GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — More than five years after Army Spc. André Shepherd walked away from his Army helicopter unit in Germany rather than deploy to Iraq, his bid for asylum in his adopted country continues to wend its way through the courts.
His personal life has settled in the meantime. Married to a German, finishing his education and working in an office outside Munich, Shepherd has come a long way from his life before the Army when, after failed efforts at school and work, he lived for a time out of the back of his car.
His attorney believes his current circumstances mean he’s unlikely to face deportation, even if he fails to win his case for political asylum.
In an interview earlier this year, the 35-year-old said, despite a lengthy case with little sign of resolution, he doesn’t regret his decision.
“I find this to be a really great adventure,” Shepherd said.
The Cleveland native is the first U.S. servicemember to apply for political asylum in Germany. He joined the Army in 2004 and deployed once to Iraq as an Apache helicopter mechanic. His former company commander, in a 2008 interview with Stars and Stripes, described Shepherd as quiet, reserved and unsure of what he wanted to do with his life around the time he left. Shepherd said he was questioning the war and his role in it.
He abruptly left his garrison in Katterbach in 2007 as his unit prepared for a return downrange, walking away from most of his belongings and his U.S. passport. A year later, he emerged from a safe house in Bavaria to petition the German government for asylum, claiming he feared persecution for not serving in a war he called illegal, and that he feared committing war crimes.
A German court rejected the petition in 2011, and the case has since been in appeal. An appeals judge in Munich recently agreed to seek a ruling from a European Union court regarding a central question in the case, the interpretation of EU law that grants refugee status to some military deserters.
Shepherd’s actions followed a tumultuous period in Iraq, when mounting sectarian violence threatened a civil war and bolstered the stance of war critics, including the majority of Germans who opposed the U.S.-led invasion.
Shepherd became a rallying point for many, and his eagerness to speak stridently against the war didn’t disappoint. He was lauded by local peace groups in Germany, as well as larger war-resister organizations in the U.S.
Five years later, the landscape is somewhat changed. Americans have twice elected a president who vocally opposed the Iraq War and oversaw the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq last year, and who is popular with the German public. President Barack Obama also has set a 2014 deadline for ending U.S. combat presence in Afghanistan, 13 years after war there started. The heated war-related debates of recent years have cooled amid widespread public fatigue in the U.S. with the wars. Military issues were rarely mentioned in the latest presidential election, and cuts to military funding have received rare bipartisan support.
Shepherd doesn’t differentiate the current administration from its predecessor, however, and he faults the U.S. for its use of drones and its involvement in military operations in Libya in 2011, and he believes its interactions with Syria and Iran amount to “saber-rattling.”
He also disagrees with the prosecution of war deserters, many of whom fled to Canada, according to a group that tracks their cases. Army Spc. Kimberly Rivera was deported from that country last year and is due to be sentenced at court-martial later this month. Shepherd closely follows the case of Bradley Manning, a hero of the war resistance movement for leaking classified documents, and he sees parallels in their cases.
“Why should people like myself and Bradley Manning sit in prison for doing the right thing when the people who actually did wrong are free?” Shepherd said. “That’s the point.”
Unlike Rivera and Manning, however, Shepherd appears to be safe where he is. Although the military typically relies on local police to pick up deserters or AWOL servicemembers, USAREUR has said it will respect the asylum process and defer to German courts and law enforcement, and both Shepherd and his attorney, Richard Marx, say they’ve had no contact with U.S. officials since Shepherd left his post. Marx believes German authorities are unlikely to move against Shepherd due to his residency through marriage.
That leaves Shepherd to live a relatively normal life. He has a full-time job as a systems administrator at a manufacturing company, and he’s finishing a certificate program in school. His German, which he speaks with a Bavarian accent, is improving.
“The building blocks are falling into place,” he said.
Still, difficulties remain. Travel outside of Germany is forbidden during the asylum case. Shepherd still worries about identifying where he lives, and declined to be interviewed in person. And he still receives the occasional angry email, such as the one from his recruiter that regretted bringing Shepherd into the service. He hasn’t seen his family in five years, and he misses other things from home, including Cleveland Browns football and an amusement park near his home.
Shepherd says he makes a point of not talking with coworkers about his history, saying he wants things to stay as normal as possible around him.
“For me, it’s not difficult to talk about at all. It’s just about the way people would receive it. Because there are a lot of people who would say, ‘Oh well, anyone who would do that is a coward.’”
Supporters still gather for Shepherd’s court hearings, and several organizations in Germany and the U.S. continue to support his legal fees when needed. Courage to Resist, which offers legal aid to war resisters, raised $7,000 for Shepherd last year, according to project director Jeff Paterson. The case is one of roughly 40 desertion and AWOL cases it tracks, the majority of them in Canada.
“In our view he did the right thing in a difficult moment in history, and we’re going to stand by him in good days or bad, even if that’s 10 years,” Paterson said.
Shepherd’s case could last at least another two years if taken up by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, as requested by the Munich appeals court.
Whatever happens, Shepherd says he’ll never willingly return to the U.S.
“For me, it’s completely finished,” he said. “Because the rift between myself and the government is so wide it wouldn’t make sense to go back.”