Lexington's Darrell Anderson says he would rather come home -- even if it means facing prison for deserting from the U.S. Army -- than continue a lonely and uncertain life in Canada.
As for those who brand him a coward, Anderson declares, "I'm a combat veteran; I've been to Baghdad and back. What have they done?" But Anderson insists he has no regrets about fleeing to Canada in January 2005 and publicly opposing the war in Iraq.
Darrell Anderson, 24, speaks to the media during a rally in Fort Erie, Ontario, Saturday, June 17, 2006. The soldier who fled to Canada two years ago after serving in Iraq said he would return home to face consequences from the U.S. Army. 'I decided that I've got to go back and get this over with once and for all, instead of living in limbo up here forever,' Darrell Anderson told the Lexington-Herald Leader for Saturday's Sept. 23, 2006 edition from Toronto. (AP Photo/Don Heupel)
He said he's making plans now to return to the United States, turn himself in to a special processing unit at Fort Knox for soldiers absent without leave and accept whatever punishment he's given. That could mean a dishonorable discharge, jail time or both.
"I decided that I've got to go back and get this over with once and for all, instead of living in limbo up here forever," Anderson said by phone from Toronto.
Anderson told some Canadian publications this summer that he was considering going home, and his mother in Lexington confirmed the decision earlier this month. Like other news reports about Anderson, the word drew sharp reaction, many Lexingtonians asserting that he should be locked up when he comes back, others calling for leniency.
Whatever the outcome, Anderson's decision apparently has been brewing for some time.
According to the U.S. Army, between 5,000 and 6,000 soldiers have deserted since the invasion of Iraq, although officials say most of them left because of personal problems, not opposition to the war. According to some estimates, about 150 have fled to Canada, as Darrell Anderson did.
Anderson went to Iraq with the 1st Armored Division. He said he was ready and willing to die for his country, and he received a Purple Heart after being wounded by a roadside bomb. But Anderson said he quickly became disillusioned with the war, contending that it was killing innocent Iraqis and doing little to protect America.
While home on leave in late 2004, he decided to flee to Canada rather than return to his outfit and the possibility of another tour in Iraq.
Anderson hoped to build a new life north of the border, away from the war and U.S. prosecution. But it hasn't turned out that way.
Anderson, 24, said his Canadian attorney missed a deadline for filing paperwork to have him declared a refugee, which would have allowed him to remain in the country. Anderson said that not only meant he couldn't qualify for a government work permit -- which he had to have to get a job -- it also opened the possibility that Canadian authorities might deport him, even though he had married a Canadian woman.
He said he's been scraping along, working odd jobs, relying on the generosity of Canadian friends and help from his family back in Lexington.
"Since the refugee application didn't get in on time, I've basically been without a work permit or health care for the two years I've been up here," Anderson said. "I worked a few jobs under the table ... cheap labor, construction, whatever I could find ... just trying to eat. It's not the easiest life."
Meanwhile, the post-traumatic stress symptoms that had plagued Anderson since his combat experiences in Iraq were getting worse. He said he got no treatment while he was in the Army. And, with little money and no Canadian health coverage, he couldn't afford private help.
"I had a few times where any kind of loud bang would just drop me to the ground," Anderson said. "But it was worst at night, when you would wake up thinking the place was blowing up or something. Sleep is the time you're supposed to relax, but for me the worst part of the day is going to sleep. Since I got back from Iraq, I don't think I've had a dream that wasn't a nightmare."
After considering everything -- including his deep homesickness -- coming home seemed the only real alternative, Anderson said.
"I just decided that I've got to face my demons, put on my uniform, and go back and tell the Army that I don't want to participate in this war," he said. "I feel like I have to tell them face-to-face; I have to make my stand once and for all."
If Anderson turns himself in at Fort Knox, the price he will pay for taking that stand will be up to the commander of a special processing company there that handles AWOL and desertion cases, according to Fort Knox spokeswoman Gini Sinclair. After reviewing Anderson's record, Sinclair says, the commander could order a less-than-honorable discharge or refer the case to a court-martial, which could impose a prison term and a dishonorable discharge.
According to Sinclair, most soldiers who turn themselves in at Fort Knox end up being discharged. But in some cases around the country, troops have been sentenced to more than a year in jail.
Darrell Anderson's mother, Anita Anderson, contends that the Army should discharge her son because he is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, has been in combat and has been wounded.
Bill Galvin, a spokesman for an online group that counsels soldiers who are AWOL, says the Army usually does simply discharge soldiers in such cases. But, he cautioned, Army commanders might be tougher on a soldier who has publicly criticized the Army or U.S. policy -- as Darrell Anderson has.
Nevertheless, Anderson says he stands by his actions.
"I've told people that I thought the war was wrong, and that innocent people were being killed," he said. "I think that the news that's come out in the past year supports that."
However his case plays out, Anderson says, he mainly wants to get back to a normal life. He and his new wife, Gail Greer, hope to divide their time between Kentucky and Canada.
"Whatever happens, it happens," Anderson said. "I'm hoping for leniency. I'm just trying to get home."
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