STOCKHOLM (AP) — Nearly 28 years after David Hemler deserted his U.S. Air Force post in Germany, a man claiming to be the missing American has appeared in Sweden, saying he has chosen to reveal his true identity because he misses his aging parents, a lawyer for the man said Tuesday.
Hemler, from Cleona, Pennsylvania has for years featured on the U.S. Air Force's most wanted list after deserting his post in 1984 while stationed with the 6913th Electronic Security Squadron in Augsburg, southwest Germany. He was 21 years old.
Stockholm-based lawyer Emma Persson told The Associated Press that when first approached by the man he had told her he had hitchhiked to Sweden almost three decades earlier, deserting his military post because of ideological reasons, and then raising a family in the Nordic country under a false name.
Not even his wife — a Swedish national— and his three children were aware of his real identity, she said.
She refused to disclose her client's Swedish identity, quoting reasons of confidentiality.
In an interview broadcast online by Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter over the weekend, the man — speaking in a thick non-American accent and hesitating to pronounce some English words — said he started to question the righteousness of warfare during his time in the military, and began looking to more pacifist movements.
"I started to doubt the path my president (Ronald Reagan) was on," he said, adding that he eventually demanded discharge on the grounds of he was associated with a peace church, but the military had rejected his request.
"I felt hopeless, and I didn't have anyone to talk to. I felt that I just had to take off somewhere, for a week or so, until I felt better, and that was Sweden."
The man, sporting glasses and a short salt-and-pepper haircut during the interview, appeared nervous, saying he had never intended to stay in Sweden for long, but that weeks suddenly turned into months, and months into years.
"I never planned on not telling the truth in the beginning. I just intended to come to Sweden for a week or so. I expected the military police to come and get me anytime," he said. "I just waited until I got caught, and (then) the months went (by) and I didn't get caught."
He said he initially worked at a burger restaurant, then in a nursing home, and eventually enrolled at university.
The man said his life in exile had been tough, as he'd had to lie to the family, friends and colleagues he has in Sweden, and had also not been able to contact his aging parents in the U.S., to let them know that he was alive and well.
"My hope is to be able to return to see my parents in the United States — they're getting old now," he said, adding his family was over-joyed when he phoned them with the truth.
"They were just so happy that I (had) showed up, they didn't even ask for explanations," he said, noting no one had reacted negatively to the news.
The man now says he hopes authorities will understand the hardship he has gone through by having to conceal his true identity, and hopefully close the case on those grounds. "
I've been living 28 years in lies, lying to my friends and family about who I am in Sweden and worrying my parents to death in America," he said.
Persson said her only worry for her client is how U.S. authorities will choose to label his case: "Since we don't know what the U.S. will accuse him of, it's difficult to say whether an extradition will be requested or not."
She said that under Swedish law people are not extradited to the U.S. if suspected of political or military crimes.
Persson confirmed that the man had been in touch with his alleged relatives in the U.S., but said she does not question his stories.
"I assume his accent stems from living in Sweden for 28 years, trying to conceal his roots," she said.