Army is cracking down on deserters
Brian Harkin, The New York Times, 09
prosecutions of desertion and other unauthorized absences have risen
sharply in the last four years, resulting in thousands more negative
discharges and prison time for both junior soldiers and combat-tested
veterans of the wars in
Iraq and Afghanistan, Army records
prosecutions are meant to serve as a deterrent to a growing number of
soldiers who are ambivalent about heading — or heading back — to Iraq
and may be looking for a way out, several Army lawyers said in
interviews. Using courts-martial for these violations, which before 2002
were treated mostly as unpunished nuisances, is a sign that active-duty
forces are being stretched to their limits, military lawyers and mental
health experts said.
“They are scraping to get
people to go back, and people are worn out,” said Dr. Thomas Grieger, a
senior Navy psychiatrist. Though there are no current studies to show
how combat stress affects desertion rates, Dr. Grieger cited several
examples of soldiers absconding or refusing to return to Iraq because of
psychiatric reasons brought on by wartime deployments
At an Army base in Alaska
last year, for example, “there was one guy who literally chopped off his
trigger finger with an axe to prevent his deployment,” Dr. Grieger said
in an interview.
The Army prosecuted
desertion far less often in the late 1990s, when desertions were more
frequent, than it does now, when there are comparatively fewer.
From 2002 through 2006,
the average annual rate of Army prosecutions of desertion tripled
compared with the five-year period from 1997 to 2001, to roughly 6
percent of deserters, from 2 percent, Army data shows.
Between these two
five-year spans — one prewar and one during wartime — prosecutions for
similar crimes, like absence without leave or failing to appear for unit
missions, have more than doubled, to an average of 390 per year from an
average of 180 per year, Army data shows.
In total, the Army since
2002 has court-martialed twice as many soldiers for desertion and other
unauthorized absences as it did on average each year between 1997 and
2001. Deserters are soldiers who leave a post or fail to show up for an
assignment with the intent to stay away. Soldiers considered absent
without leave, or AWOL, which presumes they plan to return, are
classified as deserters and dropped from a unit’s rolls after 30 days.
Most soldiers who return from unauthorized absences are punished and
discharged. Few return to regular duty.
Officers said the
crackdown reflected an awareness by top Army and Defense Department
officials that desertions, which occurred among more than 1 percent of
the active-duty force in 2000 for the first time since the post-Vietnam
era, were in a sustained upswing again after ebbing in 2003, the first
year of the Iraq war.
At the same time, the
increase highlights a cycle long known to Army researchers: as the
demand for soldiers increases during a war, desertions rise and the Army
tends to lower enlistment standards, recruiting more people with
questionable backgrounds who are far more likely to become deserters.
In the 2006 fiscal year,
3,196 soldiers deserted, the Army said, a figure that has been climbing
since the 2004 fiscal year, when 2,357 soldiers absconded. In the first
quarter of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 871 soldiers
deserted, a rate that, if it stays on pace, would produce 3,484
desertions for the fiscal year, an 8 percent increase over 2006.
The Army said the
desertion rate was within historical norms, and that the surge in
prosecutions, which are at the discretion of unit commanders, was not a
surprise given the impact that absent soldiers can have during wartime.
“The nation is at war,
and the Army treats the offense of desertion more seriously,” Maj. Anne
D. Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman, said. “The Army’s leadership will take
whatever measures they believe are appropriate if they see a continued
upward trend in desertion, in order to maintain the health of the
Army studies and
interviews also suggest a link between the rising rate of desertions and
the expanding use of moral waivers to recruit people with poor academic
records and low-level criminal convictions. At least 1 in 10 deserters
surveyed after returning to the Army from 2002 to mid-2004 required a
waiver to enter the service, a report by the Army Research Institute
“We’re enlisting more dropouts, people with more law violations, lower
test scores, more moral issues,” said a senior noncommissioned officer
involved in Army personnel and recruiting. “We’re really scraping the
bottom of the barrel trying to get people to join.” (Army officials
agreed to discuss the issue on the condition that they not be quoted by
The officer said the Army
National Guard last week authorized 34 states and Guam to enlist the
lowest-ranking group of eligible recruits, those who scored between 16
and 30 on the armed services aptitude test. Federal law bars recruits
who scored lower than 16 from enlisting.
