For nearly 30 years, David A. Hemler says, he has been living a lie in Uppsala, Sweden.
“I never planned on not telling the truth,” the 49-year-old father of three and government worker told the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter recently. “I just intended to come to Sweden till I felt better. … It was unthinkable that I’d be here for a long time.”
In 1984, Hemler was a 21-year-old Cleona, Pa., native with the U.S. Air Force. He’d just arrived to the 6913th Electronic Security Squadron in Augsburg, Germany, from a Texas air base.
“I had a lot of problems. The military way of life with its severe limitations didn’t suit me that well,” he said.
A week after he enlisted, Hemler said, he became involved with a peace church but continued with his enlistment because he feared that he’d receive a dishonorable discharge.
While in Germany, Hemler said he started to doubt President Reagan’s U.S. policies and eventually sought an early discharge on the grounds that he was associated with a peace church. His request was denied.
“I felt really bad. I felt hopeless. I didn’t have anyone to talk to,” he told the newspaper. “I felt I just had to take off somewhere, a week or so, till I felt better and that was Sweden.”
Twenty-eight years – and a wife and three children – later, Hemler said he always expected to be captured. But as the months grew to years, despite missing his family enormously, Hemler said he realized there was no turning back.
“I expected the military police to come and get me at any time. The Interpol and Europol were looking for me. I disappeared from Germany and showed up in Sweden, just 800 miles away,” he said.
Hemler said that with his children getting older, he’d decided to finally reveal his true identity. He did not share the alias he has been living under for nearly three decades.
Four weeks ago, he contacted his parents and brother in the United States. He said they were overjoyed and surprised.
“Everybody was just so happy that I showed up,” he said. “They didn’t even ask for explanations.”
Hemler is still listed as a fugitive on the Air Force Office of Special Investigations website.
Linda J. Card, a spokeswoman for the agency, told The New York Times that a person identifying himself as Hemler had contacted the agency. “We really want to catch this guy,” she said.
Hemler said that he feared a long jail sentence for deserting the military would mean he’d never be able to leave Sweden.
“I can’t go to military prison in Germany a long time and just leave my wife and parents and job and my friends,” he said. “My dream scenario is that the responsible authorities would realize that I have been already punished quite severely for my actions. I have been living 28 years in lies.
“My hope is to be able to return and see my parents in the U.S.,” Hemler told the newspaper. “They’re getting old now. They’re grandchildren need to see their grandparents also.”