If you’re going to go AWOL from the U.S. Air Force, there’s no sense in doing things halfway. On Feb. 10, 1984, distraught over a recently ended relationship and disgusted by the foreign policy of President Ronald Reagan, David A. Hemler walked off a U.S. air base in Augsburg, Germany and just kept walking.
Eight hundred miles and a dozen hitched car rides later, the 21-year-old Pennsylvania native landed in Sweden, where he fashioned a new life for himself: taking up an alias, marrying, fathering three children and working at a hamburger restaurant and a nursing home before finally settling down with a job in the Swedish government.
“I never planned on it being this long,” Hemler told the New York Times. “Days went and weeks, and I started to realize that maybe the military police weren’t coming. I just felt so good. I had a delayed teenage rebellion, you could say.”
It didn’t take long for Hemler to acclimate into Swedish society. Telling everyone he was the son of drifters, Hemler learned to speak Swedish and after about 18 months was granted a residency permit. He now lives in a small college town with his wife and two young children (he has a 22-year-old daughter from a previous relationship).
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But one thing haunted Hemler, now 49, all these years: His family in the U.S. thought he was dead. This week he finally broke his silence, telling his story first to a local Swedish newspaper and then calling his family. But he sent one more email too, to the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
Hemler says he just wants to see his family again. But doing so, at least in the United States, might not ever happen. Hemler, who didn’t reveal his alias, is still a fugitive with an active case file, so he faces arrest if he returns to American soil. (Even though Sweden and the U.S. have an extradition treaty, it doesn’t cover military matters, so he believes he’s safe from prosecution if he stays in Sweden.)
When he called his brother, Thomas, 46, the two reconnected almost immediately, especially after the younger brother made sure David was who he said he was by quizzing him on personal details, such as the name of their pet turtle (Scooby). Hemler’s family members, who say they are just happy to know their lost son and brother is safe and happy, hope to work out some sort of agreement with the Air Force to bring him home.
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