FORT BRAGG, N.C. — Army Pvt. Steven Gerner disappeared seven years ago, officially listed as AWOL. His family, friends and Army buddies all assumed he'd had an accident or lost his nerve and no one ever expected to see him again. He returned yesterday, only to find himself arrested by Military Police. What happened in between is a tale too implausible to be disbelieved.
Pvt. Gerner joined the Army in 2004 out of Sangre de Cristo, Arizona. He reached his first assignment, to the infantry, in 2005, eager to please and wanting to belong.
"Well, it was my first day, and I guess I was pretty nervous and not really sure of what to do," said Gerner. "Before I had even reported in to the first sergeant, a sergeant, and two specialists walked up to me. Of course, I did what I was trained to do, and immediately snapped to the position of parade rest and gave them all the greeting of the day."
He continued: "After that, they started laughing and talking among themselves about 'this gay-ass slick-sleeve saying good morning,' whoever that was. Before I knew it, the Sergeant was in my face and told me to find a box of grid squares. I tried to explain I didn't know where to find that! Hell, I didn't even know where the unit supply office was, but he didn't relent."
Soldiers new to units often become the subject to pranks that are as old as the Army itself. Often, these pranks involve seasoned soldiers sending the new Private on a quest for objects that don't exist. Chem light batteries, exhaust samples, frequency grease, and muzzle blast have been sought after by well-intended, yet unaware, junior soldiers.
Former Sgt. Zachary Willburn, who sent Gerner to find the box of grid squares, took a break from "smoking flavored tobacco" to speak with Duffel Blog by phone from his home in Boulder, Colo..
"Yeah, Gerner. That guy went AWOL his first day after I told him to get some grid squares. I've never seen someone take off so fast. Me and the other guys had a pretty big laugh, but, uh, we kinda expected him to come back a few minutes later. I never saw him again after that," said Willburn. "After a few days, they officially marked him as AWOL. We all though he deserted because we were heading to Iraq in a month."
Gerner claims to have found the elusive box of grid squares in a remote region in the Himalayan Mountains. "At first, I spent about a year traveling across the United States, Canada, and then South America. After I couldn't find it in Colombia, I almost gave up hope--you can find anything in Colombia. That's when I caught a flight to the Middle East. I figured, it's the cradle of civilization; if this exists, it has to be there."
When asked how he was able to afford the airline tickets, Gerner explained, "Apparently when they marked me AWOL they never stopped my pay, so I just used what I had at the time to move around. I also got tax free pay and combat pay while my unit was in Iraq for 18 months. I filled out travel vouchers through the Defense Travel System over the course of the last seven years, but I still haven't seen any of that money."
While he ultimately found the mystical box, Gerner relates some dark times during his journey. "Once, I was making my way across Iraq and ran into a pretty crazy firefight. The other soldiers were screaming at me, telling me to 'get inside the wire,' whatever that means, but I told them I had to go find a box of grid-squares or my Sergeant was going to kill me. They all started laughing until some stuff started falling out of the sky and blowing up, I think they might have been the air-launched improvised explosive devices that I heard about at Basic Training."
Gerner's quest had a happy ending, after one final twist.
The official report released from Gerner's unit states that he returned to his unit Friday morning with an odd-shaped box, after being marked AWOL seven years ago to the day. The current company commander, Capt. Gregory Schwarz, was stunned.
"Private Gerner was arrested for desertion, but the interviewing JAG officer released him as soon as he heard his story. He won't be receiving Non-Judicial Punishment, or a Court-martial for being AWOL, as it has been found he was simply following orders. Truthfully, he was officially separated from the Army after his six year contract was up."
Schwarz elaborated, "In light of his actions, a review board has found in his favor and will be upgrading his Dishonorable Discharge to an Honorable Discharge. He has also been awarded the Iraq campaign medal with two stars, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary medal, and the Afghanistan Campaign medal with one star, as we found in our investigation he traveled through all of these areas while looking for this box."
"Gerner was also awarded four Army Commendation Medals due to his unit being deployed four times during his 7 year journey," he added.
Gerner's mother was ecstatic at the news of her son's return.
"I'm so proud of my baby boy. We were so worried while he was gone. I guess I've always kind of known my son was destined for great things, ever since that large black recruiter with the sunglasses on told me when he was just a child, 'he's the One.' I didn't know what he meant at the time, but now it's all so clear."
His recruiter, Sgt. First Class Stokes, recounted of his meeting with the then 18 year old shortly before he signed his papers, sealing his fate. "He asked me about Iraq. I said, 'unfortunately, no one can be told what Iraq is. You have to see it for yourself.'"
Even though his journey was harrowing at times, Gerner expresses nothing but fond memories of his time in the Army, especially when he searched in Tahiti for three years.