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The Hartford Courant

The Deserter For 34 Years He Was Somebody Else, Until An Alert Cop In Bridgeport Changed All That


26 September 2004
Copyright © 2004 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

If there was anything extraordinary about that Saturday in July it was how utterly ordinary it was. Jesus Gonzalez got out of bed about 5 a.m., took a shower and got ready for work. He arrived for his six-hour Saturday shift at the Pratt-Read Corp. in Bridgeport early as usual to organize his workstation at the hand tool manufacturer. He operates a machine that finishes the tips of the screwdrivers. It's a temporary job, but he's a good worker and next month, he might have a chance to get hired permanently.

It is past noon when he starts driving back to the room he and his longtime girlfriend rent in Bridgeport for $110 a week, the only thing they can afford at the moment. Anxious to get home, he breaks his routine for the first time that day, and chooses a faster route. He sees the police cruiser as soon as he turns the corner near State Street.

He knows this drill so well he hardly worries anymore that he will let his secret slip when a cop starts asking him questions.

Michael Bouchard is one of six Bridgeport park officers in a city nicknamed for its some 60 parks. At home, the former state Department of Environmental Protection officer has his hands full, caring for a new baby. He is a sworn member of the Bridgeport police force, but patrolling the parks is hardly considered a macho assignment in the state's largest city.

On this Saturday afternoon, he is deciding where to set up the radar on Wordin Avenue near Went Field Park. The 6-acre park has a playground and Bouchard knows that a speed trap is the best way to slow drivers down in the kid-filled park.

Bouchard immediately notices the blue late-model car Gonzalez is driving because it is traveling a bit fast; but it is the license plate that really gets his attention. There is none in the front, and the back one is propped up in the rear window. With the reflection off the window glass, Bouchard can hardly read it. Criminal habits -- the police way of thinking goes -- often carry over to the way people take care of their vehicles. Bouchard quickly runs the license plate on the computer in his sport utility cruiser. It comes back as belonging to a red Buick Skylark. Gonzalez is driving a blue Chevrolet Celebrity.

Bouchard pulls the car over when it turns right from Wordin Avenue onto State Street, just outside the park.

Walking toward Gonzalez, Bouchard knows the license plate is registered to a different car. Gonzalez volunteers information about the driver's license he anticipates Bouchard is about to ask for.

"My driver's license is under suspension,'' he tells Bouchard.

Bouchard looks down at Gonzalez, a slim man with a thin black mustache and a face dominated by large wire-rim glasses. Driving with an expired license is not unusual. Yet the license Gonzalez hands him elevates Bouchard's suspicions. Issued by California, it expired seven years ago. Walking back to his cruiser carrying the license, Bouchard makes a mental note of what else he saw as Gonzalez opened his wallet: another driver's license. Who carries two licenses?

Bouchard enters the expired license number into his computer database to find out about any license Gonzalez has in Connecticut. He runs the name and the date of birth: Aug. 3, 1943. No Connecticut license comes up. ``I thought that it was kind of weird. Why did he tell me he had a Connecticut license?'' Bouchard recalls, nearly three weeks after the July 24 stop.

When he was living in San Jose, Calif., more than a decade ago, Gonzalez served short stints in jail for letting traffic citations pile up and not showing up for court hearings. He is anxious to get this over with, but he knows that keeping his head is his best tactic. Bouchard notices how polite he is. "He lied about everything, but he was polite when he lied,'' Bouchard observes.

The officer returns to the car; He is not telling Gonzalez everything he knows at this point, like how many aliases came up when he ran the license through the National Crime Information Center database. Bouchard asks Gonzalez for the other license in his wallet and Gonzalez hands it over.

This one is from Massachusetts, where Gonzalez lived before moving to Bridgeport five months earlier. It too is expired but more recently. The name and the birth date match those on the California license. Bouchard takes it back to his cruiser and punches in the information on the keyboard of his computer. This time an alias matches a name on the list produced by the California license search. James Gilbert Carmona. On the screen is a phone number to call in case an officer stops this guy. Bouchard makes a phone call.

When he returns, he tells Gonzalez that he knows he is not Jesus Gonzalez.

