Conscientious Objector: an Interview with Nga Nguyen by Michelle Langlois

For those who follow the news about the American occupation of Iraq, the name Jeremy Hinzman might sound familiar. Hinzman is an American infantry soldier who went AWOL, brought his family to Canada, and is claiming refugee status because the military will not recognize his conscientious objection to performing combat duty. As a result, he has been the subject of numerous news articles in publications from around the world. The name Nga Nguyen, on the other hand, is not quite so familiar. Nga is Jeremy's wife, and the mother of their 22 month-old son, Liam. Nga has not sought any of the limelight that this story has attracted, and is happy to let Jeremy bear most of the brunt of the publicity. But when I visited Nga in their Toronto apartment to hear her perspective, I found a soft-spoken woman who has taken a strong-willed stand with her husband, based on her firm opinions about the occupation of Iraq. Nga and I settled in with a cup of tea for our conversation, while Jeremy took Liam to the grocery store. She started by telling me some background about her husband's original decision to join the army.
Nguyen: Jeremy was in the infantry, 82nd Airborne. They're the ones who parachute out of planes, that sort of thing. When he first wanted to join the military, I tried to talk him out of it, but I left the decision up to him. I told Jeremy a long time ago that I wanted us to be financially stable before we started a family, because I worked in a Head Start program in the US, and I saw a lot of kids who were living in poverty. So he joined for financial reasons - he saw the army as a way out of minimum wage jobs, and they would pay for his education. But he didn't know what military life would be like until after he joined. He didn't know how intense it would be. The public focus during this whole situation has been on Jeremy, with the occasional mention of you and Liam in passing, and the occasional family picture...
Nguyen: Yes, and that's fine with me. I haven't had too much exposure -- just a picture here and there, and that's it. And yet, you have made many of the same sacrifices that Jeremy has made. I'm interested in the kind of role you are playing in this whole situation, as Jeremy's partner but also as an active participant. What kind of support have you given Jeremy?
Nguyen: My role in this has mostly been moral support. He hasn't asked me to do anything specifically for the case itself. I usually take care of Liam when Jeremy goes to do interviews or meets with lawyers, although there was one time when I was sick when Jeremy took Liam along to a media interview. We knew that we had three choices facing us. Jeremy could go to Iraq -- which wasn't an option for us. The other two choices were that he could go to jail, or leave the country. I told Jeremy that I would support him on either of the other two options. Even if he went to jail, at least I could visit him there and bring Liam to see him. I would much rather visit him in jail than visit him in a graveyard. I don't want Liam to grow up without a father. Jeremy decided to come to Canada. He's been wanting to live in Canada for a while, because when you hear about the stuff that is happening in the US, what the US government does in other countries, many Americans either don't know or they don't want to know what the government is doing. And we asked ourselves whether we really wanted to be a part of that. Has Jeremy always felt this way -- has he always been a pacifist, or did he have a change of heart during his time in the military?
Nguyen: No, Jeremy can empathize with people who go to war in self-defense or, for example in WWII. But he personally doesn't believe that war is the answer, because that just perpetuates more violence and more wars. How do you feel about the military action in Iraq? Do you share your husband's sentiments regarding Iraq?
Nguyen: Yes. With Iraq, it's obvious that we're there for the oil and to be a presence and an influence in the region -- otherwise, why aren't we in North Korea? When you were in the US, did you live on a military post, and were a lot of your friends in the military as well? What kind of reaction have you had from them?
Nguyen: Yes, we lived on post in Fort Bragg. I have a close friend whose husband is in the military as well -- they live off post. We have very different views on the military, but very common views on parenting, for example, attachment parenting such as co-sleeping, breast-feeding, carrying your child close to you wherever you go in a sling. That is my bond with her. I keep in touch with her through e-mail. She believes that military missions are a noble pursuit. But she respects my point of view and she is supportive of me. Have you been involved much in party politics?
Nguyen: No. I've been more involved in social justice-type organizations. In Boston, ironically, I participated with Food Not Bombs. And in Fayetteville, we attended Quaker meetings and offshoot groups such as Peace With Justice, and People Of Faith Against The Death Penalty. In Rapid City, South Dakota, I was also involved in a feminist group called ETS (Empowerment Through Sisterhood), and what we did was we had annual marches against domestic violence, and we also did 'zines with a focus on feminist issues. Were there a lot of military people in the Quaker congregation, or involved in those groups?
Nguyen: Not so much people in the military. But there were veterans involved, and people from the community, or families of people in the military. How does your extended family -- yours and Jeremy's -- feel about your situation? Have they been supportive?
Nguyen: Well, my parents are natural worriers: "How's Liam? It's so cold up there, are you okay?" This story hit Vietnam because my last name is a very common one there -- it's like "Smith" is here. My brother-in-law's father called from Vietnam to ask how I was doing when he heard the story. He wanted to make sure I was okay. This summer, Jeremy's grandmother, my parents, and my siblings all want to come and visit us here. Jeremy's grandmother and mother are supportive of him, but his grandfather feels more like Jeremy should have completed his term. He doesn't agree with the war in Iraq, but I think he feels Jeremy should have gone anyway, out of duty. Has your extended family been getting any calls from reporters?
Nguyen: My family hasn't, but Jeremy's family has been getting a few calls. They're mostly not giving interviews. His grandmother tells us that she'll say that she is supportive of whatever decision Jeremy makes, but that's all she will say. You and Jeremy are parents of a toddler. So along with your media appearances and legal appointments, you've had a little one to raise in the meantime. How have you been handling that? Do you have any help or support from anyone?
Nguyen: We take Liam to several playgroups a few times a week, and we have met people with kids the same age as Liam there. They live in our neighbourhood. Since we've been here in Canada, we've both been looking after Liam. In Fort Bragg, Jeremy had 14 hour shifts. He would do as much as he could on weekends. But now we share it pretty equally, so I think it's pretty great. Did you work outside the home when you were on the military post?
Nguyen: No, I didn't. We decided that one of us would stay home when we had children, and since he was in the military, that was me. And also, we decided to breastfeed, and I still do now. I like how you said, "we decided to breastfeed."
Nguyen: Yes. Jeremy shares in everything. He's not your "stereotypical male" or military man. He shares the cooking and cleaning, and he does so much with Liam, especially now. I understand that a Quaker congregation has been helping you and Jeremy since you arrived in Canada. How have they been involved with you since your arrival?
Nguyen: They are very supportive, very generous, and very kind. It's not just lip service. They helped us find our lawyer, Jeffry House. The Quaker House is mostly for retreats and a place for members from out of town to stay, and people usually only stay for two weeks at the most. But they let us stay for a month until we found this apartment, and when we called them the day before we arrived, they accommodated us right away. In addition to regular meetings, the Resident Friend at the Quaker House held potlucks, and we've become friends with them there. They would ask, "Do you need anything for the apartment?" They gave us their names, cards, and phone numbers. We didn't know anyone in Toronto when we arrived, and they are extended family to us now. How do you feel about all the media attention that Jeremy's stand has attracted to your family? Do you feel comfortable in the limelight?
Nguyen: Well, we were going to lay low and do this quietly. But our lawyer told us that it would be good to make a public statement. And I see his point -- it is a good thing. It's taking a stand. It shows there are people willing to take this measure and say, "This war is wrong." Do you see yourself as a conscientious objector?
Nguyen: I guess I am! I hadn't thought of myself that way, but I do support Jeremy and I believe in what he's doing. I'm free to go back to the US, but it's not like I'm going to leave without him. So I guess I am, indirectly.