US military now turning its back on deserters
Quick discharge, not prosecution, is usual outcome

By Paul Pringle, Los Angeles Times, 5/27/2003

Nick Thomas is a soldier without pity. He serves flag and country by dealing with the men and women who shucked the same Army uniform he wears. And he can't stand their whining. 

''I have no respect for these people,'' said Thomas, 25, his soft face stiffening. ''I hate hearing their sob stories.''

He hears plenty. As a military police investigator based at Fort Irwin in a Mars-colored corner of the Mojave Desert northeast of Barstow, Calif., Thomas is responsible for picking up deserters who get snared in the law enforcement net across Southern California and Nevada. Listening to their tales of woe is distasteful enough in peacetime, Thomas says. When comrades are under fire overseas, he finds the subjects of his mission particularly offensive.

''They train as part of a group, as a family, and then they don't go,'' he said, shaking his head. ''You want to make them cry.''

But he says he does nothing to evoke tears -- no interrogation-room bullying about a court-martial, no threats of a long stretch in the brig.

Officials say today's Army takes a passive, good-riddance approach to its runaways, who account for fewer than 1 percent of enlistees. Prosecutions and prison sentences have become rare. Most of the several thousand deserters who bolt each year aren't actively pursued. Of those who do wind up in custody, more than 90 percent are discharged as quickly as the paperwork can be processed.

''Hunt them down? No way,'' said Thomas, who sat in a wind-hammered bungalow as Humvees lumbered along the dusty roads outside. ''I've never heard of a court-martial'' for a deserter.

The Army has been a volunteer vocation since the end of the Vietnam War-era draft, so commanders have grown increasingly content to cut loose anyone unwilling to fight. A similar attitude prevails in the Marine Corps and Navy, officials say, and it hasn't changed because of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

''We really don't look for deserters anymore,'' said Mark Raimondi, spokesman for the Army's Criminal Investigation Command. ''If folks don't want to stay around, we don't want them.''

Deserters are generally free to run until local civilian authorities happen to detain them, often for traffic violations, and warrant checks identify them as military fugitives. A large number turn themselves in. Others are given up by parents or spouses.

Sooner or later, most deserters face the music, Pentagon officials say. The tune is typically an administrative discharge on less-than-honorable terms, which can disqualify deserters for federal jobs as well as government-subsidized home loans and tuition grants. That doesn't seem enough to gung-ho types like Thomas. They say deserters, at minimum, should be required to finish their tour, preferably in an undesirable assignment. ''You join the Army to serve your country, and now that it's time to serve, you're going to leave?'' said Peter Cormier, 30, Thomas's supervisor.

Cormier was walking through the provost marshal's station, a cinderblock maze that houses the lockup at Fort Irwin. MPs in camouflage fatigues milled about. The words ''loyalty,'' ''duty,'' and ''respect'' were painted on the walls of a holding cell -- scoldings for a captive audience.

The only prisoner was a young soldier who had been AWOL for two weeks. He surrendered at the front gate and was awaiting transport to Fort Lewis in Washington state, the post he fled. The man, whom MPs would not allow to be interviewed, sat in the cage with his head bowed.

Soldiers are usually classified as deserters when they have been absent without leave for 30 days and show no intention of returning. Last year 3,800 Army soldiers deserted, meaning that the Army's desertion rate was one-sixth of what it was during the Vietnam War, when it totaled 5 percent of the rolls.

A 2002 study by the Army Research Institute found that about 70 percent of deserters left during their first year of duty. They tended to be younger than the average recruit and more likely to come from broken homes. Many had been in trouble with the law before. The majority cited either family problems or a ''failure to adapt'' as the reason they deserted.

This story ran on page A9 of the Boston Globe on 5/27/2003.
Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.

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