In October 1984, a 21-year-old American Airman deserted and hitch-hiked from an Air Force base in Augsburg, Germany to Stockholm. He built himself a life in Sweden – never sharing his secret with anyone, while becoming one of the U.S. Air Force’s eight most wanted fugitives. Today, David A. Hemler, 49, comes forward in an exclusive interview with Dagens Nyheter (DN), Stockholm.
It’s been 28 years since David Hemler left the 6913th Electronic Security Squadron in Augsburg and found his way to Stockholm via Copenhagen. He had planned on staying for a week or so – now he has three children and goes to his job with a governmental agency in the Swedish capital every day.
Hemler himself is amazed that he has managed to stay away for 28 years. He moves nervously in the chair, but is relieved after having shared the truth. Relieved, not only because he has told his Swedish family, who were completely unaware of his background, and his relatives in the US, with whom he has now spoken with for the first time in nearly three decades, but also because he has e-mailed and revealed himself to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI), whose web site he says he has visited “a thousand times over the last 20 years.”
“I’ve been on the page with the most wanted fugitives, clicked on my name and looked at a photo of myself from high school. It is the only photograph of myself I’ve had access to from my life before Sweden. There is also a picture of what I could look like as a 47-year-old, a pretty handsome fellow. I guess they had less credence for my ideology than my looks,” he tells the DN reporter.
From the AFOSI he received a polite response stating that Hemler’s situation is not something they deal with on a daily basis and they have to look into how to handle it. Four weeks have passed since then.
David Hemler was born in 1963 and grew up in a conservative environment in Pennsylvania, which is in the northeastern part of the USA. He was insecure and dreaded speaking in larger groups for fear of being ridiculed and beaten, which often happened. “I don’t know why I never hit back, I had no moral objections,” he says.
The future seemed uncertain and when a military recruiter came to his school with promises of high salaries and a university education, Hemler grabbed the opportunity. It pleased his parents. Their son was finally on his way into adulthood. He would later sign on for six years.
Then a certain young woman crossed his path, and when the relationship became known among his classmates, David Hemler gained a respect he had never experienced before. From that day on, he was never bullied again.
The problem? The woman was a promoter of peace and member of a pacifist congregation called the Church of the Bethren. The message attracted Hemler and his time spent in church made him happy. It was eight months before he would report to a base in Texas, some 1,700 US miles away, and he worried about what would happen to their relationship. Was there any way to get out of his contract?
David Hemler went to Texas, where the salary was much lower than what the recruiter had promised and he found it hard to stay in touch with his girlfriend. The relationship eventually ended and he grew depressed. In 1983, he was transferred to Augsburg, Germany. He liked the city and its people, but the university degree – one of the big reasons he joined – was only possible if he traveled to different Air Force bases around the country, just to fulfill a few general courses. Efforts to get to class consumed his weekends. At the same time he was heavily influenced by his German friends.
“It was like arriving in a fantasy world. Germany was a rich country, even if they weren’t constantly involved in wars in third world countries to defend themselves. The German people were very involved in peace movements, anti-nuclear-weapon demonstrations and were against apartheid. When I spoke to my friends and immigrant acquaintances and read German newspapers, I understood there were different opinions about my country’s military efforts abroad. The Taliban were not called ‘freedom fighters’ but lawless rebels who plundered nearby villages. The brutal extreme right-wing dictator, [Manuel] Noriega, who sold drugs in the US, and Saddam Hussein, weren’t exactly called honorable statesmen.”
What did your German friends say?
“Many wondered why my Commander in Chief, [Ronald] Reagan armed them? These ‘heads of state’ and ‘freedom fighters’ murdered millions of people. They were no better than those they fought. Many also wanted to know how the US could support the South African regime, which was brutal and terrorized their neighboring countries. Shouldn’t these leaders be brought before a tribunal? How could our taxpayers be forced to arm terrorists like the Contras in Nicaragua? They attacked civilians, almost exclusively. Why did my school teach me that the end of World War II and the development of nuclear weapons lead to freedom and prosperity in the world?”
David Hemler became fed up. He believed that his involvement in a pacifist church would make the Air Force release him from his contract and requested to be discharged. Instead, he lost his security clearance. A year later he learned that he was being transferred to another base in Germany. His life fell apart.
“I felt so hopeless and had no one to talk to. That was what made me leave the Air Force base without permission,” he says.
You say you are no longer religious?
“I have lost my faith. They use God’s name to start wars. When I came to Europe and asked for a pacifist church, nobody understood what I was talking about. There are no churches in Germany or Sweden that are pro war.”
