This article originally appeared in GQ and is reprinted on Longform by permission of the author.
IF YOU WERE walking down the street in Toronto and you happened to bump into Phil McDowell, here is what you would notice: nothing. You probably wouldn't even see McDowell, because that's the kind of guy he is. At five feet nine, he is neither tall nor short, he tends to shuffle a bit when he walks, and he favors the kind of outdoorsy Beanwear that fades into the Canadian landscape like snow. All told, he cuts a rather ordinary figure for an international fugitive.
The first time I met up with McDowell, in December, we took a long walk through Toronto in the rain at night, chatting about the threat of imprisonment that hangs over his life, then we ambled into a pub for a drink. The moment we sat down, McDowell seized upon the beer menu, flipping through the pages like a novel, frowning at some, nodding at others. Then he placed the menu back on the table without a word. This, I now realize, was vintage McDowell. He has been brewing his own beer for the past seven years and is something of a bottle fanatic, yet he approaches tasting and brewing, like the rest of his interests, with a fervor that is entirely private. Some men are modest; McDowell abhors attention. Faced with almost any question about himself, he will answer in the smallest possible number of words, even if it means not really answering at all. Occasionally, on a matter of real importance like beer, he will overcome his natural reticence long enough to dispense advice, but only so long as he can do so without drawing any attention to himself. He may suggest that you order a lambic Cantillon Lou Pepe Gueuze 2005, and then, when you have finished making a butchery of the name to a deeply offended Quebecois waiter, he will quietly order a Sam Adams for himself.
What is remarkable about McDowell is that, when he explains the bizarre predicament of his life—the deeply unsettling chain of events that changed him from a Soldier of the Month to a fugitive on the lam, and the sensation of waking up each morning without knowing if he will be in jail the next—he tends to relate the experience with the same laconic reserve with which he discusses almost everything else. It can be unnerving to speak with a man about his own impending doom in such a matter-of-fact way. You might ask, for example, about his great-aunt Frances. You might have heard from his mother that he and Frances were unusually close, that they went out for ice cream each time he returned from college and then later, whenever he was home on military leave. You might know from McDowell's sister that Frances wrote to him almost every week after he arrived in Canada four and a half years ago—three pages here, five pages there, a lifeline of encouragement from home—and you might know from McDowell's father that early last year, the letters from Aunt Frances trailed off. You might have heard from McDowell's wife that his mother called to explain how Frances was not doing well and that everyone was preparing to say good-bye, and you might know that soon afterward, Aunt Frances died. You might be able to imagine what it was like for McDowell not to attend her funeral, or his grandmother's funeral a few months later, or his grandfather's soon after that—or, last year, his sister's wedding. You might stand outside McDowell's apartment on a dead-end street in Toronto and try to imagine what it's like to live in a country that is not your own and that you cannot leave. But you won't hear any complaints from McDowell.
Once, over dinner, I asked him what it's like to have the entire U.S. Army after you, and he thought for a moment and said slowly, "It's like I'm carrying a heavy rock in my backpack." This is as close to introspection as McDowell gets. Most of the time, if you ask why he did it, why he refused his command and fled his country, he'll just shrug his shoulders and say, "I couldn't do it anymore—it was wrong." By it, of course, he means a lot of things: the army, the war, the orders he received; the price he's paid, and the even bigger price to come. But it's the things McDowell doesn't say which make his story so perplexing: the things he's never said before; the things no one ever asked; the things that, when his orders came down, left him with no other way to protest except his suitcase and his feet.
DESERTION IS the army's dirty little secret. Since the beginning of the Iraq war, more than 20,000 American soldiers have given up the fight. Most of them disappear while at home on leave, fading into a network of family and friends, and the army does not typically chase them down. But the fact that they could be picked up for anything else—like a speeding ticket or jaywalking—and transferred directly into military prison has been sufficient to inspire hundreds of U.S. deserters to slip across the border into Canada.
