There are Canadians in Iraq— and they're servings in the U.S. Marine Crops.
ADNNAN R. KHANJuly122004
LOOKING FOR A FEW GOOD CANUCKS
There are Canadians in Iraq and they're servings in the U.S. Marine Crops. A special report by ADNNAN R. KHAN.
ADNNAN R. KHAN.
THE SOUND OF a Cobra attack helicopter firing up is the sound of fury. It whips up winds like a tempest, its jet engines rumbling so furiously that the ground feels as if it will break apart. But for Capt. Michael Muehle of the U.S. Marines’ 775 Squadron, the Cobra is more than just a machine of destructive force. It is an elegant human achievement, a masterpiece of design that defies the logic of gravity. “I still can’t believe these things fly the way they do,” he says. Muehle is a 37year-old pilot at al-Taqqadum airbase, near Falluja in Iraq’s western desert—and he’s Canadian. “Canadian, eh?” says Lt.-Col. Frenkel, another Cobra pilot at al-Taqqadum, lounging in a hammock outside the squadron offices. “I did not know that.”
Few people do. Muehle himself rarely tells anyone. “I was born in Canada and moved to the States when I was 10,” he says. “But to tell you the truth, I have a rocky relationship with the U.S. And I still carry around my Canadian birth certificate.” He gingerly pulls out the beige laminated card from his flight suit: Michael Muehle, born Nov. 22, 1966, in Ottawa. He doesn’t quite know why he avoids talking about his Canadian roots, but perhaps it’s to avoid the type of badgering this information inspires. “You Canadians do have the best beer,” Frenkel jokes. “And you have the Hanson brothers, right?” Muehle takes the ribbing in stride, counter-punching with the upside-down Canadian flag incident at the 1992 World Series between Atlanta and Toronto. “Those were Marines who did that,” he notes.
A Canadian Marine—quite the concept. But the fact is, Canadians make up the largest contingent of foreign nationals enlisted in the American military. They fill diverse roles, from ordnance technicians to front-line soldiers to administrative staff. Some join for the adventure, others to fast-track their U.S. citizenship applications (foreign veterans are often granted U.S. citizenship after their tour of duty; in July 2002, George W. Bush signed an executive order to further facilitate the process). Still others enlist for ideological reasons: they believe in what the
U.S. is doing. And it’s not a recent phenomenon—as manyas 12,000 Canadians fought in Vietnam, and 150 lost their lives.
Current numbers are hard to pin down, but it’s estimated that thousands of Canadians are enlisted in the 2.65-million-strong
American armed forces. Hundreds have served or are now serving in Iraq, and at least one has died: Cpl. Bernard Gooden, 22,
who immigrated to Canada from Jamaica in 1997, was killed in action on April 4,2003.
THE ROAD TO the al-Asad air force base 200 km west of Baghdad, where I meet my first Canadian Marines, shows the different faces of Iraq. It sweeps past Abu Ghraib and Falluja, places that have set a dramatic tone for the occupation in recent months. From Falluja to Ramadi, the route is still considered one of the most dangerous in Iraq,
actually the largest contingent of foreign nationals enlisted in the American military
littered with the burned-out shells of oil tankers and transport trucks, victims of roadside bombs. Off the main highway, though, the scene changes dramatically: idyllic towns hug the banks of the Tigris River, and lush villages are nestled into date palm groves with the desert held at bay by irrigated farm fields. It’s an Iraq few people see or hear about, peaceful and undiminished by war.
But away from the Tigris the desert reappears. Here it’s littered with dilapidated MiG fighter jets, dozens of them. They were part of Iraq’s air force, a sorry collection of rusty planes in an advanced state of decay— and a sobering symbol of the impotence of Saddam’s military. The aircraft never got off the ground, in the war that was only the preface to a more complex narrative. What will the Canadians’ perspective be? What role, if any, do they see for Canada in shaping Iraq’s future?
At al-Asad, I meet Lance-Cpl. Dana Cushing, a 28-year-old Toronto native who moved to Chicago in January 2001 with her then-fiancé. In her office at al-Asad’s administrative centre, which also doubles as her sleeping quarters, there’s a February issue of Maclean’s on the bedside table. “I only
read Canadian journals,” she says. “They give a more internadonal perspective.”
