SAVANNAH, Ga. – U.S. Army commanders have filed a desertion charge against a soldier accused of fleeing to Canada four years ago to avoid the war in Iraq, a spokesman for the Fort Stewart Army post said Thursday.
Spc. Cliff Cornell, 29, will now face an investigation to determine whether his case should be handled administratively or sent to a court-martial, said Maj. Lee Peters, a Fort Stewart spokesman.
Cornell, of Mountain Home, Arkansas, returned to the Army two weeks ago after the Canadian government denied him asylum as a war objector.
Cornell acknowledges he left his unit with the Army's 3rd Infantry Division in 2005 and fled to Canada, where he found work at a grocery store on Gabriola Island in British Columbia. He crossed the U.S.-Canada border earlier this month.
Cornell has continued to perform regular duties with his new unit since he turned himself in at Fort Stewart on Feb. 10, and he was not jailed after charges were filed. Peters said Cornell's commander has praised his performance since he returned.
"In his opinion, Cornell's been a model soldier," Peters said. "He's shown up, performed his duty and done exactly what the company's asked him to do."
James Branum, Cornell's attorney, said he hopes his client's good behavior will persuade the Army to show him some leniency.
Military law defines desertion as leaving the military with no intent to return or to avoid hazardous duty. The charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison — compared to a maximum of 18 months imprisonment for soldiers convicted of being absent without leave.
"He did turn himself in, which is an important factor," Branum said. "Another important thing in Cliff's case is why he left. He had really good reasons to do what he did, and those reasons should excuse part of the punishment."
In an interview before he returned to Fort Stewart, Cornell said he decided to flee because he didn't believe the war was helping Iraqi citizens. He also said he couldn't stomach the thought of killing.
"I'm just not a fighter," Cornell told The Associated Press on Feb. 9. "I know it sounds funny, but I have a really soft heart."
Fort Stewart commanders have a wide range of options for handling Cornell's case. They could opt not to punish him at all, punish him administratively or seek a prison sentence by prosecuting him in a court-martial.