Mark Wilkerson went to Iraq a true believer: He supported the president, the war, and the troops he was fighting with. But what he saw on the ground forced him to question everything he'd ever known—and to decide he'd never go back.
Click here for bonus photos from Wilkerson's military scrapbook.
On Sunday, December 27, 2004, the postholiday Colorado Springs traffic slowed as U.S. Army Specialist Mark Wilkerson steered a white 2001 Chevy Cavalier through town, his wife, Sarah, seated to his right. He waited for the light at Briargate Boulevard, turned left, and wound his way through the north part of the city before turning into the parking lot of the Days Inn. The hotel was sandwiched between a McDonald's and a KFC/Taco Bell. At least there'll be plenty of places to eat, Mark thought. He and Sarah stepped out of the car into the biting winter air, popped the trunk, and unloaded two duffel bags and a suitcase full of clothes.
One week earlier, Mark and Sarah had packed up their two-bedroom apartment near Fort Hood, Texas, put most of their belongings in a small storage unit, and told their friends and the soldiers in Mark's unit, the 401st Military Police Company, that they were headed to Colorado Springs for Christmas. Mark was soon to be deployed to Iraq for his second tour, and Sarah would be moving home with her family.
But as they had packed, Mark and Sarah were making other plans: Once they got to the Springs, they'd change their cell phone numbers. They'd re- register their cars in Colorado. And they'd clean out their bank account—withdrawing $500 a day from the ATM, until their life savings, about $4,000, was in cash.
Inside the Days Inn lobby, they waited nervously as Mark's aunt requested a room with one queen-size bed. After getting a key card, Mark and Sarah hauled their luggage up to the room on the third floor, where they dropped their stuff—all of their possessions, at least for the foreseeable future—on the shabby brown carpet. Sarah unpacked a container of peanut butter, a few boxes of cereal, a loaf of bread, and put a jar of jelly and a carton of milk into the tiny fridge. Mark wandered over to the room's window; in the late-afternoon light, he could see the parking lot and another hotel. It was a dreary view, all cement and cars and fast-food restaurants perched at the edge of the highway, but he preferred it to what he saw beyond. There, in the distance, sat Colorado Springs' bastion of military might, the United States Air Force Academy. The irony was not lost on Mark. In eight days he would officially be AWOL, absent without leave, and the Army would issue a warrant for his arrest.