So why the Marines, I ask? Cushing pauses before responding. “I’d always wanted to be in the military,” she says, “but the Canadian Forces were too small and didn’t offer many opportunities for deployment. It was a tough decision, though. I was originally interested in joining the infantry—the Canadian Forces allow women, but Americans don’t, so it was a bit of a trade-off.”
In the end, she opted for the Marines, in large part because of their reputation for bravery, and enlisted in July 2001. For Cushing, who also enjoys U.S. citizenship because her father is American, joining was easy. But it wouldn’t have been much of a problem anyway: the U.S. military accepts volunteers with alien residency as well as naturalized Americans.
Cushing describes the frenzy that followed the 9/11 attacks. “I couldn’t go fast enough through the training process,” she says. She was deployed in Iraq with the first tour that came out in March 2003, and, after returning to the States, requested a second tour. “Being from Toronto,” she explains, “I felt I brought a more integrated perspective to the Marines. Canadians are used to dealing with other cultures on their own terms. We recognize that there are different ways of doing things.” That perspective has served her well in Iraq. As one of three people looking after the day-to-day operations of al-Asad, she is often required to deal directly with Iraqis. Americans, she tells me, are generally too aggressive with locals. “Canadians tend to be more laid-back. I think it has something to do with the open space Canada offers.” For Cushing, connecting with the land and its people is as important as achieving security and stability. “There’s an outreach program I’m trying to set up for the women in the local village,” she tells me. “And there was the date palm project as well, where we helped local farmers rehabilitate a large grove on the base.” She listens to my descriptions of the serene Iraqi villages along the Tigris, and then says wistfully, “That’s what I miss most about Canada—the parks.” Sgt. Paul Whelan agrees. For the 34-yearold Ottawa native, escaping to Canada’s vast wilderness is what keeps him sane. “Algonquin is my favourite spot,” he says at the headquarters of the Marine Air Control Group 38 at al-Asad, where he works as an administrator. “Because I live in Ann Arbor,
Mich., I’m close enough to get up there often. I love it for its space. Canoeing, hiking—it’s a place you can lose yourself in.” Unlike Muehle, Whelan has no qualms about displaying his background: a small Canadian flag dangles from the door frame in his office. “I’m proud of being Canadian,” he says. “It’s my heritage. I may have left when I was a kid, but I still feel Canadian, which I think is different than being American.” Whelan’s parents, who moved to Michigan in 1973 because of a job transfer, made certain he’d never forget where he’s from.
used to dealing with other cultures—we recognize there are other ways of doing things’
Fie credits them with keeping a steady flow of Canadiana running through his life: Weetabix, Billy Bee honey, Berg’s custard-all the classics were fully stocked in his home, and the family made regular trips north. “They wanted me to stay in touch with my roots.” Whelan joined the Marines in 1993. While preferring to steer clear of politically loaded questions, he admits he is at an advantage when it comes to dealing with the local population. “I often get called upon to interact with Iraqis,” he says. “I think it’s because I have an international flavour, which is something Canada has given me.” As for what
Canadians could do in Iraq, Whelan is more blunt: “The United States invaded a sovereign country partly because they didn’t like the government. Canadians could come in and play mediator in a way the U.S. can’t.”
Back at al-Taqqadum, Muehle agrees. “Politically, Canadians would be more effective as a peacekeeping force,” he says. “Canadians are looked upon as less threatening. They’re not seen as occupiers.” My experience with Canadian troops in Afghanistan last September certainly confirms that point. A scandal such as Somalia notwithstanding, there’s something different about the comportment of Canadian soldiers in hostile surroundings, and something strikingly reciprocal about the way they are received by locals. U.S. troops, perhaps unjustifiably, tend to inspire hostility, something I’ve seen in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
Muehle credits the difference to space and how it shapes people. “I own land in the Kootenay area of B.C.,” he says. “I plan to leave it natural, just a place where I can sit among the trees. I like my quiet time: I’m not a big-city person. That’s the problem with the States—too many people. It’s important for me to have an out.” And it happens to be Canada, which Muehle declares will always be a part of him.
For many Canadians, space is not simply something that you occupy; it also occupies you. In Iraq, Canadians such as Muehle, Cushing and Whelan can all agree on one, thing: when they finish their tours, they plan to head north, Muehle to his little plot of land in Kootenay, Whelan to Algonquin, and Cushing to a park, any park. It’s more than an escape—they’re heading home. I?]
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