"What name do you want me to say I am?'' Gonzalez says, insisting that he is Jesus Gonzalez, just like the license says. Bouchard asks him his Social Security number, and Gonzalez knows it by heart; The number on his Social Security card matches it: 561-11-5216.

"Where were you born?'' Bouchard asks deliberately.

New York City.

Bouchard knows the first three digits of a Social Security number are based on the zip code in the applicant's mailing address on the original application. These numbers do not correspond to New York City.

Then, there are the glasses. Bouchard can hardly contain his amusement when he sees the glasses, big, wire-rimmed and out of style, are similar to ones in the description that came up on the screen. ``I was like, holy ----, he is wearing thin-wired glasses.''

To Bouchard, Gonzalez looked calm. ``He didn't seem nervous at all.'' But Gonzalez was starting to get scared. It was that name -- James Gilbert Carmona.

Earlier, Bouchard had said the middle name ``Gilbert'' by mistake and perked up when he saw the suspect's reaction. ``I saw his eyes shift real fast; he gave me one of that oh-maybe-if-I-close-my-eyes-the-cop-will-disappear kind of looks.''

Back in the cruiser, Bouchard had called the phone number on the screen. ``The guy was very professional. He didn't want to give me too much information because he didn't know who he was talking to and vice versa. I didn't want to give too much information because I didn't know who I was talking to.''

Gonzalez was wanted by the U.S. Army. He was a deserter, Bouchard was told.

"How sure are you that he is who we think?'' the guy on the other line says.

"I'm 100 percent. I've been dealing with guys for 18 years. This is the guy you are looking for.''

Bouchard arrested Gonzalez and took him to the station. Despite himself, Gonzalez couldn't help but respect Bouchard's tenacity.

By the time he got to the police station, Gonzalez did something he had not done since 1970: He said his full name out loud. ``I got a lot of times stopped (but) this guy he like to go in with his hand and dig in beyond,'' says Carmona, whose native language is Spanish. ``He say, `You better tell me this and that.' I say, `What you want me to tell you?' I tried to keep my name covered. He said, `No your name is James Gilbert Carmona,' I say `Oh, Lord.' He just tell me like that, `Your name is James Gilbert Carmona, you lied to me,''' Carmona recalls, as if he still can't believe it.

"That did it. I am thinking how the devil he find all this just with my driver's license? He said, `The reason I am finding this is you have a federal warrant from the marshal to the Army.' I say, `That's it. I'm gone.'''

This park police officer in Bridgeport discovered a secret that Carmona says he never told a soul.

Early on Jan. 30, 1970, as a cocky 21-year-old, Carmona, dressed in his civvies, walked down the only road leaving his California Army base situated at 6,000 feet above sea level. And, he never came back.

Bouchard had made an astonishing find: a deserter from the Vietnam War era.

Margarita Bonilla knows more English than she is letting on at the moment as she stands behind the counter of the Cuban, Puerto Rican bakery her friend owns on Bridgeport's East Main Street. Its cases filled with flan, Goya fruit juices and other tastes of the Caribbean, the small bakery is a haven among the bar-fronted cash-checking storefronts and tattoo parlors. Bonilla stands behind the counter looking all of her 52 years. Her face has a shocked look as she tries to digest that much of what she thought was true is not. Her eyes search for a place to focus, as if looking for the reality that is suddenly gone.

When "Joe'' did not come home Saturday night, she went to see her friend, bakery owner Maria Montalvo, who speaks better English. Montalvo started calling area hospitals to see if anyone named Jesus Gonzalez was being treated there. Bonilla met the man she knows as ``Joe'' in San Jose, Calif. It was at a bar, she admits shyly. She found his dark features handsome, but was attracted mostly by his kindness. He is nice to her children, now adults, and he always walks away from an argument. Most of what they have, they can fit into a single boarding room, but they do have each other.

