LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — Former U.S. Army 1st Lt. Michael Behenna stepped out of a van Friday morning just outside the walls of the U.S. Discplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, having just served five years for killing an Iraqi.
His longtime girlfriend, Shannon Wahl, sprinted towards him, nearly knocking Behenna over.
Dressed in an orange hoodie, his head shaved and sporting a short, trimmed beard, Behenna was soon surrounded by his family. They hugged, gathered in a small circle and prayed before quickly leaving. They stopped a short distance later at a community center, where Behenna sat down for an exclusive interview with The Oklahoman.
“It's overwhelming; I can't put into words what today means,” Behenna said. “I can’t wait to get home.”
Behenna, 30, is returning to Edmond, Okla., with his family in hopes of picking up his life where he left off.
Behenna won parole Feb. 12 after serving a third of a 15-year sentence, convicted in 2009 of unpremeditated murder in a combat zone.
On May 16, 2008, just a few weeks after an improvised bomb attack killed two members of Behenna’s seven-man platoon known as Mad Dog 5, Behenna killed known al-Qaida operative Ali Mansur while questioning him.
Behenna claimed self-defense, saying Mansur threw a chunk of concrete at him before reaching for Behenna’s gun. But military officials ruled against Behenna, stating that he was the one in the position of power as he questioned Mansur with a gun pointed at him, therefore sacrificing his claim to self-defense.
Originally sentenced to 25 years, the U.S. Army Clemency and Parole Board reduced Behenna's sentence to 15 years in January of 2010.
This was first year Behenna was eligible for parole.
In January, members of Behenna’s family appeared again before the clemency and parole board, presenting a 400-page report that included job offers and recommendations for Behenna and a letter written by him that included his regrets.
“I’ve had five years to think about these events, not just the death of my soldiers, but the death of Mr. Mansur,” Behenna wrote. “I regret taking another human being’s life. I regret that Mr. Mansur’s children will grow up without a father.”
Behenna’s parents, Scott and Vicki, have worked tirelessly during the past five years to have their son freed.
Together, the couple took on second careers as their son’s advocates; writing letters and emails, making phone calls, granting media interviews and marching Capitol Hill in Washington to talk with politicians about why their son should not be in prison.
While ecstatic to have her son released from prison, Vicki Behenna said he has mixed feelings about leaving his fellow soldiers in Leavenworth who were in the same situation as him.
“It’s the ultimate bittersweet feeling for him,” she said. “He is happy to be out but he really feels for his guys he’s leaving behind because he knows there’s a chance he’ll never speak with them again.”