Air Force deserter: I've been punished enough

David Hemler on "CBS This Morning."
David Hemler on "CBS This Morning."

(CBS News) An American who disappeared from his Air Force base in the 1980s has surfaced in Stockholm, Sweden nearly 30 years after he vanished. David Hemler has been hiding in plain sight all that time. He took on a fake name, got married, fathered three children, and even got a job with the Swedish government.

From Stockholm Monday, Hemler told "CBS This Morning" he has regrets about leaving his post in Augsburg, Germany, in 1984. But he doesn't think he should face punishment for it because he's already suffered by his years-long separation from his family.

"I've been without my parents 28 years. It feels like I've been punished enough," Helmer said. "The other thing is that I would be punished by sitting in a military prison a few years that would affect other people. It would affect my parents. They would like to see me. It would affect my wife and children if I would have to be away also."

Hemler said he came forward now because he wants to reunite with his parents and give his children a chance to see their grandparents.

He said, "I know I was wrong leaving the base, but I had asked for a discharge and was refused. I think I was recruited at too early of an age also. I didn't really know what I wanted to do then."

(Watch Michelle Miller's full report in the video below.)

Hemler harbored his secret from his family in America and his Swedish wife. Hemler reportedly fled his post because he was distraught over President Ronald Reagan's support for the contras in Nicaragua, apartheid in South Africa, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. When his discharge request was denied, he vanished without a trace, and his family feared the worst.

Hemler's brother Tom Hemler told CBS News, "I personally believed that he committed suicide. He had depression issues back then." But Hemler was not dead. He was actually alive and well, having hitchhiked from his base in southern Germany to Copenhagen, and eventually to Stockholm - a journey of more than 1,000 miles.

Hemler said, "I just waited until I would get caught. But the months went, I didn't get caught." Even so, the U.S. Air Force says they never stopped looking for him. They suspected he was hiding in Sweden and made him one of their eight most-wanted fugitives, even releasing an age-progressed picture.

But he was able to stay one step ahead because no one knew his true identity - not even his wife. Still, decades of living on the run eventually wore him down. By coming forward so publicly now, Hemler hopes his wife and children will not be caught off guard if he is ever arrested. For now, though, he's safe in Sweden, which won't extradite him to the U.S.

Hemler said, "I hope that the authorities can say that I've already been punished enough and my hope is to be able to return to see my parents in the United States."

The Air Force doesn't quite see it that way. They're just waiting for the moment Hemler sets foot outside Sweden. And when he does, they say, they will finally get their man.

Watch Hemler's full "CTM" interview in the video above.