"I am not against soldiers, "Sergeant Kevin Benderman, 40, said at his court-martial on Thursday. "Though some might take my actions as being against soldiers, I want everyone to be home and safe and raising their families. I don't want anyone to be hurt in a combat zone."

Benderman was earlier acquitted of desertion, but convicted of the lesser charge of missing movement, meaning he skipped his 8 January deployment flight. He could have received five years in prison if convicted of desertion.

Along with his 15-month prison sentence, Benderman will receive a dishonourable discharge and have his rank reduced to private.

Anti-war advocates embraced Benderman when he refused to go on a second combat tour in January, saying the destruction and misery he witnessed during the 2003 Iraq invasion had turned him against war.

Defence attorneys argued that the army wanted to punish Benderman for seeking a discharge as a conscientious objector and speaking out publicly about his anti-war views.

Prosecutors said he had an obligation to deploy while the army considered his conscientious objector application, which Benderman filed 10 days before his 3rd infantry division unit deployed.

conscientious objector

"They need to know there are consequences for not doing their duty"

Captain Gary Rowly, Benderman's company commander

Benderman's company commander in the division's 3rd forward support battalion, Captain Gary Rowley, said the verdict would send a message to other soldiers who might look for a way out of serving in Iraq.

"If they saw this and found out it works using smoke and mirrors to get by, we'll have other soldiers saying, 'Well, I'm a conscientious objector'," said Rowley, who returned to Fort Stewart from Iraq to testify at Benderman's court-martial. "They need to know there are consequences for not doing their duty."

William Cassara, Benderman's civilian defence attorney, argued that Benderman believed he had been excused from deploying so he could work on his objector application.

"I think the sentence was overly harsh," said Cassara, who said the soldier would get an automatic appeal.