Desertions, while a
chronic problem for the Army, are nowhere near as common as they were at
the height of the Vietnam War. From 1968 to 1971, for instance, about 5
percent of enlisted men deserted.
But the rate of desertion
today, after four years of fighting two ground wars, is “being taken
much more seriously because we were losing so many soldiers out of the
Army that there was a recognized need to attack the problem from a
different way,” said an Army criminal defense lawyer.
In interviews, the lawyer
and two other Army lawyers each traced the spike in prosecutions to a
policy change at the beginning of 2002 that required commanders to
welcome back soldiers who deserted or went AWOL.
Before that, most
deserters, who are often young, undistinguished soldiers who have fallen
out of favor with their sergeants, were given administrative separations
and sent home with other-than-honorable discharges.
The new policy, ordered
by the secretary of the army, effectively eliminated the incentive among
squad sergeants to urge returning AWOL soldiers to stay away for at
least 30 days, when they would be classified as deserters under the old
rules and dropped from the roll.
But some unit commanders,
wary of scrutiny from their superiors, go out of their way to improperly
keep deserted soldiers on their rosters, and on the Army’s payroll, two
officers said in interviews. To counter that, the Army adopted a new
policy in January 2005 requiring commanders to formally report absent
soldiers within 48 hours.
Such problems are costly.
From October 2000 to February 2002, the Army improperly paid more than
$6.6 million to 7,544 soldiers who had deserted or were otherwise
absent, according to a July 2006 report by the
Government Accountability Office.
Most deserters list
dissatisfaction with Army life or family problems as primary reasons for
their absence, and most go AWOL in the United States. But since 2003,
109 soldiers have been convicted of going AWOL or deserting war zones in
Iraq or Afghanistan, usually during their scheduled two-week leaves in
the United States, Army officials said.
With the Iraq war in its
fifth year, a new subset of deserter is emerging, military doctors and
lawyers said: accomplished soldiers who abscond reluctantly, as a result
of severe emotional trauma from their battle experiences.
James, a 26-year-old
paratrooper twice deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, went AWOL in July
after being reassigned to Fort Bliss, Tex., an Army post in the
mountainous high-desert region near El Paso.
“The places I was in in
Iraq and Afghanistan look exactly like Fort Bliss,” said James, who
agreed to talk about his case on the condition that his last name not be
printed. “It starts messing with your head — ‘I’m really back there.’ ”
In December, he and
another deserter, Ronnie, 28, who also asked that his last name not be
used, tried to surrender to the authorities at Fort Bliss. A staff
sergeant told them not to bother, James said.
James and Ronnie, who
both have five years of service, suffer from post-traumatic stress
disorder and abuse alcohol to self-medicate, said Dr. David M. Walker, a
former Air Force psychiatrist who has examined both men.
With help from lawyers,
James and Ronnie returned to Fort Bliss on Tuesday. They were charged
with desertion and face courts-martial and possibly a few months in a
“If I could stay in the
military, get help, that’s what I want,” said Ronnie, who completed an
18-month combat tour in Kirkuk, Iraq, with the 25th Infantry Division in
The Army said
combat-related stress had not caused many soldiers to desert.
Major Edgecomb, the
spokeswoman, said more than 80 percent of the past year’s deserters had
been soldiers for less than three years, and could not have been
deployed more than once.
Morten G. Ender, a
sociologist at the
United States Military Academy at West Point, said soldiers’
decisions to go AWOL or desert might come in response to a family crisis
— a threat by a spouse to leave if they deploy again, for instance, or a
“It’s not just that they
don’t want to be in a war zone anymore,” Dr. Ender said. “We saw that a
lot during Vietnam, and we see that a lot in the military now.”