AWOL Colo. soldier turns self in "I am not willing to kill or be killed."
(By Erin Emery, originally published in the Denver Post , September 1 2006)
A soldier from Colorado Springs who was absent without leave for more than 18 months after failing to be named a "conscientious objector" turned himself in to military police at Fort Hood, Texas, on Thursday.
Mark Wilkerson, 22, served in the 720th Military Police Battalion in Iraq from March 2003 to March 2004. He went AWOL after the Army denied his request for "conscientious objector" status in November 2004. His unit returned to Iraq in January 2005.
"I am not willing to kill or be killed, or do anything else I consider morally wrong … and now today I am turning myself in to face the consequences of my actions," he said in a statement released after a Thursday news conference at Camp Casey near Crawford, Texas, the base for peace activist Cindy Sheehan.
A spokeswoman for Fort Hood said Wilkerson was processed back into the Army, advised of his rights, given a room and shown the whereabouts of the dining facility and location of the chain of command. Whether he will be charged criminally has not been determined.
Fort Hood would not comment further.
Wilkerson said he had experiences in Iraq that "made me question my mission and also made me change the way I viewed spirituality, relationships, our government, and my life in general."
He enlisted in the Army before Sept. 11, 2001, and entered basic training in 2002. He has two years left to fulfill his commitment. In high school in Colorado Springs, he was named one of The Gazette newspaper's Top 100 Teens.
Wilkerson's mother, Rebecca Barker, said: "We support our son. We may not agree politically, but we do support and understand where he is coming from. He's a good kid."
Wilkerson, who said he never left the country while AWOL but won't reveal where he was, heard about Sheehan's efforts to help war resisters after he already decided to surrender. He is the first AWOL soldier to come forward as part of her group, according to The Associated Press.
Army statistics show that the desertion rate - those absent without authority for 30 consecutive days - has been dropping since coalition forces invaded Iraq in March 2003. Figures show that 2,011 soldiers deserted in fiscal year 2005 - a 50 percent drop from fiscal year 2001.
"AWOL and desertion are crimes - crimes that will affect not only the individual soldier but also go against the Army values, degrade unit readiness, and ultimately reflect negatively on all of us," the Army statement said.
But few deserters - only 176 in fiscal year 2004 - are tried by court-martial, the Army said.
According to Army Public Affairs, 23 of the 61 soldiers who applied for conscientious-objector status in 2005 were successful.
But J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience & War, established in 1940 to help conscientious objectors, said the numbers don't add up. The center takes calls from the GI Rights Hotline, where calls have increased from 1,000 a month four years ago to 4,000 in June.
"Before Sept. 11, my office would get one, maybe two calls a month inquiring about CO discharges. After Sept. 11, it increased to maybe a couple a week. After we invaded Iraq, it increased to closer to one a day. Now, it's an uncommon day that I don't get at least two," McNeil said. "Now, not all those transfer into a CO application."
She said the process takes at least 18 months and many troops figure out a different way to get out of the military, either by claiming a medical problem, saying they're gay, doing drugs or assaulting a fellow soldier.
She also questions the Army's desertion numbers and wonders whether there has been a policy change about not reporting shorter-term absences.
"I don't doubt that they're counting something, and I don't doubt that they're counting accurately. The question is, what is it that they're counting?"