FORT STEWART, Georgia – An Army soldier tearfully apologized for going to Canada to avoid deploying to Iraq and was sentenced Tuesday to a year in prison after pleading guilty to desertion.
Spc. Cliff Cornell spent four years in Canada before the Canadian government denied him asylum as a war objector. Cornell came back to the U.S. and turned himself in to authorities in February to avoid being deported.
The 28-year-old soldier from Arkansas sobbed in a Fort Stewart courtroom Tuesday as he told the judge he was sorry. He said he fled to Canada in January 2005, a month before his 3rd Infantry Division unit was scheduled to deploy to Iraq, because he feared for his own life and couldn't stomach the thought of killing.
"It was wrong for me to leave my unit and go to Canada," Cornell said. "I was very anxious about whether I might be asked to do things that might violate my conscience. I felt trapped. I didn't know what to do."
The judge, Col. Tara Osborn, also ordered Cornell's rank be reduced to private and for him to receive a bad conduct discharge.
Cornell is the third U.S. service member to be tried by the military for fleeing to Canada.
Though Cornell's prison time falls between the sentences of the other two deserters, his attorney, James Branum, said it was too harsh.
He said Cornell suffered an abusive childhood that left him socially impaired and therefore unable to resolve his qualms about serving in a war zone with his commanders.
"While he is certainly sane to stand trial, I would say he has some degree of impairment," Branum said. "He doesn't have the social or emotional skills of other people."
Branum said Cornell would be housed temporarily one of the nearby county jails until he's assigned to a military prison. He said he planned to appeal the sentence to Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, Fort Stewart's commander, who could reduce the sentence.
Prosecutors had asked for a 15-month prison sentence and a dishonorable discharge for Cornell, arguing his decision to flee put other members of Cornell's unit in jeopardy.
"They had to fill his space with a soldier who was not trained up and had to learn on the job," said Capt. Edward Piasta, an Army prosecutor. "And he didn't come back until Canada refused his refugee status and he was threatened with immediate deportation."
Cornell had trained as a driver and gunner in the 1st Battalion, 39th Artillery Regiment, which deployed to Iraq in 2005 to provide security details for senior officers.
In Canada, Cornell worked at a grocery store on Gabriola Island in British Columbia. Branum said Cornell hopes to return there after he's released from prison.
A dishonorable discharge would have made that more difficult for Cornell, Branum said. The bad conduct discharge would be viewed more like a misdemeanor conviction, rather than a felony, on his record, the attorney said.
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.
However, Fort Stewart commanders agreed to push for a lighter sentence in exchange for Cornell's guilty plea.
The War Resisters Support Campaign, based in Toronto, has worked with about 50 U.S. service members seeking refugee status or political asylum in Canada. The group estimates more than 200 have fled to Canada, most of them hiding out illegally.
During the Vietnam War, thousands of Americans took refuge in Canada, most of them to avoid the military draft. Many were given permanent residence status that led to Canadian citizenship, but the majority went home after President Jimmy Carter granted amnesty in the late 1970s.