[A-List] US Army Cracking Down on Deserters
omahkohkiaayo at yahoo.com
Fri Apr 13 09:38:40 MDT 2007
Army Is Cracking Down on Deserters
Brian Harkin for The New York Times
Two soldiers in Texas, Ronnie and James, who did not want to be fully
identified, are among the Army deserters who are facing courts-martial.
By PAUL von ZIELBAUER Published: April 9, 2007 Army 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 show.
The increased 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
>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 units rolls after
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
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
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
The nation is at war, and the Army treats the offense of desertion more
seriously, Maj. Anne D. Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman, said. The Armys
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 force.
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
Were 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. Were 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 name.)
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
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
Armys 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
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
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 Im really
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 military brig.
If I could stay in the military, get help, thats what I want, said
Ronnie, who completed an 18-month combat tour in Kirkuk, Iraq, with the
25th Infantry Division in 2004.
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
years 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 child-custody battle.
Its not just that they dont 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
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