Just a few decades ago, this was a fairly safe move. During the Vietnam era, more than 30,000 draft dodgers and deserters sought harbor in cities like Montreal and Toronto, where public opposition to the war was strong and most residents didn't question their motives. Today, despite an amnesty from President Jimmy Carter, many of those Vietnam vets remain, having married, started families, and woven their lives into the fabric of Canadian life. No one wants to send them home. Given that history, and the Canadian government's opposition to the Iraq war in 2003, many of today's AWOL soldiers arrive at the northern border expecting a similar embrace.
These are men like Chuck Wiley, who spent seventeen years in the U.S. military (three in the army and fourteen in the navy), rising to the rank of chief petty officer, before the tactics and policies he witnessed in Iraq—like buzzing rooftops to chase civilians into the street—pricked his conscience and forced him to speak up. But when Wiley began asking questions about these tactics, he says he became a pariah. "That's when I realized we're not the good guys," he's said. "And that's a very hard realization to come to, especially when you've spent almost two decades in the military." When Wiley received orders in the fall of 2006 to return to the Gulf for another tour, he packed his bags—but not for battle. Today he lives in Toronto near McDowell. Other deserters, like a Marine named Dean Walcott, left for more personal reasons. While working at an army hospital in Germany in 2005, Walcott says, his ward received a flood of civilian patients who had been massacred by an errant mortar round. The image of the victims, dead and dying, has never really left him. "You can't even imagine," he told me. "Their faces were melted. If you set fire to a Barbie doll, that's what it looked like." Hounded by nightmares, Walcott begged his commanders for access to a therapist but was routinely denied. "They think you're trying to get out," he says. "But I wasn't trying to get out. I just wanted a doctor." Eventually, Walcott found a doctor. In Toronto.
The case for these men to remain in Canada is not merely one for bleeding hearts. It is also a question of international law. Since the Nuremburg trials after World War II, the official policy of the United Nations has been that a soldier's first duty is to obey his conscience. According to U.N. bylaws, any soldier who refuses to fight in a war that is "condemned by the international community" is eligible for protection as a U.N. refugee. The Iraq war, of course, has never been sanctioned by the U.N. and was actively opposed by most member states. In 2004 the U.N. secretary general, Kofi Annan, declared the war "illegal" under the U.N. charter. Whether this qualifies as international condemnation is, of course, a matter of legal parsing. But the Canadian government isn't buying it.
Forty years after Vietnam, it turns out, the northern welcome is not so warm. Especially since the election of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006, the balance of power in Canadian politics has shifted from the antiwar Liberal Party to the Conservatives who endorsed the Iraq war. Although a 68 percent majority of Canadian citizens still believe U.S. deserters should be allowed to stay, the Harper government is firmly opposed. Just after taking office in 2008, his minister of immigration, Jason Kenney, declared that all U.S. deserters were "bogus refugee claimants," and Kenney has instructed immigration employees to stovepipe all deserter applications straight to his desk. In September, a bill that would have offered new protection for the deserters lost narrowly in the House of Commons. And this month's parliamentary election resulted in twenty-three additional seats for Conservatives—enough to elevate the party from a plurality to an outright majority. The incentives for Conservatives to move slowly and compromise on delicate issues like the U.S. deserters are rapidly disappearing. In fact, most of the deserters I met in Canada are currently packing their bags and watching the mail for a large brown envelope with unwelcome news.
Throughout this process, one of the most prominent voices on their behalf has been that of Phil McDowell, whose clean-cut appearance and stoic manner make a de facto argument on the deserters' behalf. Looking at McDowell, it is difficult to portray the deserters as a ragtag bunch of misfits and dropouts. Over the past two years, he has gradually surrendered himself to become a kind of spokesman, testifying before the House of Commons, lobbying individual members of Parliament, and even appearing on Canadian television as the face of the deserter community. Along the way, one of the only things that no one has questioned—not the Harper administration, the U.S. Army, the other deserters, or McDowell—is the idea that McDowell is a deserter himself.
The funny thing is, he's not.
