VICENZA, Italy — A soldier assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry Regiment pleaded guilty Tuesday to charges of desertion and failing to follow a lawful order.

In a general court-martial at Caserma Ederle, Judge (Col.) R. Peter Masterston sentenced Pfc. Andrew G. Hegerty to one year of confinement at the Army detention facility in Mannheim, Germany. Hegerty also was reduced in rank to E-1, ordered to forfeit of all pay and given a bad-conduct discharge. Because of a pretrial agreement, Hegerty will serve nine months behind bars.

The 19-year-old deployed to Afghanistan with his unit in May, but decided he didn’t want to return to his unit when his block leave ended on Sept. 23. He visited Fort McCoy, Wis., to try to separate from the Army two days later, but was told he would be returned to his unit.

“They said there was nothing they could do for me, so I left Fort McCoy, knowing that I was a deserter,” he told the judge.

Hegerty said he returned to his home in Wisconsin before deciding to turn himself in at Fort Knox, Ky., on Oct. 10.

Sent back to Vicenza, he refused an order from the top noncommissioned officer in his battalion’s rear detachment to attend a predeployment session. He told the judge that such a move would only lead to his going back to Afghanistan and “hazardous duty.”

“It’s a dangerous job, sir, and I didn’t want to go back to it,” he said.

Prior to the court-martial, Hegerty waived an Article 32 hearing and several other processes that could have prolonged the process. He described his unit’s mission as “very important,” but said he felt he would be unable to do it.

“I have nightmares. I can’t sleep at night,” he said. “I’m not really able to pull the trigger and shoot anyone.”

Six members of Hegerty’s squad were killed in an ambush last week, and his defense counsel, Maj. Christopher Hanifin, said that made Hegerty feel “terrible” about his actions. In addition, a soldier who was supposed to testify in his behalf couldn’t because he was medically evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany after the attack.

But Hanifin argued that Hegerty’s age and prior good service in his 20 months in the military should count in his favor.

“In short, he has a lot of rehabilitation potential,” Hanifin said. “And at 19 years old ... he has that possibility, your honor.”

Capt. Larry Babin, the military prosecutor, said Hegerty’s actions deserved severe punishment.

“Our military cannot afford to not allow soldiers to perform their duties,” he said.

Serving with a unit in combat is one of the most honorable things a soldier can do, he said.

“Conversely, among the most dishonorable things a soldier can do is quit,” he said, looking directly at Hegerty. “The message must be sent: Turning your back on your unit, turning your back on the Army, is not an option.”

Hegerty had faced a maximum sentence of six years in prison, a dishonorable discharge, reduction in rank to E-1 and loss of all pay.

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Kent has filled numerous roles at Stars and Stripes including: copy editor, news editor, desk editor, reporter/photographer, web editor and overseas sports editor. Based at Aviano Air Base, Italy, he’s been TDY to countries such as Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo and Bosnia. Born in California, he’s a 1988 graduate of Humboldt State University and has been a journalist for 40 years.

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