Soldier Acquitted of Desertion

An Army mechanic who refused to go to Iraq while he sought conscientious objector status was acquitted of desertion Thursday but found guilty of a lesser charge and sentenced to 15 months behind bars.

Sgt. Kevin Benderman (search), 40, also was given a dishonorable discharge and a reduction in rank to private on the charge of missing movement. If he had been found guilty of desertion, he could have faced five years in prison.

Benderman failed to deploy with his 3rd Infantry Division (search) unit in January, 10 days after he told Fort Stewart commanders he was seeking a discharge as a conscientious objector. He has previously said he refused to deploy to Iraq after his first combat tour during the 2003 invasion made him opposed to war.

Benderman's company commander and direct supervisor in the division's 3rd Forward Support Battalion flew to Fort Stewart from Iraq to testify Thursday that the soldier disobeyed orders to deploy and demoralized his fellow troops after they left without him.

"He got what he deserved," said Capt. Gary Rowely (search) said during a court-martial that lasted less than three hours. "He's doing 15 months; we're serving 12 months in Iraq."

But Benderman said he didn't mean for his actions to hurt his comrades.

"I am not against soldiers," he said. "I don't care what anyone says. Though some might take my actions as being against soldiers, I want everyone to be home and safe and raising their families. I don't want anyone to be hurt in a combat zone."

William Cassara, Benderman's civilian defense attorney, argued that Benderman believed he had been excused from deploying so he could work on his objector application.

"I think the sentence was overly harsh," said Cassara, who said the soldier would get an automatic appeal.