Originally created 05/13/05

Soldier faces larceny charges



FORT STEWART, Ga. - An Army mechanic who refused to deploy to Iraq while he sought conscientious objector status faced new charges Thursday for collecting combat pay while he remained in the United States.

Army prosecutors added two counts of larceny against Sgt. Kevin Benderman, who is also charged with desertion and missing movement for skipping his 3rd Infantry Division unit's deployment flight Jan. 8.

The new charges came as Army prosecutors had to start over Thursday in seeking a court-martial for Sgt. Benderman. A military judge halted his court-martial Wednesday after ruling that previous proceedings might have been prejudiced against the accused soldier.

The larceny charges accuse Sgt. Benderman of receiving $2,922 in military bonuses and tax breaks paid to soldiers serving in a combat zone.

Sgt. Benderman received the extra pay for three months after he refused to deploy and applied for a discharge as a conscientious objector, said Capt. Diogo Tavares, his company commander at Fort Stewart.

"Sgt. Benderman is not in a combat zone, is not supposed to draw these entitlements and is still drawing them," Capt. Tavares testified Thursday during a new investigative hearing ordered by the judge to determine whether Sgt. Benderman should be court-martialed.

Sgt. Benderman says his first tour of duty during the 2003 invasion of Iraq left him morally opposed to war after experiencing its devastation firsthand.

Capt. Kristen Lewis, a Fort Stewart finance officer, testified that Sgt. Benderman could not have signed up for the extra benefits. Combat pay is given to soldiers whose names appear on deployment rosters provided by their commanders, she said, and errors are fairly common. Still, Capt. Lewis said, soldiers are responsible for reporting unearned benefits as soon as they discover them.

William Cassara, Sgt. Benderman's civilian defense attorney, said the sergeant had taken steps to stop the payments and the Army had recovered most of the money.

"It's silly," Mr. Cassara said. "The evidence showed very clearly Sgt. Benderman did not proactively try to obtain any money. And when it was uncovered, the Army collected it."

Sgt. Benderman, 40, had been scheduled to begin his court-martial on the desertion and missing movement charges Thursday. But the military judge, Col. Stephen Henley, scrapped the proceedings Wednesday after ruling the hearing officer who recommended court-martialing Sgt. Benderman compromised her impartiality in an e-mail to a prosecutor.

Col. Henley ordered a new Article 32 investigative hearing to determine how to proceed with Sgt. Benderman's case. Mr. Cassara accused the Army of piling on new charges in reprisal for having to restart its prosecution.

"I think the government's saying, 'Well, we'll show you,'" Mr. Cassara said.

Sgt. Benderman has been charged with two separate larceny counts - one for taking $1,947 in monthly hazard pay bonuses, the other for receiving $975 in federal tax exemptions granted to soldiers serving in combat zones.

Each charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison, reduction in rank to private and a dishonorable discharge.

Sgt. Benderman also faces an additional seven years in prison if convicted of desertion and missing movement.