Arkansas native Cliff Cornell stood outside the gates of Fort Stewart Tuesday afternoon trying to stop the tears streaming down his un-shaven face.
Four years ago, the post was Cornell’s home away from home.
“I was a soldier with 1-39 Field Artillery,” Cornell said in a telephone interview a day earlier.
Cornell, who said he was broke at the time, enlisted in the Army in 2002.
Fort Stewart became his first and unexpected last duty station.
A sudden decision, the young man said, was made due to fear of going to Iraq.
“I was scared. I was scared for me and for the guys in my unit,” he said.
“When I signed up, my recruiter told me I would not deploy,” a noticeably nervous Cornell said. “He basically lied to me.”
Not pleased with being misled, Cornell said he decided to desert, taking an absence without leave all the way to Canada.
“I was on Christmas leave for two weeks, and I basically made a decision that I did not want to kill innocent people or be a part of the torturing, so I decided to head up to Canada,” the 28-year-old said with a noticeable speech impediment.
Cornell arrived in Canada on Jan. 8, 2005.
There, he said, he was granted a work visa, worked as an assistant manager at a grocery store and linked up with advocacy groups, such as Project Safe Haven, devoted to war-resister soldiers who stand up for what they say they don’t believe in — fighting in illegal wars.
But at 2:34 on Tuesday’s sunny afternoon, after traveling three days on a Greyhound bus from Seattle, Wash., to Savannah, Cornell was back where his military career had begun and back at the place where it would ultimately end, only a few yards and a few moments away from losing the freedom he had signed up to fight for and protect.
“We’ll go to the MPs station, they’ll do a police report,” his Oklahoma-based lawyer James Branum said. “From there, they will decide if they should take him back to his unit or put him in pretrial confinement. That’s where he would be in a county jail awaiting trial.”
Cornell decided to surrender after his work visa ran out and Canadian authorities threatened to deport him.
Branum said Cornell turned himself in to U.S. Border Patrol on Feb. 4. He was arrested and held at the Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham, Wash., before military officials deemed it OK for him to return here by himself on a bus.
He and Branum said he was tired of running.
“He was tired of looking over his soldier,” Branum said. “He just wanted it to be over.”
Because Cornell’s unit has since disbanded, Fort Stewart Officials said they do not know what the outcome of his return to the fort would be, according to post spokesman Kevin Larson said.
No matter what happens on the military side, Branum, who has represented one other deserter from Fort Stewart, said he will fight to get Cornell the sentence he feels he deserves.
“We’re going to go for less than six months,” Branum said.
“He stood up for what he believed in,” he added. “Cliff might have broken the law, but in the end he did the right thing.”
“The truth of the matter is, he’s really a sweet guy, someone who was scared and probably should have never been in the military.”