Joe, it seemed from everything Bonilla knew about him, was not the kind of guy who would give up his 17-year relationship with her to go on a binge and stay out all night. In fact, he would tell her weeks later, it was the thought of losing her that tripped him up those few times when he gathered up the nerve to say ``Honey, I've got something to tell you.'' Bonilla, hearing the seriousness in his voice, would listen with intense curiosity. But then Carmona would wonder to himself: How is she going to take it? Every time, he would again swallow his secret.

And so, by Sunday afternoon when she still had not heard from the man she calls her husband, Bonilla asks Montalvo to call police to file a missing person report. They cannot believe what the officer on the line tells them. He was arrested; the story is in the Sunday paper. They grab a photograph of Carmona and take it to the police station to make sure the man in custody is really her Joe. Bonilla would later neatly clip out the article, date it, and save it for Joe.

"Today's his birthday,'' I tell her, trying to break the ice during our first meeting. No, she shakes her head.

"Yes. It's today,'' I insist. I open my notebook and show her the numbers I had scribbled down: 8-2-48. Bonilla bows her head and a slight smile comes across her weathered, smoker's face. ``They always celebrated it on the third,'' says Montalvo, translating her friend's Spanish and embarrassment.

Joe also told her he was five years older than he is. ``Now, there's the question, where is he from?'' Montalvo translates. ``She is going to ask when he comes home. Now, he doesn't have to lie.''

But when Carmona was coming home was unclear. That's because Pfc. James G. Carmona was in the U.S. Army again.

It took only two days for the Army marshals to come to the North Avenue jail to take Carmona away to Fort Knox, Ky., by way of Washington. He had already cut his hair, knowing the Army was going to cut it anyway. Some guys are just handed a bus ticket and sent unescorted to the Kentucky base, but Carmona's records were stamped with a warning: He is a high flight risk. All those times he got stopped, and even while serving jail time, Carmona somehow managed to stay a step or two ahead of the FBI and its warrant.

The uniform he left behind in his locker on Jan. 30, 1970, along with his six standard-issue handkerchiefs, briefs and other clothing, are long gone. These days, soldiers wear fatigues. Carmona was no exception. "That was a weird feeling. I said, `Look at me, 34 years right now' and I am seeing myself in this uniform,'' Carmona says.

Handed a book of Army regulations and assigned a cot in the barracks, Carmona even got a little pay owed to him. He was anxious to send it to Bonilla to fend off their impatient landlord who was already threatening eviction.

In the barracks, where soldiers are housed in rooms of three or four, Carmona is not alone. He shares the base with 40 men and women who have something in common. All of them have gone absent without leave from the Army, and now the Army is trying to decide what to do with them. Technically, they are not in jail, but neither are they free to come and go as they please. Military police are assigned to make sure that they do not.

Fort Knox sees about 2,000 of them a year because it serves as one of the Army's two personnel control facilities in the U.S. where deserters are processed. Countless others go AWOL and return, or are returned to their base without ever reaching Fort Knox.

The soldiers who get this far have passed a crucial threshold: from being away without leave to deserter. The decision of when to take a soldier ``off the rolls'' rests with the unit commander. It can occur 30 days or more since the soldier went AWOL, when the commander determines the soldier has no intention of returning. Then, they become wanted men and women.

Desertion is no joke. In a time of war it carries the grave but unlikely penalty of death. It was the thought of facing a firing squad that haunted Carmona when he weighed returning to pay for his mistake. It haunted him almost as much as his fear of being called a coward.

In early 1969, a 20-year-old poor, high school dropout like Carmona had little chance of avoiding the draft, which was making the hair stand up on the necks of young men throughout the country as they awaited their lottery numbers. Working in a restaurant at Rockefeller Center in New York, Carmona was unlikely to be deferred when his draft number came up. He chose to enlist in the Army.

The nation was becoming more and more unsettled about America's role in Vietnam. In April of that year, 300 students seized the administration building at Harvard University to protest the war. By then, U.S. troop levels had reached 543,400, the highest since the war started. A total of 33,641 Americans had been killed; thousands more would die. Protests grew early that summer when Life magazine put faces to the names of the dead by printing 242 portrait photos of every American killed in Vietnam during the previous week, says a BBC history of the war.

