Soldier who fled may face charges

SAVANNAH, Ga. --- Sporting a dragon tattoo on his forearm and skulls on both biceps, Cliff Cornell looks tough. But he dissolves into tears as he reflects on his return to the Army four years after he fled to Canada to avoid the war in Iraq.

"I'm nervous, scared," Mr. Cornell said Monday at a Savannah hotel after a three-day bus ride from Seattle. "I'm just not a fighter. I know it sounds funny, but I have a really soft heart."

Mr. Cornell, 29, of Mountain Home, Ark., turned himself in to military police Tuesday at nearby Fort Stewart, where he'll likely face criminal charges for abandoning his unit before it deployed to Iraq in January 2005.

He said he fled because he doesn't think the war has improved the lives of Iraqis, and he couldn't stomach the thought of killing.

"During my training, I was ordered that, if anyone came within so many feet of my vehicle, I was to shoot to kill," said Mr. Cornell, who enlisted in 2002. "I didn't join the military to kill innocents."

The Army artillery specialist made it to Canada in 2005 and started a new life working at a grocery store on Gabriola Island in British Columbia.

Mr. Cornell's attorney, James Branum, of Lawton, Okla., said Mr. Cornell was assigned to a unit after meeting with military police, but it was still unclear whether the Army would hold him in pretrial confinement.

"He was visibly shaking when they came to pick him up," Mr. Branum said.

Mr. Cornell's exile ended last week when he crossed the U.S.-Canada border into Washington state. He left voluntarily to avoid deportation.

Michelle Robidoux, the spokeswoman for the Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign, said the group has worked with about 50 U.S. service members seeking refugee status or political asylum in Canada. The group estimates more than 200 have fled to Canada, most of them hiding illegally.

The lower house of Canada's Parliament passed a nonbinding motion in June urging that U.S. military deserters be allowed to stay in Canada, but the Conservative Party government has ignored the vote.

The Army has listed Mr. Cornell as a deserter, but he hasn't been charged with any crimes, Fort Stewart spokesman Kevin Larson said.

Mr. Larson said Mr. Cornell will get a billet and a new uniform and would begin drawing pay, at least until commanders decide whether to charge him. Options include dropping the case, seeking administrative punishment or pursuing a court-martial.

The unit Mr. Cornell was assigned to -- 1st Battalion, 39th Field Artillery Regiment -- disbanded in March 2006.

Mr. Larson disputed Mr. Cornell's contention that he would have been expected to kill civilians. "Indiscriminately shooting people is not what the Army does."

Mr. Branum said he expects Mr. Cornell to be charged with being absent without leave, punishable by up to 18 months in prison, or desertion -- a more serious charge with a maximum prison sentence of five years.