By Layla Dhere
Originally published on Advocate.com September 09 2009 5:30 PM ET
Bethany Smith, a private who deserted the U.S. Army, is seeking refugee status in Canada.
Smith says she feared for her life because of the treatment she suffered as a lesbian. "I had to endure not only verbal and physical harassment, but death threats and harassment letters on my door every day," she said, according to the CBC.
Smith said the harassment began after other soldiers saw her holding hands with another woman at a local shopping mall and determined she is a lesbian. She said that fellow soldiers discriminated against her on a daily basis and treated her as "less than human." She also claims to have received anonymous hate letters every evening, including a death threat that read, "We will suffocate you in your sleep." Smith said that sergeants stood by and laughed as she was routinely shaken and thrown to the ground by other soldiers.
She asked for a discharge from her first sergeant before she was scheduled to be deployed to Afghanistan. Prompt discharges are legally prescribed for soldiers who declare their homosexuality to superior officers, but Smith's sergeant was reticent to discharge her. "He told me straight-up, 'We'll figure out the paperwork when we get back from deployment,'" Smith said.
Smith's lawyer, Jamie Liew, believes the military ignored its own policies because of the paucity of soldiers available for overseas deployments.
After her discharge was denied, Smith drove to the border at Cornwall, Ontario, where the War Resisters Support Campaign helped her move to Ottawa.
Other U.S. deserters opposed to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have fled to Canada to avoid being deployed. Many of them have been denied appeals to Canadian courts, and some have served prison terms after being deported back to the United States.
Liew believes these cases will have no effect on Smith's case. "Bethany is coming with an extremely different story. She's coming because of the way her life was threatened because of her sexual orientation," Liew told the CBC.
If Smith is forced to return to the United States, Liew says she may face military charges of indecency for homosexual conduct as well as charges for desertion and being absence without leave.
Military cases are decided by tribunal members from the accused's own unit, which means that the same people who assaulted Smith could decide her fate.