``When I went in, I went in with the determination, `If they kill me, they kill me, if not, I will come back. I don't have no wife, no girlfriend.''' And little else. He was born in New York, but his mother sent him to his grandparents' house in Puerto Rico when he was 2 and never came back for him, he says. He never met his father and he has no brothers and sisters. ``I was the little black sheep,'' is how Carmona puts it. He was 13 when he left Puerto Rico and set out to try to make it in New York City. He did not.

``Like I say, it was a hard life for me. It was a hard childhood.''

Even today most soldiers who go AWOL are southern rural poor or working class, city kids who volunteered for service, Clancy Sigal, a former soldier and now an author and screenwriter in Los Angeles, says. ``Carmona is a classic deserter. His story could be replicated thousands of times,'' he writes in an e-mail.

``As a former ``station master'' on the London end of a global underground railway that operated in the '60s and '70s for American draft dodgers and deserters from the Vietnam War, Sigal knows what a life-altering decision Carmona made. ``Once a soldier steps across that 30-day line he becomes, existentially, a different person: free, scared and living purely by his survival guile,'' Sigal wrote last March in the Guardian. ``Desertion can break him psychologically -- it's so lonely -- or make him think for the first time.'' Sigal is worried about the new generation of deserters. He frets in an e-mail that without help, Carmona could fall through the cracks.

The legal consequences of desertion are unpredictable, and in more publicized cases, deserters risk more punishment, Sigal believes. Lt. Col. Pamela L. Hart, a spokeswoman for the Army, denies that punishment is based on a deserter's outspokenness. ``I would not subscribe to that way of thinking at all. I have confidence in our system and the judgment of the commanders in charge,'' she said.

Carmona's arrest in late July received little notice beyond the local newspaper, ranking only a brief mention in The New York Times. That's because James Gilbert Carmona was no war hero. He never fought in Vietnam, nor did he go AWOL from the Army to make a lofty political statement. He was -- looking back at the moment as an adult decades later -- a hot-tempered youth denied a leave to go see his sick mother.

And in that, he is not unusual. Draft resisters and deserters got plenty of press in the days of the deeply divisive Vietnam War. And even though you don't hear much about it, desertion is not a problem that has gone away. Sigal thinks it could worsen as the Iraq war drags on, American deaths climb above 1,000 and more questions are raised about the reliability of intelligence reports that served as the premise for the attacks on Iraq.

In the Army alone, nearly 16,000 soldiers deserted from 2000 through April of this year. There were 4,597 Army deserters in 2001, and 4,004 in 2002. By 2003 the numbers dropped dramatically to 2,077, but there have been 1,286 desertions in the first four months of this year , and this despite a change in Army policy made in late 2003 that is designed to reduce the numbers.

The numbers, of course, are nowhere near those of the Vietnam era, when plenty of soldiers walked a path similar to Carmona's. The year after he left the Army, desertions spiked to 3.4 percent of an Army of more than 1.1 million soldiers. The number has not been rivaled since.

How many of those deserters are still out there is unknown because the 2,491 FBI warrants pending for Army deserters as of April 2004 are not broken down by conflict. But Army officials say finding a deserter now from the Vietnam era is rare. In a well-publicized case, Sgt. Robert Jenkins, a soldier who went missing in the Korean Demilitarized Zone in January 1965, turned himself in earlier this month to face charges of desertion after living in North Korea for 39 years.

After the Vietnam War ended, many men who avoided the conflict turned themselves in. Presidents declared clemency programs, if not forgiveness, for thousands who dodged the draft. Since Carmona was a deserter and not a draft avoider, he may not have qualified for the clemency President Carter granted to draft resisters on his first day in office. However, he apparently qualified for an alternative service program started by President Ford, which included deserters. Thirty-four years after his disappearance, a letter explaining Ford's program is still in Carmona's military file. It was mailed to one of Carmona's relatives, but never delivered. The envelope is stamped ``return to sender.''

Working the front lines of today's deserter issue is Steve Morse, GI rights coordinator for the Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors. And, he knows something about the issue. A former member of the Students for a Democratic Society, Morse joined the Army in 1969 to be part of the GI resistance movement.