SEVENTY-FIVE MILES north of Manhattan, the morning of September 11, 2001, was as clear and bright at Marist College as it was above the twin towers that day. Phil McDowell remembers this detail because he spent that morning under the sky, streaking down the Hudson River as a member of Marist's crew team. But what McDowell remembers even more clearly is the ride home from practice in his friend's car. "We heard on the radio about the first plane," he says, "and we were actually joking, like: How could you accidentally hit the World Trade Center?"
As the reality of the September 11 attacks set in, McDowell found himself profoundly shaken by the images of the day—planes crashing, and people jumping, and the cloud of chaos that descended on the city—and he felt, for the first time in his life, "the desire to do something to help my country."
Like many liberal-arts colleges, Marist was not exactly a booster club for the U.S. military, and as McDowell considered enlistment, he kept the idea to himself. He didn't mention it to his family, or to any of his seven housemates, or even to his "on-again, off-again" girlfriend, Jamine, when he drove to a strip mall in Poughkeepsie a few weeks later to meet with an army recruiter. Nor did he mention it a few weeks after that, when he returned to sign commitment papers. In fact, it wasn't until a week after that, when the recruiter arrived at McDowell's house to give him a ride to the entrance physical and one of McDowell's roommates came wandering in with a quizzical look, saying, "Uh, Phil? There's some army dude outside looking for you," that McDowell told anyone what he'd done.
Some of his friends laughed. Others wondered if he'd lost his mind. His sister thought he was joking. His mother cried. When I asked McDowell how his girlfriend reacted, he winced a little and said, "Let's just say that was the beginning of an off-again period."
McDowell was determined to finish his degree, so he set a formal enlistment date for summer and graduated in May with a major in information technology. Fewer than 5 percent of enlisted soldiers enter the service with a college degree, especially from a school as select as Marist, but McDowell says he never considered becoming an officer. "I just wanted to serve," he says with a shrug. "I wasn't out there trying to be somebody's boss. If I was worried about getting a higher-paying job, I wouldn't have enlisted in the military at all."
Throughout his first year of service, there was never any question for McDowell that his unit would be deployed, but even as the focus of the war turned from Afghanistan to Iraq, he says he never doubted the mission. "I knew people who thought the intelligence was fishy," he allows, "but I could not get it into my mind. How could the president lie about such a big thing?"
Yet when McDowell arrived in Iraq in 2004, his impression of the war began shifting rapidly. It wasn't that he witnessed any great horror as Dean Walcott had, or found himself ostracized by other troops as Chuck Wiley had been, but the routine disregard for Iraqi civilians gradually wore away his resolve. "One of the first things you notice in Iraq," McDowell told me, "is that the people are not there to kill you. They're not terrorists. They're not religious fundamentalists. They're just regular blue-collar guys like anybody else, and I felt uncomfortable with the way we were treating them. We'd go out on convoys, and we were instructed to run into civilian cars if they were in our way—just hit them with the Humvees. Guys were brought in and put outside in the sun all day with bags over their head—no food or water, no chance to go to the bathroom. It was disgusting. And most of these guys hadn't done anything. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they got thrown into a truck."
As McDowell began questioning the attitudes around him, he also began wondering about the war itself. As an IT specialist, he had virtually unlimited access to the Internet, and he began inhaling information—scouring online articles at first and then ordering books from Amazon. Soon packages were arriving every week. He read Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward and Imperial Hubris by former CIA officer Michael Scheuer. He read the autobiography of Tommy Franks and the September 11 Commission Report, growing more disillusioned by the page. He read about yellowcake uranium and the outing of a spy, about biological weapons and dirty bombs, about the connection between Al Qaeda and Saddam—or rather, the lack of a connection and the pretense of one; the unending stream of exaggeration and hype that seemed to ooze from the White House directly into the news. As the months dragged by, McDowell's concern morphed into anger. He began to think he'd made a mistake. He began to wonder if he'd been naive. He began to suspect that every time he fixed a computer or rewired a radio or tuned up a communication network, he was participating in something he shouldn't.
He began to wonder how much longer he would.
