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Calling attention to the problem of army deserters.

While desertion is a problem that directly involves only a very small number of Soldiers within the U.S. Army, the distractions and inconvenience caused by deserters have a great indirect impact. Leaders at all levels should adopt a strong policy toward desertion, thereby sending the message that command accountability in dealing with desertion benefits the Army in general.

The Manual for Courts-Martial, United States (2012 Edition) defines a deserter as "any member of the armed forces who--without authority, goes or remains absent from his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to remain away therefrom permanently ... 'n Desertion negatively impacts the U.S. Army. Discipline through accountability is one of the primary foundations of military culture. Soldiers who fail to uphold their Army obligation by deserting are committing a disservice to their units. In addition to their failure to contribute to the mission, they force their units to invest time and resources to address their absence. Therefore, their absence erodes the discipline of the Army and runs counter to fiscal conservation. While a single Soldier's absence is disruptive enough, a failure to address the transgression would be much worse. It would send the incorrect message to the rest of the unit that indiscipline is acceptable.

Current regulations offer conflicting instructions for processing Soldiers in absentee or deserter status. And in 2012, the Army Audit Agency concluded that the Army did not have sufficient controls in place and that current operations did not support established policies and procedures for reporting absentee Soldiers to the pay system to ensure that their pay was stopped. As a result of the shortcomings, Soldiers in absentee status continued to receive pay and benefits.2 A review of Army policy, followed by the revision of regulations and a streamlining of the process, would enable the Army to more effectively identify deserters and pursue the appropriate courses of action.

Current Situation

As of spring 2014, there were about 1,500 Army deserters, which amounts to only 0.3 percent of the total Army population.3 But although the percentage is low, the impact is great.

The U.S. Army Office of the Provost Marshal General (OPMG) is responsible for establishing law enforcement policies and procedures for the Absentee Deserter Apprehension Program. The U.S. Army Deserter Information Point maintains a complete roster of deserters. The roster is periodically reconciled among the Deserter Information Point; OPMG; and the Deputy Chief of Staff of Personnel (G-l), Department of the Army (DA). The Deserter Information Point tracks reported deserters, OPMG verifies law enforcement reporting, and the G-l verifies that the deserter has been administratively processed and dropped from the rolls.

OPMG classifies deserters into seven categories:4

* Top 75 Most Wanted. This category includes the top 75 most wanted individuals. In addition to desertion, these individuals are also wanted for other serious charges, such as drug violations and crimes against persons. The "Top 15 Most Wanted," which is a subset of this category, is the group of wanted individuals most widely disseminated among interagency partners and additional law enforcement agencies. Entries in the Top 75 Most Wanted category are continuously updated and evaluated for prioritization.

* Top 200 Most Wanted. This category includes the top 200 most wanted individuals.

* Possibly Deceased. About 40 of the oldest deserters (deserters who are approximately 70 years of age or older) may have died. OPMG has been unable to verify the deaths of these individuals with the Social Security Administration. These individuals deserted long ago; therefore, tracking down documentation for these individuals is generally time-intensive.

* Defectors. About 60 Soldiers may have claimed asylum in foreign countries. Through criminal intelligence and interagency cooperation, these individuals have been tracked to a foreign country, where they may have been given a political affiliation. However, this does not necessarily qualify them as defectors in that country. They must apply for citizenship in the new country in order to be considered defectors.

* Foreign-Born Soldiers. About 350 foreign-born Soldiers who retained their foreign passports upon entry into the Army may have left the country.5 Soldiers who have foreign passports with no numbers can exit and reenter the country without detection. The tracking of these Soldiers requires extensive coordination with national and international agencies.

* Initial-Entry Soldiers. About 250 Soldiers deserted during initial-entry training.

* Simple Deserters. This category includes about 800 Soldiers who have been absent from the Army for more than 1 year and who do not have any additional charges pending. Most of these Soldiers are not hiding from authorities; however, there has been little reason to pursue them.

About 200 Soldiers are added to the deserter population each year. Those with the most egregious offenses may displace deserters currently listed in the Top 75 or Top 200 Most Wanted.

An additional classification--special-category absentees--has recently surfaced as an emergent priority that is accompanied by additional law enforcement requirements. A Soldier is classified as a special-category absentee if he or she is assigned to a "special mission" unit or has "had access to top secret, sensitive compartmented information, or special-access program information during the 12 months preceding the absence."6 The commander is required by Army regulations to immediately declare the Soldier a deserter, regardless of the duration of the absence. An electronic alert is also issued through the National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System. In addition to other measures, an investigative task force composed of representatives from the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (commonly known as CID), the supporting counterintelligence office, the local Federal Bureau of Investigation office, and other law enforcement agencies is established. Procedures are expedited, which reflects concern about protecting information that the Soldier may possess. The priority of a specialcategory absentee may supersede other preexisting priority targets.

