticked on, and I wanted the hour to speed forward so we could get on with it. One or two guys did push-ups to pump themselves up. I borrowed Masonâ€™s portable CD player and bombed out my eardrums to the beat of Ozzy Osbourne. It got me going. High and ready for action. I checked my watch, wished it would accelerate, and stuck some dip â€” Copenhagen, bourbon flavor â€” behind my lip. You canâ€™t manage a cigarette when youâ€™ve got an M-249 automatic weapon on your arm. So dip was best. Makes your mouth black as sin, and rots the roots right out of your gums, but dip was my nicotine hit of choice going into that raid.
I committed our instructions to memory. I knew the angles of the house, what door I would help blow down, how many floors were in the house, and who would do what when we busted inside. I would be third in the door, which means I was the second most likely to get shot if anybody had a mind to take us down, and Iâ€™d head to the left. Always, for every raid, I would be third in, heading left. I gripped my M-249. Yes, it could belt out 2,000 rounds a minute but only in theory. You couldnâ€™t really hold your finger down that long. When you were blazing away like that, the bullets turned the barrel as hot as Hades. And if you held your finger down too long, it would warp the barrel.
It took thirty seconds for Jones and me to put the charge of C-4 plastic explosive on the door. Then we dashed around to the side of the house so we wouldnâ€™t blow ourselves up. Youâ€™d be fried meat if you were anywhere near the explosion. I set off the blast, and then the six of us charged in. Jones went first â€” that skinny, red-haired Ohio boy was always hot to trot. With Jones leading the way we burst into the house, armed to the hilt. Kevlar helmets, flak jackets, machine guns, combat boots, the whole nine yards.
Iâ€™d never been inside an Iraqiâ€™s house before. We charged through a kitchen. I had been told by squad leader Padilla to check everything, so I even opened the fridge. Perhaps, I thought, I would find guns or grenades hidden inside. No such luck. In the fridge, all I saw was a bit of food. In the freezer I found big slabs of meat, uncovered. No wrapping. No plastic. Frozen, just like that. We ran into a living room with long couches, one along each wall. In this room with the couches we found two children, a teenager, and a woman. We also found two young men in the house. One looked like a teenager and the other was perhaps in his early 20s â€” brothers.
We hollered and cussed. I spat dip on the floor and screamed along with the other soldiers at the top of my lungs. I knew they didnâ€™t understand, but I hollered anyway.
â€œGet down,â€ I shouted. â€œGet the fâ€“k down. Shut the fâ€“k up.â€
They didnâ€™t know what â€œget downâ€ meant, so we knocked the two brothers to the floor, face down. We put our knees on their backs, pulled their hands behind them, and faster than you can bat an eye we zipcuffed them. Zipcuffs are plastic handcuffs that lock on tight. They must have bit something fierce into those young menâ€™s skin. There was no key, nothing â€” the only way to get them off was to slice them with cutters.
We pushed the brothers outside, where 12 other soldiers from our platoon were waiting. The Iraqi brothers were taken away to an American detention facility for interrogation. I donâ€™t know what it was called, and I donâ€™t know where it was. All I know is that we sent away every man â€” pretty well every male over five feet tall â€” that we found in our house raids, and I never saw one of them return to the neighbourhoods we patrolled regularly.
Inside, we kept on ransacking the house. The more obvious it became that we would find no weapons or contraband, the more we kicked the stuffing out of the house. We knocked over dressers, sliced into mattresses with knives, kicked our way through doors, raiding the three bedrooms on the second floor, then raced up to the third floor. We turned over everything we could and broke furniture at random, searching for contraband, weapons, proof of terrorist activity, or signs of weapons of mass destruction. We found nothing but a CD. Soldiers initially said it showed proof of terrorist activity, but it turned out to have nothing on it but a bunch of speeches by Saddam Hussein.
Once we had everybody outside the house and had done our initial job of ransacking, another squad took over inside. They kept raising hell in there, breaking and turning over more furniture, looking for weapons that we might have missed. Outside, under a carport, I was assigned to watch the women and children. We werenâ€™t arresting them, but we werenâ€™t allowing them to go anywhere either. The family members couldnâ€™t go back inside, and they couldnâ€™t wander off into the neighbourhood. They had to stay right there while we tore the hell out of their house.
A girl in the family â€” a teenager â€” started staring at me. I tried to ignore her. Then she began speaking to me. Inside, when we had been screaming at her and the others, Iâ€™d assumed that nobody understood a word of English. But this young girl spoke to me in English, and her eyes bored holes right through me. She was skin and bones, not even 100 lb., not yet a full-grown woman, but something about her seemed powerful and disturbing. I feared that girl, and I wanted to get away from her as fast as I could, but it was my job to stay right there and make sure she didnâ€™t move. I had my weapon ready. She was wearing a blue nightgown and had a white scarf covering her hair. She had no veil, so I could see her face perfectly. Her eyes were coal black and full of hatred.
In English, she asked me, â€œWhere are you taking my brothers?â€
â€œI donâ€™t know, Miss,â€ I said.