THE PROBLEM of desertion in the U.S. Army is not by any means modern. It is as old as the army itself. Just six months after the Declaration of Independence, General George Washington warned Congress that if the exodus of soldiers could not be stopped, he would soon "be obliged to detach one half of the army to bring back the other." By the War of 1812, desertion was so prevalent that James Madison offered a presidential pardon to any soldier willing to return; those who didn't were subject to the most gruesome punishments, like having their ears chopped off, their faces branded, or their brains splattered on the wall behind them. Still, desertion carried on. In the Civil War, the problem became so pitched that in 1865 alone, nearly half of all Union troops went AWOL, and during World War II desertion was such a plague that more than 20,000 soldiers were convicted of the crime. In Vietnam, the numbers soared to new heights: In a single year, 1970, the United States lost more soldiers to desertion—65,643—than it lost in fifteen years of fighting.
Desertion is the soldier's last weapon. It calls into the focus the strange paradox of his condition. A soldier is not a full citizen. He is denied many of the essential rights that he has sworn his life to protect. From the moment he arrives at boot camp until the day he is discharged, his life, quite literally, belongs to someone else. He cannot choose where he lives, how he spends his time, or how his work will be used, or why. He is forbidden to refuse almost any task, or to leave his job for something better, or to participate in the time-honored tradition of telling the boss to fuck off. In fact, he can be imprisoned for it. He is subject not only to local, state, and federal laws but also the special strictures of the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, which forbids him to be, among other things, a disloyal husband or a cowardly person or, until recently, honest about his sexuality. Much of the time, he is forced to live in drab institutional housing that is fenced off from society and patrolled by armed guards, but even when he lives in public, he is followed everywhere by the Code. This is true in peacetime and in war, no matter how far he is from the battlefield or whether there is a battle at all. Sometimes it remains true even when his term of commitment is over. Nothing highlights the unique sacrifice of the soldier like the fact that he can be drafted into a second, third, or fourth tour of combat duty, while the civilian population cannot be troubled with a first.
Yet for 200 years, this is exactly what American military planners have counted on. Since the War of 1812, when Congress extended the contract of militiamen from three months to six, American troops have always been the easiest citizens to conscript, and today the policy of holding soldiers beyond their initial commitment is known euphemistically by military planners as "stop loss" and, among the troops, as "the backdoor draft." Since the inauguration of Barack Obama, the American military has withdrawn the stop-loss program, which Defense Secretary Robert Gates describes as "breaking faith" with U.S. troops. But during the summer of 2006, as Phil McDowell's four-year commitment drew to a close, the army was breaking faith all the time. More than 10,000 men and women had already been stop-lossed, and more of the orders were on the way.
SPIRITUALLY, McDowell was already out. He had set aside his doubts in Iraq to complete his combat tour honorably, but the more he read, the angrier he became, and the more convinced that the war was a mistake. He had enlisted to fight Al Qaeda and stop another September 11—yet it seemed obvious to McDowell from the influx of foreign fighters to Baghdad that the war was creating as many enemies as it killed. In Iraq, he'd kept these thoughts to himself for the sake of his unit, but as he settled back on base at Fort Hood in Texas, he no longer felt obliged to stay silent. The rest of his unit wore their "war on terror" medals proudly above the left breast of their dress uniforms, but not McDowell. When people asked why, he said, "Because I served in Iraq, and that has nothing to do with the war on terror." When people asked why he didn't wear his "combat" patch, he grumbled, "Because I'm not proud of what we did."
In the States, McDowell also reconnected with his girlfriend from college, Jamine Aponte, who'd been skeptical of his enlistment from the start. He and Aponte were neatly matched opposites: She was gregarious and tempestuous, easily ignited; he was eerily calm and even-keeled but equally sure of his beliefs. Aponte liked to tease McDowell about his "exorbitant amounts of serotonin," and when McDowell saw Aponte bridle with irritation at some minor affront, he would grin with vicarious delight. Soon after McDowell returned to Fort Hood, Aponte moved to an apartment in Austin, an hour south of the base, and on weekends McDowell drove down to join her: They went running around Town Lake and rock climbing at Enchanted Rock. They talked about marriage.
