AWOL soldier surrenders at Cindy Sheehans protest camp

KILLEEN, Texas (AP) — A year and a half after going AWOL before his second deployment to Iraq, a soldier surrendered at Fort Hood on Aug. 31 with a dozen war protesters by his side.

Army Spc. Mark Wilkerson said he was tired of running and sought help from Cindy Sheehan’s protest camp in nearby Crawford, which helps educate soldiers about their rights as war resisters.

“I just could not in good conscience go back to a war I felt was wrong,” Wilkerson, 22, of Colorado Springs, Colo., said at Sheehan’s camp before the 40-mile trip to the post near Killeen where he had been stationed.

Wilkerson would not be confined to a cell or other facility when he returns to his unit, said Maj. Joe Edstrom of the post’s public affairs office. He said he did not know whether Wilkerson would be restricted to the post or what punishment he faces, but said his company commander would decide.

“He’s back in the United States Army as a soldier again,” Edstrom said.

Wilkerson, who said he never left the country but won’t reveal where he was, heard about Sheehan’s efforts to help war resisters after he had decided to surrender.

“It’s amazingly scary to do what he’s doing,” said Sheehan, who did not travel to Killeen on Thursday. “He has all of our support, but when he gets to Fort Hood, he’s going to be by himself.”

Sheehan’s oldest son Casey was killed in Iraq in 2004. A protest camp has emerged on land she recently bought in President Bush’s adopted hometown. Dozens of protesters have spent several days a week outside Fort Hood handing out literature about war resisters’ rights, in addition to providing pamphlets at the Crawford camp.

Wilkerson went to Iraq at the start of the March 2003 invasion and returned to the U.S. a year later. He said his views of the war changed, so he applied for conscientious objector status a few months before finding out his unit would return to Iraq.

His request was denied and he was told his appeal would not be considered until his unit came back. He said he then fled during a two-week leave before the January 2005 deployment.

In a similar case in North Carolina, a Fort Bragg paratrooper who left his post last year because he objected to the war will face a desertion charge, his lawyer said.

Sgt. Ricky Clousing, 24, who left his barracks in June 2005, turned himself over in August to military authorities in Seattle.

Clousing’s battalion commander has referred the case to a special court-martial, a spokesman with the 82nd Airborne Division said.

Clousing’s attorney, David Miner of Seattle, said there’s plenty of evidence that his client always planned to turn himself in. “If they’re going to go the court-martial route, they have overcharged this case,” said Miner, a former military lawyer.

Prosecutors must prove that a soldier charged with desertion intended to leave his post permanently.

Maximum punishment includes six months confinement, forfeiture of two-thirds of pay for six months, reduction in pay grade and a bad-conduct discharge. Or, a military judge or jury could decide to levy no punishment, Earnhardt said.

Clousing said in a statement that he remained comfortable with his decision.

“I followed my conscience, and if be, I would feel honored to join the ranks of others who have been prosecuted for doing the same,” he said in the statement, released through a spokeswoman in Seattle.

Clousing was an intelligence interrogator assigned to B Company of the 313th Military Intelligence Battalion. His unit deployed in December 2004 for about five months to support the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment.