Army Specialist Mark Wilkerson will be sentenced Thursday after pleading guilty to leaving his Army unit. Already a veteran of one tour in Iraq, Wilkerson had applied for conscientious objector status. When that request was denied he went missing for more than a year, for which he could receive a 10-month sentence and a dishonorable discharge.
Steve Inskeep spoke to Wilkerson on Wednesday. They had also spoken last fall, as Wilkerson was on his way to turn himself in. Inskeep made reference to the earlier conversation as he began this interview:
What did you do after you hung up with us?
I then came down to Fort Hood. We came to the main gate and then I met the commander and the first sergeant, talked with them and they basically told me, "It's not our job to judge you for what you've done. And if you respect us and our rights and the rules that we've set forth for you then we'll respect your privacy, and we'll help everything move along at a quick pace so you can get out of here."
What have the rules been for you for the last several months?
Well, for the first month or so, I was restricted to "on post," and then after about a month they noticed that I wasn't causing any trouble. I was going to all the formations on time. I was in the right uniform, doing the right work.
After that they became a little more lenient. I got reacquainted with all my old Army buddies and so we would go out and have fun on the weekends. I just have been trying to keep a good attitude, and I think it paid off.
So you turned yourself in at the end of August and then, in December, you signed what is in effect a guilty plea. What did you plead guilty to?
Desertion and missing movement.
Missing movement meaning your unit deployed and you weren't there.
Yes, that's exactly what that means.
Why did you decide to plead guilty?
Well, first I'm looking at the cases around the country of soldiers who have skipped deployments to Iraq or refused to go. And it would have been a very long expensive battle.
I really just wanted to come back and take responsibility for what I did and accept the consequences. And for me that meant pleading guilty and taking whatever punishment they gave, so I can move past this part of my life and move on with the next one.
On some level I suppose while you believe what you did was right you are guilty?
How have you been passing your days?
Well, I am a military police officer but they have not had me doing any military police duties. Instead they assigned me [to work] in the office with the first sergeant and the commander of our company. I type up memorandums. I help pass through awards and promotions for soldiers. Basically sit in the office and do what I'm told every day.
Everybody's still friendly.
Oh yes, yes. Like I've said before I've had a chance to meet up with a lot of my old buddies, the ones I had made in Iraq. In regards to new soldiers, I've gotten a chance to introduce myself to them. There's not one person here that I know of, with me, who has not agreed with [me] or just had a good conversation with me about everything I'm facing.
What do you mean agreed with you?
Well, essentially AWOL is quitting your job. And a lot of soldiers do agree in free will - that if I choose to not work this job, it should be okay for me not to. And maybe not all of them respect what I did, but many more of them do understand why I did what I did.
There must have been some moment in the last several months where its been clear that the person you're talking with just does not agree with the way you responded to the situation no matter what they may think about the war.
Well yes, definitely. And they'll say, "Well, you know, you signed a contract or you volunteered for the service." And it's never become so ugly that we can't continue talking or we walk away. I think we always come to some level of understanding to disagree about the decision I made.
Has there been anybody in those conversations who, while they obviously didn't persuade you to completely change your mind, [made] you [think], "Wow, they had a good point there"?
There are times. As hard as I feel it might be for me to go to prison, there are so many other soldiers who are going to have to go back to Iraq for a third time. There are times when someone will come up and say, "Well, you know I understand what you're saying but your country called upon you, and you did a disservice by [not] going."
Do you sometimes have that feeling — that your country called on you and your conscience forced you to go another way?
I think so. There's going to come a [point] in every person's life when they are going to have to make a decision for themselves no matter what anybody else thinks. You just to do it. At that point, I feel that was the only appropriate thing I could have done.
On a Texas highway Thursday, a soldier who had been away without leave took a drive back toward his Army base at Ford Hood.
Army Spc. Mark Wilkerson, who served for a year in Iraq beginning in March 2003, says he was denied conscientious-objector status. Rather than return to Iraq for a second deployment, he disappeared for a year and a half. Now he's resurfaced in the company of anti-war advocates, appearing Thursday at Cindy Sheehan's protest campsite near President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas.
Later, in an interview while making his way toward Fort Hood to turn himself in, Wilkerson says he initially thought the Iraq war was a just war.
But after returning from his first deployment, he says, "I came up with the conclusion that we were not there for the reasons stated and I am no longer able to serve the military in any aspect."
"To anyone who's listening who thinks what I did was the wrong thing, I just have to say, there comes a time in every person's life when they have to make what they feel was the right moral decision for themselves," Wilkerson says.