McDowell's enlistment was scheduled to end on July 23, 2006, but he had saved up several weeks of vacation and was eligible for a program called "terminal leave." This would not change his discharge date, but it would allow him to out-process from the base early and spend his last days as a soldier out of uniform, far away. On June 12, McDowell spent his last day on base, turning in his military ID and listing his parents' home in Rhode Island as his official mailing address. Then he picked up his discharge paperwork, postdated July 23, and climbed into a U-Haul for the short drive to Austin.
For years, McDowell had dreamed of hiking the Appalachian Trail, and it seemed like a good way to mark the change in his life. So after a few days with Aponte in Austin, he packed a bag into his Jetta and drove to the northern trailhead at Mount Katahdin, Maine, where he met an old friend and began the three-month trek.
They didn't get far. "That can't be right," McDowell recalls saying when he spoke with Aponte from a hostel in New Hampshire in late June. He had called to say hello, but Aponte explained that word was spreading through his unit: They were about to be stop-lossed. McDowell could have kept hiking, but the joy of the trip was gone. His parents picked him up the next morning, and he returned to their house to wait for official news. Days passed and he waited, a 25-year-old man, a veteran of war, on the cusp of a new life yet chained still to the past. Each morning he watched out the window for the mail; each afternoon he felt a surge of hope when the mailman came without a letter; each evening he felt the dread return. Finally, in early July, it came. At the top, it said "Memorandum," and below, his captain explained that the unit was indeed preparing for stop loss; he was expected on base by August 1.
McDowell returned to Austin in a daze. Everything felt sluggish and bleached of color. His runs with Aponte were slower, their mornings knotted with uncertainty, their vision of the future wilting in the Texas heat. On July 23, his original discharge date passed, but there was nothing to celebrate. A lone sheet of paper in his file said that he was free, but now his mind was on a different date: August 1. The night before, he drove back to Fort Hood, unfurling his Thermarest on the floor of his old apartment. The next morning, he walked into the company office and approached the first sergeant.
"How can I be stop-lossed?" he asked. "I'm already out."
The first sergeant shook his head. "Sorry," he said. "It's not my decision."
At the in-processing facility, McDowell took a seat across from a civilian clerk. "I need your discharge paper back," the clerk said. Something about that felt wrong to McDowell. The discharge order was in the computer, so why would they need the paper back?
"I don't have it anymore," he lied.
The clerk frowned. "I don't believe you," he said.
"I don't believe me either," McDowell said.
For the next six hours, he navigated a bureaucracy in which no one could explain what was happening, and he was shuffled from one station to another, back into the machinery of the army. He received new orders to "rescind" the discharge. He asked how to protest and was told there was no way. At each stop—being photographed for a new military ID, restarting his military pay—he would ask the person across the desk for help, but each time he met a sorry smile. "It's not up to me," he heard over and over.
As the days became weeks, he spent his days with the unit on base, packing gear for a winter redeployment to Iraq. But at night, back in the empty apartment, boxed in by the white walls, his mind raced, searching for a way out. He called his parents. He called lawyers. He called Aponte, and they cried together. But it still "didn't occur to me to refuse the order," he says. He had turned against the war, but he could not imagine standing up to the U.S. Army.
That fall, he began spending his evenings and weekends with Aponte in Austin, often commuting the hour to work. As time passed and the redeployment loomed, they began to joke about running off to Canada, but neither of them had any idea that thousands of other soldiers had already refused their orders and that some had even crossed the border. (The precise number, by its very nature, is impossible to pin down.) One night, on a whim, McDowell sat at his computer and tapped a variety of keywords into a search engine, stumbling onto the War Resisters Campaign in Toronto. He called the phone number and spoke with a longtime peace activist named Michelle Robidoux, who had been helping deserters since 2003.