â€œWhy are you taking them away?â€
â€œIâ€™m afraid I canâ€™t say.â€
â€œWhen are you bringing them back?â€
â€œCouldnâ€™t tell you that either.â€
â€œWhy are you doing this to us?â€
I couldnâ€™t answer that.
I hoped she would not raise a fuss. I didnâ€™t want her to start screaming, which could attract the attention of my squad mates. One or two, I feared, would be more than happy to use a rifle butt to knock out her teeth.
I hadnâ€™t been in Iraq more than 24 hours and already I was having strange feelings. First, I was vulnerable, and I didnâ€™t like it. Even with all these soldiers and all this equipment, I knew that anywhere, at any time, any Iraqi with a gun, a wall to hide behind, and one decent eye could pick me off faster than a hawk nabs a mouse. Second, with hardly one foot into the war, I was also uneasy about what we were doing there. Something was amiss. We hadnâ€™t found anything in this girlâ€™s house, but we had busted it up pretty well in 30 minutes and had taken away her brothers. Inside, another squad was still ransacking the house. I didnâ€™t enjoy being stuck guarding this girl under the carport, in the cool April air before dawn in Ramadi. Her questions haunted me, and I didnâ€™t like not being able to answer them â€” even to myself.
Busting into and ransacking homes remained one of my most common duties in Iraq. Before my time was up, I took part in about 200 raids. We never found weapons or indications of terrorism. I never found a thing that seemed to justify the terror we inflicted every time we blasted through the door of a civilian home, broke everything in sight, punched and zipcuffed the men, and sent them away. One raid was far worse.
It was a handsome two-storey house and quite isolated. As usual, I put the charge of C-4 explosives on the door and we blew it in. As we rushed into the house, women were staggering out of their rooms. Three teenage girls screamed when they saw us. Some of my squad mates grabbed them and held them at gunpoint, and the rest of us ran through the house. We found no men at all, just six more women in their 20s and 30s. The guys in my squad couldnâ€™t find a thing, not even any guns â€” and it seemed that the more incapable they were of locating contraband, the more destructive they became. They smashed dressers, ripped mattresses, broke cabinets, and threw shelves to the floor.
Outside I found Pte. 1st Class Hayes with a woman under an empty carport. He pointed his M-16 at her head but she would not stop screaming.
â€œWhat are you doing this for?â€ she said.
Hayes told her to shut up.
â€œWe have done nothing to you,â€ she went on.
Hayes was starting to lose it. I told her that we were there on orders and that we couldnâ€™t speak to her, but on and on and on she bawled at Hayes and me.
â€œYou Americans are disgusting! Who do you think you are, to do this to us?â€
Hayes slammed her in the face with the stock of his M-16. She fell face down into the dirt, bleeding and silent. The woman lay still on the ground. I pushed Hayes away.
â€œWhat are you doing, man?â€ I said to him. â€œYou have a wife and two kids! Donâ€™t be hitting her like that.â€
He looked at me with eyes full of hatred, as if he was ready to kill me for saying those words, but he did not touch the woman again. I found this incident with Hayes particularly disturbing because during other times I had seen him in action in Iraq, he had showed himself to be one of the most level-headed and calm soldiers in my company. I had the sense that if he could lose it and hit a woman the way he had, any of us could lose it too.
Then something happened that haunts my dreams to this day. All the women were led back inside the house and our entire platoon was ordered to stand guard outside it. Four U.S. military men entered the house with the women. They closed the doors. We couldnâ€™t see anything through the windows. I donâ€™t know who the military men were, or what unit they were from, but I can only conclude that they outranked us and were at least at the level of first lieutenant or above. Thatâ€™s because our own second lieutenant Joyce was there, and his presence did not deter them.
Normally, when we conducted a raid, we were in and out in 30 minutes or less. You never wanted to stay in one place for too long for fear of exposing yourself to mortar attacks. But our platoon was made to stand guard outside that house for about an hour. The women started shouting and screaming. The men stayed in there with them, behind closed doors. It went on and on and on.
Finally, the men came out and told us to get the hell out of there.
It struck me then that we, the American soldiers, were the terrorists. We were terrorizing Iraqis. Intimidating them. Beating them. Destroying their homes. Probably raping them. The ones we didnâ€™t kill had all the reasons in the world to become terrorists themselves. Given what we were doing to them, who could blame them for wanting to kill us, and all Americans? A sick realization lodged like a cancer in my gut. It grew and festered, and troubled me more with every passing day. We, the Americans, had become the terrorists in Iraq. [Via: macleans]
In December 2003, Key went home on a two-week leave. He never returned to Iraq. Instead, Key went into hiding. The following March, he and his family crossed the Canadian border at Niagara Falls.
â€œAll we want is to find a home so our kids can grow up in a stable environment and go to school and make friends,â€ Brandi Key says as she towels off her six-month-old baby in the front seat of the Dodge Caravan which has recently become the familyâ€™s temporary home. Brandi is the wife of Joshua Key, a 27-year-old former soldier who deserted the U.S. Army. The pair, in Nelson last week, are driving across Canada with their four kids in search of a home, and Canadian refugee status.
[Hat tip: Yolanda]