SAN DIEGO — When Marine Lance Cpl. Lance Hering returned home to his family in Boulder in August 2006 after a combat tour in Iraq, he seemed unusually quiet.
His parents, Lloyd and Elynne Hering, were aware he had been hospitalized briefly in Iraq and Germany in the final months of his deployment. They thought he was “emotionally flat,” but they knew better than to pry.
Lloyd Hering served as an Army rifleman for 15 months in Vietnam and knows how hard it can be for combat veterans to talk about their experiences.
“We had no indication something dramatic was going to happen,” he said.
But early on Aug. 30, their son’s closest hometown buddy reported to police that Hering was badly injured in a fall during a hiking trip to Eldorado Canyon State Park and wandered off. After a massive five-day search, the report was unmasked as a hoax intended to convince the Marine Corps that Hering was dead.
Hering was due to return to Camp Pendleton in September to begin training for a possible redeployment to Iraq in late 2007 with his fellow Marines from the 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment — the famed Blackhorse Battalion.
The 3/5 had just returned from a rough deployment: eight Marines killed and dozens wounded; seven Marines and a corpsman in Hering’s company accused of war crimes; and a feeling among the “grunts” that they were “sitting ducks” for insurgents planting roadside bombs.
Hering’s faked death started a two-year odyssey that would include an emotional reunion with his father at the Burning Man counterculture fest in Nevada; an informant’s tip that led to the arrest of father and son at an airport in Washington state; and Friday, a court martial proceeding to be held at Camp Pendleton, about 30 miles north of San Diego.
More than 100 searchers, including retired and active-duty Marines, scoured the Eldorado park, with the help of a police helicopter and tracking dogs. Then, police checking a security camera at the bus station saw a glimpse of Hering boarding a bus bound for Iowa.
For 20 months, Hering’s family — mother, father, and an older brother who is a military officer and has served in Iraq — waited. They left messages on a Web site pleading with him to contact them. In 2007, Boulder police raided the family home looking for Hering.
The family understood it would not be easy for their son to explain why he had disappeared. “We knew that whenever he surfaced, we had to go slowly,” said Elynne Hering, 59.
Finally, on Mother’s Day, Hering sent an e-mail message: “I love you.” More messages followed. In one, he mentioned the Burning Man festival held every fall north of Reno, Nev.
His father e-mailed back that, if Lance wanted to meet him, he’d be there. With no assurances, Lloyd Hering, 60, a commercial pilot, flew to Nevada’s Black Rock Desert a few days before Labor Day. He stayed for several days near a landing strip.
“I waited for my son to walk out of the crowd, and he did,” said Hering, his voice breaking. “It was the highest moment I’d had in two years.”
Hering at first did not recognize the tall, lean young man wearing a cowboy hat. Gone was the “high-and-tight” Marine haircut. He had a beard, and his blond hair cascaded to his shoulders.
Lance Hering, now 23, had spent most of his time in the Pacific Northwest. He had worked at a Christmas tree farm. He had found a girlfriend, older and more mature.
“What he told me was that his mind had been so full of death that he knew he had to get away,” said his father.
Lance Hering was also haunted by the fate of his close friend, Cpl. Johnathan Benson, 21, of North Branch, Minn. While Hering was in the hospital for evaluation, Benson had taken his spot on a patrol. The Humvee was hit by a roadside bomb, ripping off Benson’s left leg and left arm, burning him and leaving him paralyzed. He died weeks later at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
“Lance felt responsible,” his father said.
In their conversation, Lloyd Hering confessed his shortcomings as a father, which he traces to his own military experience, blaming his unresolved anger from Vietnam.
“I told him, ‘Lance, I’m sorry for all those times I got into your face and screamed at you,’ ” he said. “I started to cry; he started to cry and said, ‘Dad, I can still see you in my face.’ “
The reunion was brief. Over the next few weeks, however, Hering’s parents say they convinced him to meet with a psychiatrist — a retired Navy captain who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder — and then surrender to Camp Pendleton authorities.
Lloyd Hering flew to Port Angeles, Wash., to pick up his son. An anonymous tip led to their arrest as the two boarded the father’s Cessna 210 on Nov. 16. It had been more than 800 days since Lance’s disappearance.
The elder Hering was charged with aiding and abetting a fugitive, a misdemeanor. The son was sent under guard to Camp Pendleton, where he remains in the brig. He has been visited by his parents and girlfriend but is not allowed to meet with a reporter.
Flight information filed by Lloyd Hering substantiates his story that he planned to fly his son to Virginia to meet with the psychiatrist and then to Texas to meet with lawyer James Culp, a former infantry sergeant and combat veteran who represents Marines and soldiers in high-profile criminal cases.
In theory, Hering might have been charged with desertion in the time of war, an offense that can carry the death penalty.
Instead, on Dec. 5, the Marine Corps slapped Hering with the military equivalent of a misdemeanor, carrying at most a year in the brig and a bad-conduct discharge. On Tuesday, in announcing a court martial session for Friday, the Marines reduced even further the possible punishment.
The session will be a “summary court martial” where an enlisted Marine can be sentenced to 30 days in the brig, 45 days hard labor, 60 days confinement, or a combination of the three.
At Friday’s hearing, Culp is prepared to submit a psychiatric diagnosis and also documents that he says show that Hering suffered a nervous breakdown in the weeks before the 3/5 left Iraq.
The young Marine, who had grown up in Saudi Arabia when his parents were teachers at an oil company school, and who had been praised by his drill instructors in 2005 as the most physically fit recruit in his boot camp class, had been overwhelmed by the reality of Iraq, Culp said.
“The harshness of Hering’s combat experiences simply exceeded his personal ability to cope,” he said.
After the Marine Corps finishes with Hering, he faces charges in Boulder County for the hoax and for a probation violation stemming from a 2004 conviction for attempted burglary. His friend pleaded guilty to the hoax charge and was given probation.
The Herings say they are grateful to the many Marines whose messages of support sustained them while they waited for their son to reappear. Now, they hope he can get therapy and start over.
“I just want him to go forward in life with joy and strength,” Elynne Hering said, “and be able to wake up in the morning and say, ‘Yes, it’s going to be a great day.’ “