US deserter resurfaces 28 years later

2012-07-20 10:01


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Stockholm - An American fugitive who has been missing and "wanted" since he deserted the US Air Force in 1984 has turned up in Sweden where he has been living under a under a new identity for nearly three decades.

"Sorry that I have been in hiding so long... I owe you all an explanation," David Hemler, now 49, married and the father of two daughters and a son, wrote to his American and Swedish families in a letter, which he later sent to AFP.

On 11 May, Hemler showed up out of the blue at the law offices of Borgstroem and Bodstroem. He came forward because his secret "was too difficult to carry alone, and to not be able to have contact with his family in the United States for 28 years", said his lawyer Emma Persson.

"The time feels right," Hemler said in an e-mail.

Now, "we keep in touch regularly through telephone calls, e-mail and Skype", he said of his US relatives. "Visits are planned."

But what happens next is unclear.

Investigation under way

The airman remains listed as a "fugitive" by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, whose web page shows a photo of the young Hemler as well as an "age progression photo" of the same man projected into his 40s.

US Air Force representatives have met here with his lawyer and requested a DNA test to confirm his identity, but Hemler's father in Pennsylvania and brother in New Jersey have told US media that there is no doubt the man who contacted them is indeed their long-lost son and sibling.

In Washington, the Air Force said this week the matter is under investigation and "while the investigation continues, it is inappropriate for the Air Force to discuss the specifics of SrA Hemler's case", using his last rank of senior airman.

The US embassy in Stockhom has also refused comment, but lawyer Persson said "based on the little information ... obtained from the United States", her client "cannot be extradited according to Swedish law".

For Hemler, the rush of media attention since his story broke has taken up too much of his time, he said, and refused further photographs.

His letter, however, gave a detailed account of why he went Awol after enlisting in the Air Force during his last year of high school in Pennsylvania, at a time when he was unsure what to do with his life.

Plagued by thoughts

"It seemed like an easy way out of the labyrinth of choices that lay ahead of me," he wrote.

But a week after signing up for a six-year stint, he fell in love with a young pacifist who upended his conservative, traditional views.

"I discovered that there were alternatives to war," he wrote, and began looking at how he could end his military contract early but found there was no way out.

In the end, his military job cost him his pacifist fiancée. The ideas she inspired, however, only grew stronger when Hemler was stationed in Augsburg, Germany, a place he calls a "fantasy world" where he met peace activists who were deeply critical of then US president Ronald Reagan's foreign policy.

"Eventually, my thoughts plagued me too much."

When he requested to be discharged, "I lost my top secret job that I had trained for [and] was placed on janitor duty." He was soon told he would be transferred away from the German city he loved.

Strained relations

"I was so confused and felt ill. I just had to get away," he wrote.

In August, 1984, he hitchhiked to Sweden, a place he had already visited and found to be "a country where the people take care of each other", he said.

He heard that Sweden, at the time headed by leftist icon Olof Palme, had earlier welcomed "hundreds of deserters from the Vietnam war".

Sweden's relations with Washington had been strained since 1972 when Palme compared the US bombing of Hanoi to atrocities like the 1937 bombing of Guernica during the Spanish civil war and the 1960 police massacre of black demonstrators in Sharpeville, South Africa.

The airman took a new name, settled in the city of Uppsala, north of Stockholm, started studying statistics and worked at odd jobs to get by.

To obtain a residence permit, he told authorities he was stateless. Sweden contacted Interpol and despite Hemler's "wanted" status, no connection was ever made. Since the Scandinavian country did not know where to deport him, it finally let him stay.

'It's time to come out'

Hemler said he "had never planned to conceal the truth from the beginning".

But once he started a family he was afraid to step forward. He had a daughter in a relationship that did not last, and was afraid that he would be deported and never see the girl again if the truth emerged, he wrote.

He later married a Swedish national, but did not want to risk prison while their two children were infants.

"Now, my youngest child goes to daycare. In case anything happens, my wife can work and support the family," he said at the end of his letter.

"It's time to come out of hiding! I miss my parents and brother enormously."

Read more on:    us  |  sweden

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