These days, he has watched the number of phone calls to his group's hotline nearly double from 15,000 in 2001 to 29,000 last year. This year, he expects the total to reach 35,000.

Of the 2,800 monthly calls, about one-quarter are from soldiers who are AWOL, considering going AWOL or from their families. They want to know their options and the consequences of walking away. Parents may call about a son or daughter who is having trouble in basic training; they are traumatized, or depressed, even injured.

It is easier for a solider to get out when he or she is still in basic training. ``They don't want it to appear that people can get out. It's a funny little dance. Recruiters make it look like an all-volunteer Army, but volunteer in most of the English language [means] you can freely withdraw your participation. ... Once people get in, they want to envelop you in a new reality,'' he says.

His group also helps high school kids who sign up for the delayed entry program in which they enter the military after graduation. They often think (wrongly) that they cannot back out if they change their mind. ``Army regulations say they can change their mind and recruiters are not to harass and intimidate and pressure, but they do,'' Morse said.

Their reasons for wanting to get out are surprisingly similar to the soldiers who left during the Vietnam War. Then, like now, the reasons were more often domestic than political, such as receiving a Dear John letter. ``They weren't necessarily war protestors, although they didn't think much of the war,'' Morse said.

``Today I hear similar complaints, things like people not being given time to see sick relatives,'' agrees David Gespass, a civil rights lawyer in Birmingham, Ala., who is a member of the National Lawyers Guild's military law task force. ``We had one call that his wife was having life-threatening surgery and he wanted to come back and it was denied. It was amazing.''

Gespass does not handle many military cases anymore, but ``I have been getting lots of calls the last few months from guys in the military.''

The Army was a challenge for Carmona. Basic training was tough, and he was disappointed when he scored low on his mechanic's test. He wanted to be a mechanic, but the Army assigned him the Military Occupational Specialty of firefighter. His worst offense, according to his records, was disobeying an order by smoking in the barracks. For punishment, he was docked $23 from his pay for the month and assigned extra duties for 14 days.

It was 10 months later, at Fort Hunter Liggett military reservation, a sprawling California base valued for its varied training terrain of mountains and deserts, when Carmona made the decision that would make most of his adult life one of deception. While talking to his mother on the phone, he could hear that she was having difficulty speaking. His uncle got on the phone and explained that Carmona's mother had suffered a stroke.

Carmona thought his mother was dying, and even though she had abandoned him, in his heart, Carmona says, he felt he needed to see her one last time. He asked his sergeant for a leave. The sergeant sent him to the commander, who refused his request.

``The gentleman tell me, `Nope, I'm not going to let you go.' Cold blooded. In other words, to me, at that moment, it feel like to me, he don't have a mother or a family or anything like that,'' Carmona says. And there was something else. Carmona felt his commander did not like him because he was Puerto Rican. ``Don't get offended,'' Carmona looks at my white face, and reaches a hand out to me, ``but to me in that time, they were ... calling a white person, an American, a redneck,'' Carmona says. ``Don't get offended,'' he continues. ``If you were a black or a Puerto Rican, you were not right for him, but if it was a white person then it was OK.''

Carmona says he contacted the American Red Cross for help in arranging a leave, but still his commander refused his request. ``You know what sir? My mother's life is in danger and I have to do something,'' he says he told his commander. The military file provides no details of these conversations, and the Army would not comment on Carmona's claims that his commander was racist. The commander has the final say on whether to grant a leave, says Hart, the Army spokeswoman. That decision depends on various factors such as the soldier's prior performance and whether the unit has enough soldiers to carry out its mission.

Carmona jumped in his car and drove toward the nearest airport in San Francisco. He planned to book a flight to New York to see his mother, he says. But along the way, the highway patrol stopped him for speeding. He was returned to the base. Again Carmona pleaded with his commander. ``Please sir, I beg you, I know you might not like me, but I beg you. I am willing to put my knees on floor and beg you for a pass,'' he recalls saying. The commander ordered him out of the office.

Two days later, he decided to walk the 17 or so miles down the road to freedom.

