FROM THE OUTSET, IT WAS AN UNUSUAL case of theft. In August 1993 police in Wellington, New Zealand, charged parking-meter collector David Mitchell with pocketing at least $30,000 in change over a 5½-year period. Authorities were also disturbed by Mitchell's decidedly non-Kiwi accent and his questionable documentation: he had a driver's license but no birth certificate or passport. When they finally threatened to withhold bail, Mitchell made a startling admission: his name was George Warstler, and he was a U.S. soldier who had been AWOL since the Vietnam War, 24 years before.

Warstler, now 48, then told police the sorry tale of a damaged life and a lost quarter-century. Shipped to Vietnam when he was 21, Warstler says, he began drinking hard during his first combat tour as an infantry staff sergeant. "Whiskey? I could drink a bottle of whiskey in the morning," he says. "Dope later." Rather than returning stateside at the end of his duty—where a wife and two children awaited him—Warstler made his way to Sydney. "I think I was scared to go home," he says. "I think I had changed that much in the 18 months. I had seen so much, done so much. I had changed more than I had in my whole life." The troubled soldier lost himself in Sydney's bars until "I just sobered up one day, and it was about two or three months later."

By then the Army had classified him AWOL, and Warstler went underground, changing his name and job repeatedly. Finally, after 12 years, the Pentagon declared him legally dead in 1981.

When U.S. Army officials learned of his arrest, they were stunned. "This is the first time someone has been declared administratively dead," says Army spokeswoman Maj. Bonnie Herbert, "and then brought back to life." The news was even more jolting though to Warstler's family in Ashley, Ind. (pop. 767), 36 miles north of Fort Wayne. Warstler's German-born wife, Gisela, 47, first told her daughter, Judy, 27. The two women then went to Warstler's sister and two brothers and finally to his 71-year-old mother, Jo. "She had the same reaction as everyone else," Gisela recalls. "She started crying."

Last to learn was Warstler's son, Gary, 29, now a loan officer at a Toledo, Ohio, mortgage company and a married father of two. Gary, who had never believed his father was dead, phoned Warstler in New Zealand—but was so nervous that he hung up almost immediately. "I remember sweat falling off my chin," he says. "I was watching it hit the table." Eventually, he began speaking regularly with his father by phone, and last November he flew to New Zealand to meet him for the first time since 1967—when Gary was 2.

It had been a long, strange journey for George Warstler since he dropped out of school in Ashley at 15 and persuaded his mother and his late father, Norman, a factory worker, to let him join the Army a year later. At first he was stationed in Augsburg, Germany, where in 1964 he fell in love with Gisela Griebsch, a 16-year-old student he had met at a dance hall. One reason she liked him: unlike many GIs, he was a teetotaler. "I couldn't even get him to drink a beer," she recalls.

By the time they were married the following year, Gisela was five months pregnant. "The day Gary was born, George said it was the most important day of his life," she says. "He was holding Gary, saying how happy he was." Pour months after Judy's birth in July 1967, Gisela recalls, Warstler was shipped to Vietnam. Gisela, who spoke little English, settled with the kids in Warstler's Indiana hometown. George's letters home were short, but in one he wrote matter-of-factly about seeing a buddy getting his head blown off. In March 1968 the couple met in Hawaii for a week together. By then, Warstler had begun drinking heavily and showing the effects of combat. At night, Gisela says, he would jump out of bed in a sweat, screaming. "He just wasn't the same person, you could tell that right away," she says.

When his first one-year tour of duty ended in November 1968, Warstler volunteered for another six months. "I had everything I wanted: plenty of alcohol and dope," he says. But when he applied for a third tour the following year, "I was told it was time for me to go home. They gathered I had had enough."

Warstler still had eight months left in the Army and was given 45 days to report to Fort Riley, Kans. Instead, while Gisela waited in vain, he quietly slipped off to Sydney. Later, adapting a tactic used by the title character in Frederick Forsyth's 1971 thriller, The Day of the Jackal, he began borrowing names from newspaper obituaries as he drifted, working in factories to pay his way.

Finally in 1978, Warstler left Australia for the one country that would admit him without a passport—New Zealand—where he worked the next eight years on the railways before settling in Wellington. Whenever anyone asked about his past, he says, "I would say my family had been killed when I was young." Usually no one asked. "I let them talk and just listened," he says. "It was easy."

But coping with Warstler's disappearance was anything but easy for his family. Gisela got a job at a wire factory, working for $1.85 an hour, and kept hoping George would magically reappear. "Everywhere I looked, I thought I would see him somewhere," she says. "But it was all mind tricks." In the early 70s, she began living with truck driver Rick Hossinger, now 54. "Life was pretty doggone lonely and scary with two kids," she says. "I needed someone around."

Hossinger, who still lives with Gisela, treated her children as if they were his own. "Rick was always there for me, but as I got older there was this empty spot," says Gary, a former high school basketball star. Judy, now an administrative assistant at a factory, says she and Gary avoided asking their mother about their missing father. "It would have upset my mother too much," she explains.

Now that Warstler has been found, each family member has made a separate peace. "When I was 18, my biggest concern was how many points I was going to score that night," says Gary. "I could not imagine running for my life, shooting and killing people. If you put me in his shoes, I can't tell you I wouldn't have done the same thing."

Gisela didn't talk to Warstler until after Gary returned from New Zealand, but she was taken aback when she saw a picture of her long-lost husband. "The only thing vaguely familiar about him was the way he held his cigarette," she says. "At that point I felt nothing but sadness for him. He looked like a man who had been totally battered." She called just before Christmas. He told her that he didn't come back because of his problems with the war—not with her or their family. "I let him know there were no hard feelings," she says.

Authorities in both New Zealand and America may be less forgiving. If convicted in New Zealand on the theft charges, to which he has pleaded not guilty, Warstler faces a possible seven-year prison term. And when and if he returns to the U.S., he will be taken to an Army base to clear up possible charges of desertion. Still, Warstler, who has been receiving medical treatment for his nerves and says he has cut back on his drinking, muses, "I've had a good life, considering. I haven't done anything different from any other normal person, except not show up when I was supposed to go home."

DAVID GROGAN
BRYAN ALEXANDER in Ashley and Toledo and KIRSTEN WARNER in New Zealand

  • Contributors:
  • Bryan Alexander,
  • Kirsten Warner.