Image: Mark Wilkerson
AP file
Army Spc. Mark Wilkerson fled before his second deployment to Iraq.
updated 2/22/2007 10:22:21 PM ET 2007-02-23T03:22:21

A soldier who fled before his second deployment to Iraq pleaded guilty Thursday to desertion under a plea deal that will send him to military prison for less than a year.

“I quit the Army, I quit my unit, and I did not show up when I needed to,” Spc. Mark Wilkerson told a military judge during his sentencing hearing.

Wilkerson, 23, surrendered at Fort Hood in August — about a year and a half after failing to return from an approved two-week leave — saying he was tired of running and wanted to move forward with his life.

He told the judge Thursday that he packed his belongings at Fort Hood and put some in storage, then went home to Colorado Springs, Colo., for part of his leave. He didn’t say where he spent his time while he was absent without leave.

Before surrendering, he sought help from Cindy Sheehan’s protest camp in nearby Crawford, which helps educate soldiers about their rights as war resisters.

As part of his plea bargain, the judge will sentence Wilkerson to no more than 10 months in prison for desertion and missing troop movement, Wilkerson’s lawyer Michael J. Duncan said.

Relatives of Wilkerson testified on his behalf Thursday, and more witnesses were expected later in the afternoon at the sentencing. The prosecution didn’t call any witnesses.

Since his return, Wilkerson has worked in an office at the Central Texas Army post and has been allowed to leave after initially being confined to the post, although he was never in a cell, he said.

Conscientious objector status denied
Wilkerson said he decided to go AWOL because his conscientious objector status was denied a month before his unit was to return to Iraq in early 2005. Wilkerson, who was 17 when he enlisted, has said his views on the war changed after he served in Iraq for a year beginning with the March 2003 invasion.

Two weeks ago at Fort Lewis, Wash., a judge declared a mistrial in the court-martial of an Army lieutenant who refused to deploy to Iraq. A new trial is set for next month for 1st Lt. Ehren Watada of Honolulu, who has said he refused to go because he believes the war is illegal.

Army medic Agustin Aguayo, who turned himself in last fall after fleeing before his second deployment to Iraq, is scheduled for trial next month in Germany.

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