5,133 AWOL Troops
Sergeant Kevin Benderman cannot shake the images from his head. There are bombed villages and desperate people. There are dogs eating corpses thrown into a mass grave. And most unremitting of all, there is the image of a young Iraqi girl, no more than eight or nine, one arm severely burnt and blistered, and the sound of her screams.
Last January, these memories became too much for this veteran of the war in Iraq. Informed his unit was about to return, he told his commanders he wanted out and applied to be considered a conscientious objector. The Army refused and charged him with desertion. Last week, his case - which carries a penalty of up to seven years' imprisonment - started before a military judge at Fort Stewart in Georgia.
"If I am sincere in what I say and there's consequences because of my actions, I am prepared to stand up and take it," Sgt Benderman said. "If I have to go to prison because I don't want to kill anybody, so be it."
The case of Sgt Benderman and those of others like him has focused attention on the thousands of US troops who have gone AWOL (Absent Without Leave) since the start of President George Bush's so-called war on terror. The most recent Pentagon figures suggest there are 5,133 troops missing from duty. Of these 2,376 are sought by the Army, 1,410 by the Navy, 1,297 by the Marines and 50 by the Air Force. Some have been missing for decades.