CAMP PENDLETON — A 56-year-old man who deserted the U.S. Marine Corps in 1968 and fled to Canada to avoid going to Vietnam was arrested Thursday at a border crossing in Idaho and is being held in the brig here, Marine officials said Sunday.
Allen Abney was arrested after he and his wife attempted to cross into the United States from their home in British Columbia to attend a social gathering in Reno. Abney had made hundreds of crossings into the United States since his desertion without ever logging an incident, Abney's daughter, Jessica Abney, said Sunday.
This time, a routine computer check showed an arrest warrant for Abney, officials said.
"It was almost 40 years ago" when he deserted, said Jessica Abney, 33, from her parents' home in Kingsgate, British Columbia. "He's 56 now and slightly overweight. His whole life is in Canada ... and now he's paying for a decision he made when he was 18 years old."
Allen Abney's case will be reviewed by the current commander of the unit to which he was assigned in 1968, officials said.
Jessica Abney said her family has contacted a counselor in San Diego who helps deserters and who was able to visit Allen Abney on Friday. That was the last they had heard about him.
"My mom has been very upset," Jessica Abney said. The counselor said "he broke down a little bit, but he said that he loved us."
Jessica Abney said she has tried calling Camp Pendleton to talk to her father but has been rebuffed by officials. She said she was desperate to tell her father that his 55-year-old brother, Gerry Abney, died Saturday after a long illness.
"He doesn't know he's died," Jessica Abney said.
Allen Abney was born in Louisville, Ky., in 1949 and moved with his family to Canada when he was 10 because his parents worked for a liquor company there, his daughter said.
Allen Abney and his siblings retained U.S. citizenship. In 1968, Gerry Abney received his draft notice. Figuring that it wouldn't be long before he was drafted, too, Allen Abney enlisted and was sent to boot camp.
He was given a weekend pass to visit Mexico. Instead of heading south, Allen Abney, whose rank was private first class, decided to board a bus and head for Vancouver, never to return to the Marines. His brother had stayed in Canada, refusing to obey his draft order, family said.
"It's a very touchy subject for him," his daughter said of the period. "He didn't say a lot to me about it."
Jessica Abney said her father, who has three children and one grandchild, was retired but had worked in logging, fish farming and computers.
Desertion can carry a one-year jail sentence. A charge of desertion to avoid combat can carry a five-year sentence.
But commanders can also settle such cases without a court-martial by discharging the defendant.
In February, a 65-year-old Florida man who deserted from Camp Pendleton in 1965 was given a less-than-honorable discharge by the commanding general at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and released.
Activists against the U.S. mission in Iraq have seized upon the recent arrests of Vietnam-era deserters as a sign that the military is trying to intimidate current personnel from deserting in what the activists say is an illegal war.
"Besides being vindictive, this is unlikely to be effective," Lee Zaslofsky, a spokesman for the War Resisters Support Campaign in Canada, said after Abney's arrest. "The best way to end the U.S. military's problem is to end the war in Iraq immediately."
While the Marine Corps does not search for deserters, improvements in computer listings have made it easier to catch them when they come into contact with government agencies, such as at border crossings, officials said.
Abney's family told Canadian reporters that he had become a Canadian citizen and had made no attempt to hide or disguise his identity. The deserter given the less-than-honorable discharge in February had lived for decades under a false name.
A representative of the San Diego Military Counseling Project was set to meet with Abney in the brig. The group is dedicated to assisting what it calls the "growing antiwar movement within the military ranks."
Whether large numbers of service personnel are deserting or fleeing to Canada to avoid being deployed to Iraq is debatable.
Activists in Canada say they have seen an increase in military personnel seeking refuge. The case of a 27-year-old U.S. soldier who does not want to be returned to the United States to face desertion charges is now pending in Canadian courts.
But military figures show that cases of unauthorized absences have decreased since the United States began operations in Afghanistan and Iraq.
On Oct. 1, 2001, for example, the Marine Corps listed 1,601 deserters, some dating to World War II. On Oct. 1, 2005, the number was 1,455.
In 1971, as the Vietnam War continued, 3.4% of military personnel were listed as deserters. That figure is now 0.24%.