IMAGE: Wilkerson
Jack Plunkett  /  AP
Army Spc. Mark Wilkerson carries his luggage as he returns to Fort Hood Army Base in Killeen, Texas, on Thursday after being absent without leave for a year and a half. Iraq war veteran and protester Charlie Anderson, right, helps carry the bags.
updated 8/31/2006 7:04:21 PM ET 2006-08-31T23:04:21

The soldier clutched the steering wheel of his pickup truck crammed with his belongings, his pockets stuffed with cash, his eyes darting nervously between the rearview 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?

On Thursday, a year and a half 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 superiors.

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

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

Wilkerson, who said he never left the country but won’t reveal where he was, has consulted with an attorney but does not know exactly what penalties he faces. Others have served time in military prisons.

Desertion grows in ranks
Simple 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.

Wilkerson was just 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. Then after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he felt even more sure of his decision, he said.

Wilkerson went to Iraq at the start of the March 2003 invasion and returned to the U.S. a year later, having lost one friend in his unit. He began seeing more news of Iraqi civilians killed and reports on whether American companies were profiting from the war, he said.

Wilkerson said his views of the war changed and 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 Wilkerson decided not to return from the two weeks of approved leave before the January 2005 deployment.

Hope for more led him to return
Wilkerson 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.

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

Sheehan protested for a month last summer near 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.

After talking to protesters, Wilkerson finalized his plans recently and came to Crawford. He has met with group members camping there, including Iraq Veterans Against the War, which Wilkerson has since joined.

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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