Germany has been very good to Spec. André L. Shepherd since he deserted the U.S. Army.
The 31-year-old former mechanic of the 601st Aviation Support Battalion is enjoying perks that eluded him back home in Ohio: a bed, a bank account, a cell phone and friends.
Best of all from his standpoint, he isn't back in Iraq.
"I'm having the time of my life," says Shepherd, the only American bunking at a refugee-processing center in southern Germany.
The U.S. deserter entered uncharted legal territory on Wednesday, when Germany begian weighing his request for political asylum. The case will put to the test a 2004 European Union directive requiring member countries to grant asylum to soldiers protesting unlawful wars.
Shepherd could wind up in a U.S. jail if his application is rejected, but a favorable ruling could open a new escape hatch for Americans stationed in Germany who want to avoid combat duty in Iraq. About 38,000 American soldiers are stationed in Germany, a key logistical hub for the U.S. Army.
Shepherd has no shortage of supporters. Punk rockers gave him shelter after he decamped from a military base near Nuremberg in 2007 and went into hiding. Dozens of peace organizations have championed his cause since he turned himself in to German authorities late last year and applied for asylum.
"He's our poster boy," says Tim Huber of the Military Counseling Network, part of the German Mennonite Peace Committee, a nongovernmental organization helping finance Mr. Shepherd's legal campaign.
The U.S. Army says 71 soldiers deserted from its European bases last year, a mere sliver of the roughly 3,500 soldiers who deserted world-wide over the past year. It says it doesn't actively pursue most deserters, who make up less than 1 percent of the enlisted force in any given year.
A spokesman for the U.S. Army in Europe said the military is aware of the asylum case but that it is "completely in German hands." If Shepherd is returned to U.S. custody, though, he could face up to five years in prison under military laws.