``I stayed out for 34 years,'' he says. ``I'm not happy that I did it, because I know what I did was wrong,'' Carmona says now. ``Like I am willing to say now, if I had the knowledge that I got now at that time I would do my time with my head standing up and say that I am proud to serve the armed forces.''

In those 34 years, Carmona married, had children, and divorced, lived in California, Massachusetts, and most recently Connecticut, and worked at various low-skill jobs.

Even law enforcement officials were surprised that he managed to escape scrutiny for so long.

``Like the federal marshal said, `Where you went?''' Carmona recalls. ```Did you go to Mexico? Did you go to another country?' I told him, `No, I was right here all the time.'''

Indeed the 41-year-old Bouchard is getting plenty of slaps on the back these days from other police officers. And while he agrees it was one of his most unusual arrests, he is more proud of others because they took violent criminals off the street.

``I'm sure he had his reasons that were valid to him. Being a police officer, I am pretty much by the book: What is right is right, what is wrong is wrong.''

Still, he couldn't help but be impressed by the authentic look of Carmona's Social Security card. That's because it was real, Carmona says. He claims that in 1970, he walked into a Social Security office in California, told them he lost his card, made up a new name and a new Social Security number and was issued a card. Carmona picked a birth date a day after his real one so he could remember it easily, and picked a year that made him five years older. Carmona's story is believable, says Mark Hinkle, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration. ``Basically, they would tell us their name and Social Security number and we would issue them a card. It was a different world back then, 34 years ago,'' he says.

It wasn't until 1972, that the Social Security Administration started requiring applicants to submit evidence of age, identity and citizenship to get a card, Hinkle said. Nor was it unusual in 1970 for people to get their first card when they reached working age. ``It's very unlikely now,'' he said. Today, a 21-year-old applying for a card would raise eyebrows since most Americans are issued Social Security cards as newborns.

At first, Carmona claims, he planned to return to the Army. ``But at that time there was war, and the law was saying if you desert from the Army when you come back you can get in big trouble, when you come back we can put you in jail or we can put you in [front of] a firing squad.''

No returning Vietnam deserter ever faced a firing squad, although many died at their own hand by committing suicide, Vietnam veteran advocates say.

That's because returning is not as easy as it sounds, says Ray Parrish, a counselor for Vietnam Veterans Against the War, a group that Massachusetts Sen. John F. Kerry, the Democratic presidential candidate, once served as president. Returning is especially difficult since 9/11 in America, where patriotism has reached a near-fever pitch at times. After Vietnam, soldiers left mentally ill from combat were too paranoid to take advantage of any government clemency programs, Parrish says, and they never turned themselves in. Deserters faced other risks too. ``The public stigma of acknowledging desertion these days is tantamount to acknowledging cowardice,'' says Parrish. And even though avoiding the service carried less of a stigma in the late 1960s, at least among young people, soldiers still worried about the implications of the label. ``That was something that bothered the GI then, 30 years ago, when they did desert was the fear of being called a coward.''

Indeed, Carmona stresses several times during an interview that he did not go absent without leave to avoid combat.

``But I never was afraid to go into Vietnam. I was willing to go in and serve my time.''

Carmona was assigned a lawyer when he arrived in Fort Knox. Typically, it takes 21 days to process the paperwork and determine if a soldier will be discharged or face a court martial, says Constance H. Shaffery, a spokeswoman for the Kentucky base. The outcome, Shaffery says, depends on whether there are any other criminal, civil or military charges pending. ``It also depends on the circumstances surrounding the desertion. If there are no other charges, the record receives a review by Army attorneys and most of the soldiers request a Chapter 10 discharge (In Lieu of Court-Martial), under ``other than honorable conditions.'' Other cases go to the Army version of a grand jury to determine if there is sufficient evidence for a court martial (essentially a trial).

A change in policy made last year requires deserters to be returned to their unit and back to active duty whenever possible. Critics say the move was made to keep the numbers up in thin Army ranks and return soldiers who have valid reasons for getting out. Hart, the Army spokeswoman, says ``desertion is indeed a personnel readiness issue and the Army's intent is to reduce the number of deserters.'' The Army's concern over keeping down the number of deserters, especially in a time of war, becomes clear when considering that when Carmona joined the Army in 1969 there were 1.5 million soldiers. In 2002, there were fewer than one-third that number: 486,542, Army statistics show.

