- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 31, 2006

CRAWFORD, Texas (AP) — The soldier clutched the steering wheel of the pickup truck crammed with his belongings, his pockets stuffed with cash, his eyes darting nervously between the rear-view mirror and the road stretching before him.

A million thoughts raced through his mind: What will my parents say? What if the police stop me? Did the soldiers who said they supported me and wished they could do this really mean it?

Yesterday, 11/2 years after going absent without leave before his second deployment to Iraq, Army Spc. Mark Wilkerson plans to return to Fort Hood to face his fellow soldiers and his superiors.

“I just could not in good conscience go back to a war I felt was wrong,” Spc. Wilkerson, 22, of Colorado Springs, said yesterday at activist Cindy Sheehan’s protest camp site.

About 50 protesters joined Spc. Wilkerson at Mrs. Sheehan’s site near President Bush’s ranch. Roughly a dozen in the group planned to travel with Spc. Wilkerson about 40 miles south to the central Texas Army post near Killeen.

Desertion has been decreasing in the military in recent years — about 2,500 troops last year simply didn’t show up for work, down from almost 5,000 in 2001, according to the Pentagon public affairs office.

Spc. Wilkerson was 17 when he enlisted in the Army. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father and grandparents, who also served in the military. He went to Iraq at the start of the March 2003 invasion and returned to the United States a year later, having lost one friend in his unit.

Spc. Wilkerson said that his views of the war changed and that he realized he could no longer stay in the military, so he applied for conscientious-objector status. But his request was denied a month before his unit was to return to Iraq.

He said he was told his appeal would not be considered until after he came back. So Spc. Wilkerson decided not to return from the two weeks of approved leave before the January 2005 deployment.

He is vague about what he and his wife did after leaving their two-bedroom Killeen apartment near the central Texas Army post. He said he got jobs using his real Social Security number and drove but never flew.

Spc. Wilkerson started wanting more from his life, though: school, which would mean applying for student loans and having people delve into his background, or even “something as stupid as being on a reality show.”

When Spc. Wilkerson decided to stop his life on the run, he heard that Mrs. Sheehan’s new site near Mr. Bush’s Crawford ranch was a “war-resister refuge.”

Mrs. Sheehan protested for a month last summer near Mr. Bush’s ranch, but she recently bought a 5-acre lot in town as a permanent site for vigils and as a clearinghouse for information about soldiers’ rights to resist deployment to Iraq.

Spc. Wilkerson, now separated from his wife, said he knows some people disapprove of his decision.

“Having gone to Iraq once, I saw what happened there,” he said. “I saw what was the right thing to do, and I had to do what was right for me.”

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