A former paratrooper who admitted abandoning his post because he disagreed with the US mission in Iraq was freed from a military prison, stopping in Raleigh to greet supporters before he headed home to Washington state.
Ricky Clousing, 24, who was freed on Saturday, had left Fort Bragg without permission in June of last year after returning from a five-month tour in Iraq, where he worked as an interrogator in a military intelligence battalion.
Clousing surrendered to the military at Fort Lewis, Washington, in August. He was subsequently returned to North Carolina to face court-martial.
He pleaded guilty in October to going absent without leave and was sentenced to three months' confinement, reduction in rank from sergeant and forfeiture of two-thirds of his pay during his confinement, which ended with a bad conduct discharge.
The plea allowed him to avoid a more severe sentence for desertion.
"It feels good, but it feels surreal because I don't have to deal with the military anymore," Clousing, who was released 15 days early for good conduct, said on Saturday outside of Camp Lejeune, the Marine base where he was imprisoned. "I'm getting out just before Christmas, so it's really great."
Clousing has said he witnessed a US soldier kill an innocent Iraqi man in Mosul, but that unit leaders dismissed his account by saying he was an inexperienced soldier.
"My decision was never personal to my command. I had to honor my own personal convictions," he said.
"I'm excited to finally be finished with the military. I've gotten the opportunity to learn a lot about myself and the system I fell under," he said.
Clousing was heading home to spend the holidays with his mother in Washington state, but stopped on the way in Raleigh to meet with peace activists for a wreath-laying ceremony at the city's Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
At a Quaker meeting house in Raleigh afterward, he told about three dozen supporters how his patriotism initially grew after he enlisted in the military in 2002 but was shaken by what he witnessed in Iraq.
He said he decided against declaring himself a conscientious objector because he doesn't believe all wars are wrong.