The mother of an American soldier charged with desertion for crossing into North Korea over the summer in part because of alleged racial discrimination in the military is hoping the Army will take her son’s “mental health” into consideration after he was charged with desertion.
The desertion charges against Private 2nd Class in the U.S. Army Travis King were announced on Thursday and came weeks after the 23-year-old was “expelled” from North Korea and placed into U.S. custody.
King is facing eight counts total that go beyond desertion and include possession of child pornography, assaulting fellow soldiers, and disobeying a superior officer, CNN reported.
But King’s mother says those charges are not indicative of the person she knows her son to be.
Claudine Gates said in a statement that she is “extremely concerned about his mental health.”
Gates went on to “ask that my son be afforded the presumption of innocence” and suggested his mental state was possibly altered by his experience in the military.
“A mother knows her son, and I believe something happened to mine while he was deployed,” Gates added.
King crossed into North Korea on July 18, about a week after he was released from a South Korean prison on assault charges. He was behind bars for 48 days because he did not pay a $4,000 fine for damaging a South Korean police car and “shouting profanities about Koreans and the Korean army” while he was being arrested in October of last year.
Following King’s July 10 release from the prison in Cheonan, which is about 50 miles south of the capital city of Seoul, he was set to return to a military base in Texas where he was expected to be further disciplined for his actions in South Korea.
However, after King was escorted to an airport outside of Seoul, he was not allowed to board his flight because he lacked the proper paperwork, prompting him to be removed from the airport.
Eight days later, King found himself embedded within a tour group visiting the Joint Security Area where the Military Demarcation Line (MDL) separating South Korea from North Korea before he reportedly ran across the MDL while laughing. The Associated Press reported that King “sprinted” and “bolted” across the MDL.
Diplomatic efforts to secure his return began promptly to no avail as it took North Korea about a month to confirm King was even there.
In August, KCNA reported that King “deliberately” and “illegally intruded” into North Korea because “he harbored ill feeling against inhuman maltreatment and racial discrimination within the U.S. Army,” according to KCNA Watch, a Korean media outlet that aggregates North Korean state media.
The statement added: “[King] also expressed his willingness to seek refugee in [North Korea] or a third country, saying that he was disillusioned at the unequal American society.”
The statement claimed King “confessed.”
North Korea eventually “expelled” King late last month, when he was transferred into American custody.
He is currently being held at Ft. Bliss in Texas while awaiting his military trial.
King was reportedly “very happy” to be back in the U.S.
Why did Travis King cross into North Korea?
At the time of the crossing into North Korea, King was possibly having an ongoing emotional reaction to the death of his uncle’s young son months ago.
Carl Gates, whose sister is King’s mother, told the Daily Beast that the news had weighed heavy on the young soldier, particularly because he was abroad away from his family.
“It affected Travis a lot,” Carl Gates said.
He said King began acting “reckless” before the 7-year-old died and believes the North Korea incident is “related” to the death.
Carl Gates told the Associated Press that he doubted King “was in his right mind” when he crossed into North Korea.
“Travis is a good guy. He wouldn’t do nothing to hurt nobody. And I can’t see him trying to hurt himself,” Carl Gates added.
King’s mother and brother joined his uncle in speaking out in hopes of having their loved one returned home.
“I just want my son back. Get my son home,” Claudine Gates is shown on video telling reporters visiting her home in Wisconsin in July. “Get my son home and pray that he comes back.”
When asked for further comment, a clearly emotional Gates said she had nothing more to say.
A man who identified himself as King’s brother said the family understands “the gravity of the situation” and asked the media to respect the family’s privacy during the trying time.
He said Gates “has lost a son before … so this is weighing very heavily on her.”
New: The mother of Travis King, the U.S. soldier in North Korean custody, outside her home in Wisconsin: “I just want my son back. Get my son home. Get my son home and pray that he comes back.”
— Matt Smith (@mattsmith_news) July 19, 2023
What is the punishment for desertion?
According to data from Cornell Univerity’s Legal Information Institute, military desertion is defined as the following:
Any member of the armed forces who—
(1) without authority goes or remains absent from his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to remain away therefrom permanently;
(2) quits his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service; or
(3) without being regularly separated from one of the armed forces enlists or accepts an appointment in the same or another one of the armed forces without fully disclosing the fact that he has not been regularly separated, or enters any foreign armed service except when authorized by the United States.
That includes “[a]ny commissioned officer of the armed forces who, after tender of his resignation and before notice of its acceptance, quits his post or proper duties without leave and with intent to remain away therefrom permanently.”
Had King decided to flee to North Korea at a time when the U.S. was at war, military law dictates that his punishment could include death. But since it wasn’t, King’s fate i being left up to a court martial system that leaves discretion up to the military judge.
Army deserters rarely even face prosecution, the Associated Press reported in 2014.
From the AP:
Desertion is relatively easy to prove, former Army lawyer Greg Rinckey said, but circumstances such as post-traumatic stress or family problems are also taken into account.
“A lot of deserters suffered from PTSD or other mental health issues, or they were on their second or third deployment,” said Rinckey. Numbers spiked as soldiers began returning to the battlefront, sometimes for up to 15 month deployments.
NBC News reported in 2007 that amid “a rise in desertions from the Army as the Iraq war drags on into a fifth year, the U.S. military does almost nothing to find those who flee and rarely prosecutes those it gets its hands on.”
One notorious example of military desertion is U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who left his post in Afghanistan in 2009 before being captured and held for ransom for five years by the Taliban militant group. After being freed in a prisoner swap, Bergdahl was sentenced in 2007 to a dishonorable discharge that included a reduction to the lowest enlisted pay grade and a $10,000 fine.
In July of this year, Bergdahl’s desertion conviction was officially voided on a legal technicality that involved former President Donald Trump.
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