SAVANNAH, Ga. – In the four months since he refused to return to Iraq, Sgt. Kevin Benderman (search) has been called a coward, denied conscientious objector status by the Army and charged with deserting his unit.
Now the Army mechanic faces up to seven years in a military prison if convicted at a court-martial set to begin Thursday. He also faces reduction in rank to private and a dishonorable discharge.
Benderman skipped his unit's deployment flight in January, just 10 days after giving his commanders notice that he was seeking a discharge as a conscientious objector (search).
Benderman, 40, had already served one tour in Iraq (search) during the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. The 3rd Infantry Division soldier says what he saw there — a young girl clutching a badly burned arm, dogs feeding on corpses in a mass grave and Iraqi civilians drinking from mud puddles — left him morally opposed to returning to war.
"If I am sincere in what I say and there's consequences because of my actions, I am prepared to stand up and take it," Benderman said. "If I have to go to prison because I don't want to kill anybody, so be it."
Fort Stewart commanders contend Benderman was obligated to deploy with his unit while the Army processed his objector claim, and that his actions betrayed the soldiers he had trained alongside for a year.
The military defines a deserter as a soldier who flees military service with no intent to return or to "avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service."
Benderman insists he never deserted the Army. The weekend his unit deployed, he says, he stayed at home a few miles off Fort Stewart. He said a supervising officer released him from duty the night of Jan. 7 to think about his objector application.
"Sgt. Benderman maintains he was given a proverbial time-out from that particular date to fly out," said Maj. Scot Sikes, Benderman's military attorney.
During a preliminary hearing in February, command Sgt. Maj. Samuel Costen testified by phone from Iraq that he told Benderman to go home and think about his decision, but also told him to return after dinner.
The Army denied Benderman's application on April 22, saying only that he "did not present convincing evidence." The soldier planned to appeal the Army's decision.
"The only reason I am being court-martialed is because I applied for conscientious objector," said Benderman, who has been assigned to administrative duties. "It seems strange to me that I'm a deserter. I still go to work every day. I wear my uniform every day."
Benderman has opted to have his case decided by a military judge rather than a jury of soldiers.