By Russ Bynum
FORT STEWART, Georgia -- Sgt. Kevin Benderman turned his back on war, but he insists he never deserted the Army whose uniform he continues to wear six months after refusing to deploy to Iraq for a second tour.
Benderman served in Iraq during the 2003 invasion, but says he decided he could no longer be a part of the destruction he witnessed, even if that meant choosing his conscience over his commitment to his fellow troops
He faces a general court-martial Thursday on charges of desertion.
"I went to war. I never ran from it," Benderman said Wednesday. "I experienced it and I realized it's not what I should be doing. In my opinion, it's not what anybody should be doing in the modern world."
Benderman, a mechanic, faces up to five years in prison if convicted. He has opted to let a military judge, Col. Donna M. Wright, decide his guilt or innocence rather than a jury of his peers in uniform.
That's a shrewd move, considering the bitter emotions that wartime desertion cases can stir up in soldiers, said Mark Stevens, a defense attorney in North Carolina and retired Marine Corps judge advocate.
"With the war going on, I would not choose a (jury) panel, especially a panel that's been to Iraq," Stevens said. "Desertion is a very technical legal defense, and a lot of times juries go on their gut."
Benderman said he became morally opposed to war after serving eight months in Iraq, where he witnessed a young girl suffering third-degree burns to her arm, dogs feeding on corpses in a mass grave and Iraqi civilians drinking from mud puddles.
He did not tell commanders he planned to seek objector status until 15 months later, after he had trained with his unit for a year in preparation to return to Iraq and had packed his bags to ship overseas.
He skipped his 3rd Infantry Division unit's deployment flight Jan. 8, just 10 days after giving Fort Stewart commanders notice that he was seeking a discharge as a conscientious objector.
Prosecutors argue Benderman had an obligation to deploy while his conscientious objector application was pending, and his actions betrayed the soldiers in his unit. The Army Conscientious Objector Review Board rejected Benderman's application April 22.
"Sergeant Benderman submitted his conscientious objector application, not because of deeply held moral or ethical beliefs, but rather, because he did not want to deploy with his unit," Col. John M. Kidd, Fort Stewart's garrison commander, said in a memo April 6.
Military law defines a deserter as a soldier who flees the military with no intent to return or to "avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service."
Benderman declined to discuss specifics of his case. But his civilian defense attorney, William Cassara, said Fort Stewart trumped up charges against Benderman to punish him for his anti-war stance.
Army mechanic Sgt. Kevin Benderman, right, and his attorney Bill Cassara walk into a pretrial hearing at Fort Stewart, Ga. Attorneys for the Army mechanic who refused to deploy to Iraq are asking a military judge to drop charges that the soldier stole government money by receiving combat pay while he remained in the U.S. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton)