February 10, 2009, Savannah, GA – Sporting a dragon tattoo on his forearm and skulls on both biceps, Cliff Cornell looks tough. But he dissolves into tears as he reflects on his return to the Army four years after he fled to Canada to avoid the war in Iraq.
“I’m nervous, scared,” Cornell said, wiping puffy eyes beneath his sunglasses Monday at a Savannah hotel after a three-day bus ride from Seattle. “I’m just not a fighter. I know it sounds funny, but I have a really soft heart.”
Cornell, 29, of Mountain Home, Ark., turned himself in to military police Tuesday afternoon at nearby Fort Stewart, where he’ll likely face criminal charges for abandoning his unit before it deployed to Iraq in January 2005.
He said he fled because he doesn’t think the war has improved the lives of Iraqis, and he couldn’t stomach the thought of killing.
“During my training, I was ordered that, if anyone came within so many feet of my vehicle, I was to shoot to kill,” said Cornell, who enlisted in 2002 but never deployed to war. “I didn’t join the military to kill innocents.”
The Army artillery specialist made it to Canada in 2005 and soon started a new life working at a grocery store on Gabriola Island in British Columbia.
Cornell’s attorney, James Branum of Lawton, Okla., said Cornell was assigned to a unit after meeting with military police, but it was still unclear if the Army would hold him in pretrial confinement. “He was visibly shaking when they came to pick him up,” Branum said.
Cornell’s exile ended last week when he crossed the U.S.-Canada border into Washington state. He left voluntarily to avoid deportation.
The first U.S. service member forced out of Canada after the government denied him protective status as a war objector was 25-year-old Army Pvt. Robin Long of Boise, Idaho. He was sentenced to 15 months in prison last August after pleading guilty to desertion charges at Fort Carson, Colo.
Michelle Robidoux, spokeswoman for the Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign, said the group has worked with about 50 U.S. service members seeking refugee status or political asylum in Canada. The group estimates more than 200 have fled to Canada, most of them hiding out illegally.
“There are probably another three or four who are imminently under threat of deportation, and we’re trying hard to fight that,” Robidoux said.
The lower house of Canada’s Parliament passed a nonbinding motion in June urging that U.S. military deserters be allowed to stay in Canada, but the Conservative Party government has ignored the vote.
During the Vietnam War, thousands of Americans took refuge in Canada, most of them to avoid the military draft. Many were given permanent residence status that led to Canadian citizenship, but the majority went home after President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty in the late 1970s.
The Army has listed Cornell as a deserter since a month after he left, but he hasn’t been charged with any crimes, said Fort Stewart spokesman Kevin Larson.
Larson said Cornell was being given a billet and a new uniform and would begin drawing pay, at least until commanders decide whether to charge him. Their options include dropping the case, seeking administrative punishment or pursuing a court-martial. “We’re going to treat him courteously and professionally, like any other soldier,” Larson said.
The unit Cornell was assigned to when he fled – the 1st Battalion, 39th Field Artillery Regiment – disbanded in March 2006.
Larson disputed Cornell’s contention that he would have been expected to kill civilians. “Indiscriminately shooting people is not what the Army does. That’s not how we train and not how we fight.”
Branum said he expects Cornell to be charged with being absent without leave, punishable by up to 18 months in prison, or desertion – a more serious charge with a maximum prison sentence of five years.
He said he hopes the Army shows some leniency since Cornell avoided the war because of his political convictions.
“This is different from someone leaving for selfish reasons,” Branum said. “This is someone who said, ‘I’m not going to kill civilians.'”
Russ Bynum has covered the military based in Georgia since 2001.