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When deserting Army, 2nd time isn't a charm

A salesman says he left the Army twice: once when he got tired of it, once for his new son.

By THOMAS LAKE
Published December 30, 2006


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WESLEY CHAPEL - People move to Florida for many reasons. Some want sunshine. Some want quick cash. And some simply want to hide from the past.

So it is that the magazine salesman caught soliciting in the Northwood subdivision could be almost anyone, from almost anywhere. In this case, he'd come from Texas, by way of Georgia and Oregon, and he turned out to be a soldier who'd fled from an Army base.

Nothing political, it seems. Nothing to do with the war. Thomas Berry is 18, and he said the only things that matter to him are his girlfriend and his newborn son.

The Army base is in Georgia. The baby is in Oregon. How and why did he end up here?

It's complicated.

He told his story Friday afternoon in an interview at the Land O'Lakes jail, where he was held without bail. His version of events could not be independently verified, because officials from the U.S. Army would not answer questions about his status.

Nevertheless, this is what he said. He left Odessa, Texas, about three years ago to live with an aunt in Oregon. He graduated from high school in May, but not before enlisting in the Army.

"I didn't have nothing else going for me," he said, his eyes downcast, his hair recovering from a buzz cut. "And the recruiter lied ... and made it sound cool."

Berry went to basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., at the end of June, and after lots of pushups and situps and yelling and 3 a.m. wakeup calls, he got tired of it. So he jumped out the window, walked down some railroad tracks and bought a plane ticket to Louisiana.

He stayed there with friends until his father told him to turn himself in. He did and wound up back at Fort Benning in mid August.

"The first sergeant was like, 'I'm going to kill you,' " Berry said.

As it turns out, punishments can be harsh for deserters.

"I'd really prefer that you not make a big deal out of this," said Connie Shaffery, an Army spokeswoman. "One of the punishments is death."

That has not been used since World War II, she added, and it's much more common for a soldier to simply be discharged.

In this case, Berry just got a talking-to. He stuck it out until this month, when he found out his girlfriend had borne him a son.

Berry escaped from the base again, flew up to Oregon and beheld the boy. His name is Gage. That seemed to changed his life.

"I ain't care about nothing else," he said.

Now he needed to support his new family, but he was afraid the Army would catch him in Oregon. So he took work with a magazine sales company, which assigned him to Florida. He was told he could earn as much as $100,000 a year.

As it turns out, the names of military deserters go into a database that police all over the country can read. And when he became an unwanted solicitor at Northwood on Thursday night, a deputy from the Pasco County Sheriff's Office discovered that he was wanted and took him to jail.

It wasn't clear Friday how long he'd be there, or where he was going next. He guessed he might be discharged, or he might do prison time.

During most of the interview, he displayed a devil-may-care attitude about the whole episode. But when it came time to talk about his girlfriend and son, he seemed to gain resolve.

This is his message for them:

"Stay strong," he said. "I'll be out of here sooner or later. And then I'll be home."

Thomas Lake can be reached toll-free at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6245 or tlake@sptimes.com.

[Last modified December 30, 2006, 06:55:16]


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