A U.S. Air Force recruit who deserted 28 years ago stunned his U.S. family when he contacted them from Sweden for the first time since he left the military life almost three decades ago.
David Hemler, 49, deserted the U.S. Air Force in 1984 while he served at a base in Germany and vanished without a trace. According to Daily Mail, he hitchhiked through Denmark to Sweden after he became involved with a pacifist religious group and a girl.
Reuters reports that when Hemler came to Sweden, he planned staying only a week, but he met and married a woman from Thailand, settled down and assumed a new name.
The couple now have three children. He works for a Swedish government agency, and according to a local Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter (DN), he is registered in Sweden as citizen of an unknown country born in Zurich. He kept his U.S. identity secret from his new family in Sweden.
Daily Mail reports that Hemler became one of the U.S. Air Force's most wanted fugitives. With the Interpol and Europol looking for him, he had expected he would be arrested by military police.
Reuters reports that a photo of him when he was 21 years old was posted on the website of the U.S. Air Force Office of Special Investigation, as well as an "age-enhanced" photo guessing what he could look like at 47. The U.S. Air Force website gave information about how he deserted on February 10, 1984 from the 6913th Electronic Security Squadron in Augsburg, Germany.
He recently agreed to a video interview with a local Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter (DN). He said he wants to "tell my story without pressure and in my own words." However, Hemler would not let the paper print his assumed name.
Hemler was born in 1963 in Pennsylvania. Military recruiters came to his school with promises of high salaries and university education. He met a girl, member of a pacifist congregation called the Church of Brethren and they had a relationship. But soon after, he reported to military base in Texas thousands of miles away and lost contact with the girl. In 1983, he was transferred to Augsburg, Germany. The opportunity for a university degree the recruiters promised continued to elude him. But while in Germany, he came under the influence of German friends.
According to DN, he said: “It was like arriving in a fantasy world. Germany was a rich country, even if they weren’t constantly involved in wars in third world countries to defend themselves. The German people were very involved in peace movements, anti-nuclear-weapon demonstrations and were against apartheid. When I spoke to my friends and immigrant acquaintances and read German newspapers, I understood there were different opinions about my country’s military efforts abroad. The Taliban were not called ‘freedom fighters’ but lawless rebels who plundered nearby villages. The brutal extreme right-wing dictator, [Manuel] Noriega, who sold drugs in the US, and Saddam Hussein, weren’t exactly called honorable statesmen."
He added that many of his German friends “wondered why my Commander in Chief, [Ronald] Reagan armed them? These ‘heads of state’ and ‘freedom fighters’ murdered millions of people. They were no better than those they fought. Many also wanted to know how the US could support the South African regime, which was brutal and terrorized their neighboring countries. Shouldn’t these leaders be brought before a tribunal? How could our taxpayers be forced to arm terrorists like the Contras in Nicaragua? They attacked civilians, almost exclusively. Why did my school teach me that the end of World War II and the development of nuclear weapons lead to freedom and prosperity in the world?”
Hemler soon became disillusioned. After an unexpected transfer he decided to leave. He said: “I felt so hopeless and had no one to talk to. That was what made me leave the Air Force base without permission."
He continued: “I lost my faith. They use God’s name to start wars. When I came to Europe and asked for a pacifist church, nobody understood what I was talking about. There are no churches in Germany or Sweden that are pro war (unlike in the U.S.).”
DN reports that Hemler is amazed that he has managed to stay away from his family and native country for 28 years. He expressed relief after sharing his story with his Swedish family and his family in the U.S. He also e-mailed the Air Force Office of Special Investigation (AFOSI) and revealed his identity. He says he has visited the website of the AFOSI "a thousand times over the last 20 yrs."
He told DN: "I’ve been on the page with the most wanted fugitives, clicked on my name and looked at a photo of myself from high school. It is the only photograph of myself I’ve had access to from my life before Sweden. There is also a picture of what I could look like as a 47-year-old, a pretty handsome fellow. I guess they had less credence for my ideology than my looks"
He said that after he contacted AFOSI, he received a "polite" response that his case was rather unusual and that they would have to carefully consider how to handle it. He says four weeks have passed since then without a feedback.
Reuters reports he said: "I never planned on not telling the truth in the beginning. I intended to come to Sweden until I felt better (after his experience in the Air Force), I expected a week or so."
According to Hemler, he missed his parents after he deserted. He decided to come forward after his third child turned two and could go to daycare so his wife would be able to cope if he is arrested.
The Pennsylvania-born man contacted his U.S. family four weeks ago. He spoke with his brother Thomas, who was in Massachusetts at the time.
Thomas Hemler said he recognized his brother's voice immediately, though he had a strange European accent. Reuters reports Thomas said: "I heard immediately it was David, even if he had a strange European accent after all these years."
Thomas Hemler lives in New Jersey. He asked questions to confirm David's identity. Members of his family are now planning to visit him in Sweden. David Hemler said: "My dream scenario is that the responsible authorities realize I have already been punished quite severely for my actions. I have been living 28 years in lies."
His lawyer, Emma Persson, told Reuters he approached her firm for legal advice a month ago. She said: "My opinion is that he will not lose his permanent residence permit in Sweden, it is very unlikely." She also thinks it is unlikely he would be extradited to the United States.
Daily Mail reports that a U.S. embassy spokesman declined comment.