There was a network, Robidoux told him. There were supporters—often the same draft dodgers and deserters who had paved the way in Vietnam. They could help him find a job and a place to stay. She explained the internal tensions in Canada, and she told him that, if he came to the north, he should leave his passport at home and cross with a driver's license only. "I was impressed, because she had practical advice," McDowell says. "It wasn't just, 'Oh yeah, come on up and we'll hang out and scream in politicians' faces.' They had information. They had a plan."
Like the weeks after September 11, when McDowell kept his thoughts of joining the army secret, he spoke to almost no one about his plans to desert. But he continued calling Robidoux, asking more questions, talking with Aponte, and slowly beginning to believe that he had no better choice. No one had listened to his objections about the stop loss. There seemed no way to appeal: no mechanism to protest, or to make his case, or to ask for a reprieve. Early one October morning, he tossed a few things into his car, kissed Aponte goodbye, and, hugging and crying, began the journey north.
THE DAY McDOWELL crossed the border was a turning point in more ways than one. It was the day he became a fugitive from military justice, but it was also the day he accepted that fate; the day he stopped wondering whether the stop loss was legal and began to call himself a deserter. After all, the army believed he was a deserter, and if they caught him, they'd put him in jail for it. Besides, McDowell didn't mind the word. He liked the other deserters he met. Although the community of deserters in Toronto does not tend to socialize as one group—they have dispersed, like any young Americans would, into different neighborhoods and different scenes—when they do gather at fund-raisers and protests, McDowell feels a certain kinship with men like Chuck Wiley and Dean Walcott, who followed their conscience into service and then, like him, followed it back out.
Toronto was full of such people, if you looked: thousands of Vietnam draft dodgers and deserters who were all but indistinguishable from any other Canadians—until they came across someone like McDowell. Tom Riley was a dodger from '69 who began coming to meetings all over again as the Iraq vets trickled in. A few days after McDowell arrived, Riley took him on a tour of the city and helped him find a place to live. On the radio, morning host Andy Barrie spoke plainly about his own history as a Vietnam deserter and his strong support for the new generation, and guys like McDowell learned to tune in for a reminder that they weren't the first, or alone.
Like almost any grassroots movement, the deserter gatherings are thinly funded: They visit schools to speak with students; they cluster in churches to explain their cause; they meet in restaurants and bars to huddle over political strategy to fight the coming deportations. In 2004 the Toronto Steelworkers Union, which includes several members who deserted or dodged Vietnam, offered the War Resisters Campaign a room in the union hall downtown. Most afternoons you can find Michelle Robidoux there, hunched over a small desk on the third floor, planning the next protest or fund-raiser, surrounded by colorful flyers that say "Let Them Stay!" and "US Soldiers Say No To War!"
Yet however comfortable McDowell may feel in this community, the fact remains that he is not a deserter. Aspects of his case may be nuanced—he received the memo preparing him for stop loss while he was still on terminal leave and technically still on active duty—but at its core there are only two dates that matter. By the time his discharge did come, on July 23, 2006, he still had not received that stop-loss order or any other order to prevent his discharge. It wasn't until a week later, on August 1, 2006, that the stop-loss order was issued. But by then, it was too late. Phil McDowell was no longer in the army. The army can stop-loss any soldier on active duty, but it cannot stop-loss someone who is already gone.
When you raise this issue with the U.S. Army and explain the dates and contradictions of McDowell's service, when you offer his serial number and all the pertinent paperwork, you get a lot of promises followed by a lot of silence. Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Beninato spent three weeks trying to track down an answer, then directed the question to his colleagues at Fort Hood. There, Lieutenant Colonel Chad Carroll claimed to be looking into the case for weeks, before he announced that he had "no idea" what to make of McDowell's stop loss and neither did anyone in the personnel department. He forwarded the case to army lawyers, who are apparently still looking into it. Neither they nor Carroll respond to calls.
