When Ron Jacko's father died of a heart attack in Cleveland in 1982, he didn't attend the funeral.
As a deserter from the Marine Corps since he fled to Canada to avoid going to Vietnam in 1969, Jacko feared military police might arrest him.
But after his mother took ill last year and had three operations, Jacko decided to return to face his punishment so he can eventually be with his mother, friends and family members said.
"It broke his heart that he couldn't be with her when she had her surgeries," said Jacko's wife, Nadia, yesterday from their home in Toronto. "When his father died, he couldn't go to the funeral, and that was terrible for him. He wants to make sure he can be there for his mother if she needs him."
Jacko, 42, surrendered at Quantico Marine Base Wednesday afternoon. The base commander, Lt. Gen. William R. Etnyre, is considering Jacko's request for a separation from the Marines under an "other-than-honorable discharge," but no decision had been made, base spokesman Eric Carlson said. Under such a discharge, Jacko would receive no punishment.
The order was approved by several officers yesterday, but Etnyre must make the final decision. If the separation is granted, Jacko could be free later today, Carlson said.
Military officials also have other options, including a court-martial and jail for up to five years. According to Carlson, it is not uncommon for longtime deserters who surrender to be discharged. Military officials said they have no figures readily available on how most deserter cases are handled.
About 200 deserters return to the base each year, Carlson said.
From October 1988 to October 1989, 860 Marine deserters were taken into custody and an unknown number surrendered to Quantico and five other Marine Corps Absentee Unit compounds nationwide, said Marine Corps spokesman Randy Gatto. The year before, 987 Marine deserters were brought back, and so far this year, 563 have been apprehended. No figure was available for deserters, such as Jacko, who surrendered, Gatto said.
The Marines list eight deserters before 1950, four from the Korean War, and 174 from Vietnam still at large. Since Vietnam, about 2,000 Marines have deserted, Gatto said.
A total of 216 people have been listed as Air Force deserters since 1966. One remains on the books from the Vietnam era. In 1989, 36 were apprehended or surrendered, said Capt. Lorrie Bourland of the secretary of the Air Force's Public Affairs Office.
The Navy lists 2,371 deserters, with 169 from the Vietnam era still at large, said W.J. Layer of the Naval Military Personnel Command.
Thirty-four Army soldiers who left before Vietnam still have not been found, and 1,090 who deserted during the conflict remain at large. Since Vietnam, 2,468 soldiers have deserted, said Maj. Lois Faires of the U.S. Total Army Personnel Command.
At the height of the Vietnam War, there were 35,000 deserters, but many have turned themselves in or were granted amnesty under an order issued by President Carter, Faires said. Jacko's friends said he was suspicious of the amnesty program.
According to acquaintances, Jacko enlisted in the Marines in 1969 after flunking a Navy entrance exam, hoping to avoid fighting by volunteering. He decided to desert while visiting his parents shortly after completing basic training, said Rob Hager, a lawyer who aided Jacko in his return to the United States.
"He realized that the whole business of Marine training to teach him to kill was something he disagreed with," Hager said.
Marguerite Jacko, 72, said she and her husband, John, tried to dissuade their only child from deserting. "We told him that he would be isolated for the rest of his life, but he was scared," she said. "He said he couldn't go because he couldn't kill anyone, so they'd kill him."
In Canada, he associated with antiwar groups and deserter supporters, but Jacko eventually left the groups to keep from being reminded of his desertion, said New York lawyer Todd Ensign, director of a soldiers' advocacy group called Citizen Soldier, which advised Jacko on his surrender.
Brian Bulgin, a substance abuse therapist who has been best friends with Jacko since they met 15 years ago at the health food store where Jacko worked, said his friend has been haunted by thoughts of returning home. Both history buffs, the two men would discuss visiting historic sights such as the Alamo, but both knew that if they tried to enter this country, Jacko might be arrested, Bulgin said.
Nadia Jacko, who married her husband three years ago, said they traveled to Niagara Falls three times so he could look over at the United States on the other side.
Bulgin said he was "surprised" when Jacko told him last month that he was planning to return home, and he was frightened for his friend's welfare.
Since deciding to return home, Jacko, a former weight trainer, has lost so much weight that his pants size has gone from a 36 to a 30 in a year, his wife said. He also had trouble sleeping.
Now his family and friends hope he can have peace. "We were all sweating here, but things are going pretty good," his mother said. "I never thought he would do it and I have missed him, but now that he's back, everything will be fine."