Sporting a dragon tattoo on his forearm and skulls on both biceps, Cliff Cornell looks tough. But he dissolves into tears as he reflects on his return to the Army four years after he fled to Canada to avoid the war in Iraq.
SAVANNAH, Ga. — Sporting a dragon tattoo on his forearm and skulls on both biceps, Cliff Cornell looks tough. But he dissolves into tears as he reflects on his return to the Army four years after he fled to Canada to avoid the war in Iraq.
“I’m nervous, scared,” Cornell said, wiping puffy eyes beneath his sunglasses Monday at a Savannah hotel after a three-day bus ride from Seattle. “I’m just not a fighter. I know it sounds funny, but I have a really soft heart.”
Cornell, 29, of Mountain Home, Ark., turned himself in to military police Tuesday afternoon at nearby Fort Stewart, where he’ll likely face criminal charges for abandoning his unit before it deployed to Iraq in January 2005.
He said he fled because he doesn’t think the war has improved the lives of Iraqis, and he couldn’t stomach the thought of killing.
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“During my training, I was ordered that, if anyone came within so many feet of my vehicle, I was to shoot to kill,” said Cornell, who enlisted in 2002 but never deployed to war. “I didn’t join the military to kill innocents.”
The Army artillery specialist made it to Canada in 2005 and soon started a new life working at a grocery store on Gabriola Island in British Columbia.
Cornell’s attorney, James Branum of Lawton, Okla., said Cornell was assigned to a unit after meeting with military police, but it was still unclear if the Army would hold him in pretrial confinement. Cornell’s exile ended last week when he crossed the U.S.-Canada border into Washington state. He left voluntarily to avoid deportation.
Michelle Robidoux, spokeswoman for the Toronto-based War Resisters Support Campaign, said the group has worked with about 50 U.S. service members seeking refugee status or political asylum in Canada. The group estimates that more than 200 have fled to Canada, most of them hiding out illegally.