Other lawyers in the military-justice system have less trouble forming an opinion on McDowell's circumstances. "The government doesn't have any case at all," says former army lieutenant and military lawyer Jim Klimaski, after reviewing the case. "The army cannot pull back his discharge paper. They can extend a contract, but they cannot resurrect a contract. The ink was dry. He was home." The fact that McDowell knew a stop-loss order was coming, Klimaski says, "is a nullity. That's baloney." Until that stop-loss order was issued on August 1, there was nothing to stop McDowell's discharge. And by August 1, it was too late.
Over the past four years, as Phil McDowell has accepted his place in the deserter community, he has also made a life in Canada. He and Jamine are married now. She's a personal trainer, while he works for a green-energy company, installing solar power on Toronto roofs. They vacation in Newfoundland, climbing mountains and bicycling together. Last summer McDowell built a wooden boat and rowed it 125 miles up the Rideau Canal between Ottawa and Kingston. He is even learning to accept his public role, talking to church groups and schools, making the argument for deserters to stay—and without ever acknowledging his special status or suggesting that he may not be a deserter himself.
In many ways, McDowell makes a kind of ideal citizen, a man who volunteered for the army not because he needed the money or had no other options but because he believed it was the right thing to do; who finished his four-year term with honor, being promoted quickly and decorated with awards; who did so even when he doubted the mission and did not want to wear the medals; whose only crime came after his discharge, when he refused to follow an order that was almost certainly illegal.
He is a man who disobeyed that order only when he could find no legitimate way to challenge it—no avenue of appeal, no course of redress, no way to argue that the order was wrong. There was no way to argue because he was a soldier; soldiers do not argue with orders. Instead, he faced a simple choice: to follow the orders or to follow his conscience. He chose his conscience, knowing the risk. Today, Phil McDowell is a fugitive for that choice. Soon he may be a prisoner for it. Soon the manila envelope will come.
On a recent night in Toronto, McDowell and Aponte were hosting a fund-raiser to help pay for the inevitable cost of McDowell's court-martial. The event took place in a bar downtown, with a banjo player spitting bluegrass while a gaggle of McDowell and Aponte's friends milled around, but near the back one of McDowell's old friends stood by the doorway alone. He was six feet tall with bowling-ball shoulders and the huge, sure hands of a rock climber. His curly blond hair spilled to his jawline, and he was grinning as he watched the band. Harry Marsales had met McDowell in basic training during the summer of 2002. They had the same enlistment date, the same discharge. They chose the same specialty in computer systems and were assigned to the same unit at Fort Hood. In 2004 they went to Iraq together, and they returned home together in 2005. When McDowell drove to Austin to visit Aponte for the weekends, Marsales often went with him, cruising the bars on 4th Street together, exploring restaurants, and running and climbing. As their discharge date came into view, Marsales also made plans: He registered to become a firefighter in New York and passed the difficult entrance exam, moving to the city to begin training. When the memo came to warn him of the stop loss, he returned to Fort Hood with McDowell, and they walked into the processing facility together. Both had been discharged a week earlier. Both were technically beyond the reach of stop loss. Both were told that it didn't matter.
But unlike McDowell, Marsales followed the order. He left the firefighting program and returned to war. He spent the next year driving around the desert, emptying latrines into a tank. He didn't return home until 2008, long after McDowell had settled into Toronto. As Marsales stood in the bar for McDowell's fund-raiser, swaying to the bluegrass music, he was still pulling the pieces of his life together. The firefighter exam does not happen every year, and Marsales could not wait for the next chance; time had moved on, and so had he. He was taking classes for a degree in nutrition instead, living with his father in Buffalo.
I had met Marsales briefly before, but as the evening wore on, I approached him to chat. He was obviously nervous in the company of a reporter, so we talked about rock climbing and other common interests until he seemed to relax. The conversation lulled for a bit, and we listened to the music. Then I asked him what I had been wondering all along.
"When Phil came to Canada," I called over the music, "were there any hard feelings in the unit?"
Marsales turned his head and studied me. For a moment, I thought he hadn't heard. Then I realized he was trying to figure out if I was serious.
"No way," he shouted back. "Who could blame him?"