For the past 2 years, OPMG has collaborated with the U.S. Marshals Service in the targeting, tracking, and apprehension of deserters. The U.S. Marshals Service, which specializes in tracking fugitives, is composed of a highly developed network of field offices and has formed well-established relationships with local law enforcement agencies. As of May 2014, this interagency collaboration had resulted in 18 arrests of Top 75 Most Wanted criminals. (7)

Deserters may return to the Army voluntarily or through apprehension. A Soldier who is apprehended by civilian law enforcement personnel is detained until Army representatives can be dispatched to secure the Soldier for transportation. Compliant deserters who surrender to law enforcement officials may be transported on their own recognizance.

Regardless of the length of absence, returning deserters are placed with their last unit of assignment for adjudication. The chain of command determines the severity of the offenses and the disposition of the Soldier. The Soldier might receive nonjudicial punishment and an administrative discharge or face trial by court-martial.

In November 2012, the Department of Defense (DOD) issued Department of Defense Instruction (DODI) 1325.02, Desertion and Unauthorized Absence (UA), which updates policy, responsibilities, and procedures with the intent to "reduce desertion, UA, or designation as absent without leave (AWOL) of military personnel." (8) Of particular note is the official distinction of "desertion under aggravated circumstances," which applies when the deserter is a commissioned officer and the offense is specified in Title 10, U.S. Code, Subtitle A, Part II, Chapter 47, Uniform Code of Military Justice ,9 This designation qualifies the deserter for direct entry into the Federal Bureau of Investigation National Crime Information Center database, thereby facilitating the designee's warrant for arrest.

Army Regulations

There are two Army regulations (ARs) that deal with Soldiers who desert:

* AR 630-10, Absence Without Leave, Desertion, and Administration of Personnel Involved in Civilian Court Proceedings. This regulation addresses personnel absences at the administrative level. It covers the reporting of unauthorized absentees and deserters, the administration of AWOL and deserter personnel, the surrender of military personnel to civilian law enforcement authorities, and the return of absentees and deserters to military control. (10)

* AR 190-9, Absentee Deserter Apprehension Program and Surrender of Military Personnel to Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies. This regulation addresses personnel absences at the law enforcement level. It establishes policy and provides procedures for the reporting of absentees and deserters, political defectors, and special-category absentees; the apprehension and processing of absentees and deserters; and the surrender of military personnel to civilian law enforcement authorities. (11)

The key factor is ensuring that the Soldier is correctly identified as a deserter as soon as possible. The distinguishing factor is the intent of the Soldier to remain absent permanently, regardless of how much time has lapsed since he or she departed.

Terminology and Military Justice

One of the challenges facing the Army is the terminology related to absences. The Uniform Code of Military Justice lists absence without leave and desertion as punishable offenses:

* AWOL. In Article 86, a Soldier who is AWOL is defined as "any member of the armed forces who, without authority, fails to go to his appointed place of duty at the time prescribed; goes from that place; or absents himself or remains absent from his unit, organization, or place of duty at which he is required to be at the time prescribed."12

* Desertion. In Article 85, a deserter is defined as "any member of the armed forces who, without authority, goes or remains absent from his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to remain away therefrom permanently; quits his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service; or without being regularly separated from one of the armed forces, enlists or accepts an appointment in the same or another one of the armed forces without fully disclosing the fact that he has not been regularly separated or enters any foreign armed service, except when authorized by the United States." (13)

The primary difference between the two definitions is in regard to the intent. Although a Soldier who is absent without leave is not present--and the absence is deliberate and intentional--there is no reason to believe that it is permanent; a deserter, on the other hand, intends to permanently remain absent.

Absence without leave is a much less serious offense than desertion. It general, the term applies to situations in which "any member of the armed forces is, through the member's own fault, not at the place where the member is required to be at a prescribed time."14 Other stipulations regarding the duration and circumstances of the absence may result in the mitigation of punishment.

