After being questioned by authorities for nearly nine hours at the German Federal Office for Migration and Refugees on Wednesday, U.S. Army Spc. André Shepherd felt tired, but also ''full of hope to win the battle that had just started," according to his lawyer, Reinhard Marx.
And a legal battle it will surely be.
The 31-year old soldier from
Cleveland, Ohio, went "Absent Without Leave" in April 2007 when he walked off his unit's base near Katterbach, Germany.
|U.S. Army specialist Andre Shepherd listens to reporter's questions during a news conference in Frankfurt in November, 2008.|
He said he deserted because he did not want to return to what he calls a "completely illegal war" in Iraq. He is believed to be the first American deserter to plead for asylum with German immigration authorities.
Shepherd's case is unique in Germany, but he is not alone across Europe. According to Bruce Anderson, a spokesperson for the U.S. Army in Europe, Shepherd is among 71 Army soldiers to desert European bases in 2008.
If he is granted asylum, his case could create new legal options for soldiers looking to escape the military, his supporters say. But rejection of his case could find him handed over to military authorities and could lead to a longer jail sentence.
"I take it a day at a time," Shepherd said in a phone interview. "And I will pursue what I believe is the right thing. They can't punish you for something that is right."
The ring tone on Shepherd's mobile phone is James Brown singing "I feel good. I knew that I would," and he sounds just as enthusiastic and confident about his asylum case when he answers questions from journalists.
"When I enlisted in 2004 and later was sent to Iraq, I believed I was doing the right thing," he said. "But then, like other comrades around me, I started questioning why we were there and what we were fighting for."
Shepherd was not directly involved in combat missions during his deployment to Iraq. As part of the "attack and lift unit" of the 412th Aviation Support Battalion, Shepherd's mission was to repair and maintain AH-64 Apache helicopters.
"My job was harmless until I factored in the amount of death and destruction those helicopters caused to civilians every day," Shepherd said.
"The government made us believe we would be welcomed as heroes in Iraq, but we saw nothing but hostility from the Iraqis that came to work for us, they wanted to kill us," Shepherd said.
His base outside of Tikrit was shelled almost every night, which he said also left him unsettled.
"It is not the military itself that is bad," Shepherd said. "In fact, our unit did a lot of good things, giving schools books and bringing clothes to children." Those actions helped ease his conscience a bit, but he still questioned whether the Iraqis would have needed the aid if the United States had not invaded Iraq in the first place.
Hiding out with peace niks and punk rockers
When he was ordered to redeploy to Iraq in April 2007, Shepherd felt that he could not continue to serve and went AWOL.
He went into hiding for a time and lived with a motley crew of new-found friends – a group of punk rockers in a traditional Bavarian village near the Austrian border, as well as peace activists.
But he was growing increasingly nervous about being caught by the U.S. Army, so last November he applied for asylum. Ever since, he has been living with asylum seekers from Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East – including Afghan and Iraqi civilians, who fled instability and violence in their countries – at a refugee-processing center in southern Germany.
Despite the initial akwardness, Shepherd finds it very rewarding to be able to talk to people from Iraq.
"The Iraqi citizens I meet are often shocked to see an American soldier amongst them and, almost every day, I feel like I have to apologize to them for what the U.S. has done to their people, but many of them are interested in hearing my story," he said.
Long legal road
In early 2008, Shepherd sought help from the Military Counseling Network, a German non-governmental organization that provides free counseling for soldiers who have gone AWOL or seek a discharge from the military.
"We told him there is not a lot that can be done when you go AWOL, especially because he did not meet the criteria for a conscientious objector, so André brought up the possibility of seeking political asylum in Germany," said Tim Huber of the Military Counseling Network.
Marx, Shepherd's Frankfurt lawyer, acknowledged that the case will not be easy one. "This would set an extreme precedent and has a certain amount of sensitivity on a foreign policy level," he said.
Meantime, as far as the U.S. Army in Europe is concerned, Shepherd is a deserter and was reported as such to local authorities.
In a written statement, the U.S. Army said that it is "aware of Shepherd's request for asylum. However, the U.S. Army is not a party to the asylum process, which is completely in German hands." The statement said that "the U.S. Army is not seeking to participate in the asylum proceedings."
Following Wednesday's hearing, German authorities will now thoroughly investigate the merit of Shepherd's claim. Because of the strong legal and political implications that a decision in this case could have, the process will likely take several months.