Morse, the rights coordinator for the conscientious objectors committee, says when it comes to punishing soldiers, the Army makes what constitutes ``deserter status'' purposely confusing. A soldier does not automatically become a deserter after being AWOL 30 days. To formally charge a soldier with desertion, the Army must have evidence that he or she intended never to return. A plane ticket or a note left behind are examples of evidence, says Morse.

Still, perhaps the best evidence that Carmona never intended to return is the passage of time. Soon after arriving at Fort Knox, he was told that he had been away so long his unit didn't even exist anymore; it had been de-commissioned. The charge against him was read out loud. When he was arrested, Carmona was scared of what was going to happen to him, but as time passed he began to realize that his fears of facing a firing squad were unlikely to materialize. The lawyer explained the options: He could fight the charge and risk the consequences of a court-martial, or he could admit guilt and accept a discharge under other than honorable conditions.

Such a discharge ranks below a general discharge and far below the top discharge of honorable; for someone like Carmona, away from the Army for more than three decades, the implications of such a discharge seem more symbolic than practical. He would receive no veteran's benefits, could not keep his uniform and would not be able to write on a job application that he received a general discharge. If he fought the charge, the lawyer told him, he would need to come up with evidence that showed he did plan to return to the Army someday.

In the end, Carmona accepted an other than honorable discharge. He can make use of veterans job training programs, a Fort Knox spokeswoman confirmed.

After 34 years, the ending is almost anticlimactic. and Carmona, a man already living in the margins is trying to find ways to make a new life. First, however, he faces the paperwork and bureaucratic hurdles to get the documents proving he is who he says he is.

Sitting in a leafy park in Bridgeport on a hot August afternoon, Carmona holds a leather zipper case containing his resume and military file. Dressed neatly in jeans, a T-shirt and loafers, you can't help but notice that his hat and T-shirt tout Puerto Rico, but share U.S. colors of red, white and blue. His dark hair is short. He has just returned from U.S. District Court where he was trying to get the arrest warrant removed from the records, as his military lawyer advised.

``I tell you something, being 34 years on the run, it's a weird feeling. It is a weird feeling. I keep it to myself,'' he says. The only way to avoid capture was to tell no one, to pretend he was someone else.

His resumes are all listed under Jesus Gonzalez. So is the certificate he received for training to become a forklift operator and a commendation he received in 1988 at a job in the packaging department of a Massachusetts company. His boss at Pratt-Read says he knew something was wrong when Carmona didn't show up for work on Monday morning. Carmona has not had the nerve to go back, to ask for the job he had started on May 11. Demetrius Dailey, the human resources director at Pratt-Read, said his company did no background check on Carmona because that is handled by the temporary agency that placed him. The agency declined to comment. Dailey is generous when he talks about the situation. ``Back then [34 years ago] I would have [held it against him] but now so much time has passed I wouldn't hold it against him at all.''

Nor does Bonilla. She says she understands, but she wants no more lies.

``There was one time. I wanted to tell her,'' he points to Bonilla, sitting on the other end of the park bench and looking markedly more relieved than she did weeks earlier. ``But every time I was trying, there was something. Every time I say `Honey, I've got something to tell you,' then I keep it to myself.''

It was not that he feared she would turn him in.

``I was not wanting to lose her.''

Recently, he sat down with Bonilla and told her everything. ``I have been straight with her,'' he says. ``For the last three days, we have been sitting down talking about it, the whole situation and I promised to her that no more. No more hiding. No skeletons in the closet.''

Bonilla answers with a quick smile when asked if she believes him. ``I believe him now.'' Weeks earlier in the bakery, when asked what she would call him when he returned, Bonilla said he would always be Joe to her. But she has changed her mind. Carmona says he wants nothing to do with his alias. ``My name is James Carmona and I am here to give testimony about my life,'' Carmona spoke proudly into the tape recorder when the interview began.