What happened when you arrived here in 1984?
“I made up a story that I had ran away from my parents who were travelers but nobody believed it. I worked for the hamburger chain, Clock, and in geriatric care. In 1994, I started at the university and earned a very good degree.”
With Swedish authorities, David Hemler is registered as a citizen of an unknown country. He was, according to the documents, born in Zürich and immigrated in January 1986. He does not want DN to print the fictitious name he has been using in Sweden, which he created by using an old friend’s surname and the last name of another.
Have people believed your story?
“No. The mother of my oldest daughter never believed me, but still, she was pretty shocked when I told her everything. She has always been on my case, for the sake of our daughter.”
Did you have any contact whatsoever with your relatives or parents?
“No. I was too scared. I knew they would cooperate with the military and if I contacted them, they would eventually find me. And if I was exposed in Sweden, I feared I’d lose my residence permit. I didn’t want to leave my daughter, and with a dishonorable discharge I would never find a job, get no retirement and no medical benefits.”
So for 28 years, you didn’t give any signs of life. Your family in the US didn’t know whether you were dead or alive. How did you handle this, mentally?
“It was hard, but after a while I began believing my own, strange story.”
When did you decide to come clean?
“At first I expected the military police to come and get me. I never thought I’d still be in Sweden. I never intended to be gone for this long, rather the opposite. My thoughts wander when I cross the streets in Stockholm. I have always been afraid I would die before I could tell anyone. I’ve had daydreams about me lying wounded and bleeding in the street, whispering: ‘Please, call my mother in the US.’ I have been afraid that my parents would die. I checked for my father’s name in American obituaries, almost every day. He was a heavy smoker when I last saw him almost 30 years ago.”
His decision slowly took shape.
Helmer’s oldest daughter is now grown and his youngest child is in pre-school, which means that his wife could support the family, should he be imprisoned.
He first contacted attorney Emma Persson at the Borgström and Bodström law firm, and learned that his residence permit is unlikely to be revoked after such a long time.
“He was also concerned about extradition to the US, but my assessment, based on the information he has provided, is that extradition is out of the question,” Persson says.
Then it was time to tell his supervisor, the wife and children, and call the American family.
“I first reached an aunt, who was skeptical. She asked me to call my brother, who could ask questions that only I could answer and after we had spoken for a while, he understood it was really me,” Hemler says.
So far, nobody has been upset with him. The wife is happy to have gained additional family, and his American family is happy he is alive. They have even booked tickets to come visit in Sweden.
“I had expected and deserved a scolding. But nobody has reacted that way. Nobody has even asked about what happened, but allowed me to tell at my own pace. Everyone is just happy that I am alive. They had started to believe that I was dead; that was hard to hear.”
Have you missed the US?
“Enormously. It is the military actions I have a problem with, but the US is run by a thousand people or so, not the public,” Hemler responds.
He is critical of much of American foreign policy, the recruitment policies employed by the military and that there are four-to-six-year-contracts that cannot be broken. He also dislikes that the he or she who deserts, as he describes it, “is punished every day until he or she dies.”
In a country where higher education costs a lot of money “a promised university degree, attracts unsuspecting young people,” says Hemler.
“Why do politics look like they do today when it was the US that armed the Taliban and the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein? There is little attention given to the fact that maybe the US itself is behind the negative image, especially in the Middle East,” he continues, questioning the American educational system – the world history he learned through the pacifist church and in Europe was entirely different than what was portrayed during his schooling.
Are you angry with anyone?
“No. One cannot be angry with the system, but I want people to think twice, after hearing my story. I want to explain why I did it.”
Why did you decide to go public with your story?
“I don’t think I can keep this out of media, and I wanted to tell my story without pressure and in my own words.”
Are you happy with your life today?
“Yes, Sweden is a fantastic country for people like myself. Many people think it’s been horrible for me to carry this secret for such a long time, but I have mostly missed my parents.”
What do you hope will happen now?
“That there will be no penalties at all or a few weeks in prison, max. Travel is important to me. Today I have three home countries: USA, Sweden and Thailand, which is where my wife is from. I also have important family members there.”
DN has sought comments from various authorities to shed light on the status of David Hemler’s case. Europol does not comment on investigations involving individuals and with the AFOSI, we have to file an application to possibly gain access to documentation.
According to press attaché Jeff Anderson of The American Embassy in Stockholm, who received a copy of Hemler’s e-mail to the AFOSI, they can neither confirm nor deny any knowledge of the case.
Translation: Majsan Boström