The maximum punishment for the more serious offense of desertion is a "dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 5 years." (15) However, in time of war, the punishment may be "death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct." (16)

Army Audit

In 2013, the U.S. Army Audit Agency examined policies, procedures, and controls regarding the handling of Soldiers in absentee or deserter status. (17) The investigators concluded that the Army did not have sufficient controls in place to enforce the established policies and procedures for reporting absent Soldiers. As a result of the shortcomings, these Soldiers continued to receive pay and benefits. From January 2010 to July 2012, the Army made more than 9,000 payments totaling about $16 million to absent Soldiers ,18 In addition, absent Soldiers who were not properly processed continued to receive military benefits, including medical care and facility access. In cases in which an absent Soldier who had not been properly processed died, the Soldier's family received death benefits.

The audit report identified specific procedural deficiencies that contributed to financial loss to the Army. Although the Army reporting system had relied on subordinate units to submit information to higher headquarters, the headquarters did not place any emphasis on the need for this information. (19) Unit commanders did not confirm the status of Soldiers incarcerated in civilian confinement facilities; therefore, these Soldiers were released from civilian control, but not returned to military duty. (20) Furthermore, gaining commands did not reconcile rosters of expected personnel transfers with those of in-processed personnel. In addition, discrepancies that were noted were not reported. The audit report cited an overall lack of command leadership emphasis as the fundamental cause of these problems. (21)

The audit report projected a possible savings of $39 million from fiscal year 2013 through 2018 if emphasis were placed on unit commanders to correctly process administrative actions for absent Soldiers. (22) Although the percentage of absent Soldiers may be low, units that correctly follow established procedures can save large amounts of money.


Contemporary evidence clearly demonstrates the negative influence that desertion has on the Army. This is an expensive problem, costing the Army in terms of discipline and resources. With a total active duty population of half a million Soldiers, it may be impractical for the Army to consider the total elimination of desertion; however, it is incumbent upon Army leaders to make every effort to minimize the disruption that desertion causes within the ranks. ?%


(1) Manual for Courts-Martial, United States (2012 Edition), p. IV-10.

(2) Audit Report A-2013-0119-FMF, "Stopping Pay for Soldiers in an Absentee/Deserter Status," U.S. Army Audit Agency, 13 July 2013, p. 5.

(3) FY12 Army Profile, G-1, DA, 30 September 2012, <http:// 12 _ARMY_PROFILE.pdf>, accessed on 27 January 2015.

(4) All statistical information included in the deserter categories was obtained during discussions with the senior policy advisor at the OPMG, Washington, D.C., 26 March 2014.

(5) Not all deserters who are foreign-born Soldiers return to the country of their birth. Some foreign-born deserters have been located and apprehended in other countries (including the United States) and returned to military control.

(6) AR 190-9, Absentee Deserter Apprehension Program and Surrender of Military Personnel to Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies, 18 January 2007, p. 4.

(7) Personal interview with Major Michael Thurman, interagency fellow, 28 March 2014.

(8) DODI 1325.02, Desertion and Unauthorized Absence (UA)," 16 November 2012, < /pdf/132502p.pdf>, accessed on 28 January 2015.

(9) Title 10, U.S. Code, Subtitle A, Part II, Chapter 47, Uniform Code of Military Justice, Subchapter X, Section 886, Article 86, "Absence Without Leave," 21 July 2010.

(10) AR 630-10, Absence Without Leave, Desertion, and Administration of Personnel Involved in Civilian Court Proceedings, 13 January 2006, p. 1.

(11) AR 190-9, p. 1.

(12) Title 10, U.S. Code, Subtitle A, Part II, Chapter 47, Uniform Code of Military Justice.

(13) Ibid, Section 885, Article 85, "Desertion."

(14) Manual for Courts-Martial, United States (2012 Edition), p. IV-14.

(15) Ibid, p. IV-12.

(16) Ibid. The last execution for desertion was Private Eddie Slovik, who was put to death by firing squad in Germany on 31 January 1945. Of thousands of American Soldiers court-martialed for desertion during World War II, he was the only one executed for the military offense. (Source: Benedict B. Kimmelman, "The Example of Private Slovik," American Heritage, Vol. 38, Issue 6, September/October 1987, /example-private-slovik, accessed on 28 January 2015.)

(17) Audit Report A-2013-0119-FMF.

(18) Ibid., p. 5.

(19) Ibid, p. 9.

(20) Ibid, p. 8.

(21) Ibid.

(22) Ibid, p. 5.

Major Spangler is a Joint Chiefs of Staff intern serving as an action officer with the Manpower and Personnel Directorate (J-l), Personnel Readiness Division, Joint Staff. She holds a bachelor's degree in political science from the U.S. Military Academy-West Point, New York, and master's degrees in policy management from Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., and business and organizational security management from Webster University.
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Author:Spangler, Megan R.
Publication:Military Police
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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