It is hard to know when Carmona is being truthful. After all, he told an ultimate lie for more than three decades. His is vague about his visit to his sick mother, and says he does not know if she is even alive now. He misses two appointments, arranged through Montalvo because he has no phone, to meet with a photographer. ``Running is a hard habit to break,'' observes Sigal. ``Many deserters are not born, but constructed, liars to survive. It's nothing new.'' Carmona is facing a new chapter. ``The long-term need is for him to get used to not being on the run and trying to make a life.''

Carmona knows that convincing others he is telling the truth will be tougher than it was to persuade Bonilla. It's hard to know if he will live out his years stained by his discharge, as predicted in one letter in his military file that was mailed, but never delivered to his mother. ``Discharge other than honorable condition is a lifelong disgrace and as such may deprive him of many of his rights as a citizen,'' the letter says.

``I feel shame because [of] what I did,'' Carmona acknowledges.

``Leaving was nothing, but not coming back,'' he says, that is where the shame lies. ``I knew over the years, I was going to have to face it one way or the other, and one of my things was the word `deserter.' The word deserter is not a good, happy word. They say, `Oh, deserter.' To me that's shame. ... Like I say, I was not afraid to go and fight. I did it because [of] my mother and my company commander at the time, he say no. The 19-year-old that I was (he was actually 21) and the temper I have, I took a quick decision and I regretted that I took a quick decision.''

He bows his head and winces when I ask him if he is worried that others will call him a coward. ``Yes I have to face it,'' he says. `` I already did the damage and there is no returning to the other side. ... If I run into somebody [who] tell me that, I will feel really ashamed, but like I say, I was not afraid and go and fight for my country.''

But others did fight for their country in a particularly troubling war. One can get sore feet walking the length of the granite wall etched with the names of the dead in a hillside in Washington.

And as would be expected, the Army has little sympathy for deserters. ``Desertion is a crime that will not only affect the individual Soldier, but also goes against the Army values, degrades unit readiness, and ultimately reflects negatively on us all,'' Hart, the Army spokeswoman, writes in an e-mail. ``The vast majority of our Soldiers are serving their country admirably.'' Desertion in a time of war puts other lives at risk.

Carmona acknowledges he owes something to his country, but cannot say what that is. Maybe it is to finally get his life together, to stretch his capabilities. Maybe it is to find more ways to help others as he tried to during the many weeks he had time to think while at Fort Knox.

There, he was the oldest. ``It is unusual for someone to be away from the military service for 30 years,'' Hart said. The next senior guy was in his 30s. He was a sergeant who had been in the service 17 years and had served in Iraq. He went AWOL because he was having marital and other difficulties, Carmona says. The two guys got close and exchanged phone numbers.

But most of the guys reminded Carmona of himself as a young man.

Much of the time, he sat quietly at Fort Knox as he heard others jabbering about how they planned to ``jump the fence.'' In fact, six of them did while he was there, Carmona says. Citing privacy issues, Gini Sinclair, a Fort Knox spokeswoman, said she could not confirm that six people had gone AWOL while Carmona was confined. She did confirm there were 40 people being processed as Carmona said.

Carmona listened as one kid, about 19, bragged to the sergeant being held there about his plans to run and get out of the Army. Trying to make it through basic training, he says he was being mistreated and was frustrated. A spokeswoman for the Army would not comment on any of the cases at Fort Knox and could not confirm that any of the conversations occurred. ``I say, `Excuse me,''' Carmona recalls, ```my name is such and such, and I would like to be your friend, and I would like to talk to you.'''

The kid looked at him skeptically.

``My angle was to try to talk to him, try to make him think. ... I said, `Look young man, the reason I am talking to you is because I have been in that situation, and I would not like to see you go ahead and jump. It's not recommended. If you jump the fence, every door is going to be shut on life.'''

``He tell me, `Why you telling me that?'''

``I said, `The reason that I am telling you ... not to do it, because I have been 34 years on the street running and it's not easy.''' Talk to a chaplain, talk to a commander, he advised, but don't run. ``I calm him down. I put some sense into him. I said, `Young man, stick with it,''' Carmona says.

``When I did that I said at least I am doing something.''

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