The United States military has long prided itself on being an all-volunteer force, and
data from around the world has proven time and time again that volunteer soldiers routinely
outperform and outfight conscripted soldiers.
American soldiers can enjoy decent- if not great- pay, medical benefits during and after
serving, a very generous education benefits package, and a slew of other benefits all
meant to entice everyday people to give up their normal lives and become a soldier.
But sometimes service is too much of a burden, or a new recruit realizes that military life
simply isn't something they are cut out for.
Perhaps a soldier objects to being sent to a combat zone either out of cowardice or on
grounds of morality.
For many of these soldiers, the only solution is a drastic one: to go AWOL, or absent without
But what happens when you go AWOL?
Between 2001 and 2012, during the height of the global war on terror, approximately 50,000
US service members went AWOL- either permanently or for short amounts of time.
The military defines AWOL status as not being where ordered to be at the time instructed
to be there, so technically being late to formation can count as being AWOL.
Overwhelmingly most soldiers go AWOL for completely unintended reasons such as being stuck with
bad travel plans, or are AWOL for only a day or two before returning to their unit.
Some however go AWOL with the intention to leave the military permanently.
Once AWOL you have thirty days to report back to duty before you are officially listed as
a deserter, and the punishment you face varies depending on how long you were gone and what
you did during that time.
Once you return from AWOL status, or are captured by law enforcement, you will face a military
court-martial, which is the same as a civilian court with some notable exceptions and is
exclusively for military service members.
Punishments can vary though, and as mentioned before are typically meted out proportionate
to the violation.
Going AWOL for a day or two might earn you disciplinary action from your commanding officer,
and can vary depending on their own judgment from everything from administrative and legal
action, to 'off the record' punishments such as harsh mandatory PT sessions and a bevy
of very unpleasant chores that will make sure you no longer have any free time.
Under Article 87 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, or the laws which govern military
service members, individuals who miss movements- or the departure of a soldier's unit for a
deployment- can be punished in one of two ways.
If a soldier misses the movement on purpose, as in refuses to deploy when ordered, they
can be dishonorably discharged, have all pay and allowances forfeited for a period of time,
be reduced to the lowest enlisted grade- the lowest rank in their service- or be confined
for up to two years.
If the soldier missed their deployment because of their own neglect, but not on purpose,
they may receive a bad-conduct discharge- or Big Chicken Dinner as it's known in military
parlance- forfeit pay and allowances for a period of time, be reduced to the lowest rank,
or be confined for up to one year.
It's important to note that punishments can be cumulative, so for example you may be forced
to forfeit all pay for six months and be reduced in rank.
Under Article 86, soldiers who go absent without leave are subject to various penalties depending
on the nature of their offense.
Soldiers who fail to report to their appointed place of duty- as in being late for work,
leaving work early, not reporting to a new duty station, or miss an appointment- can
be subject to confinement for one month, reduction to the lowest rank, and forfeit two-thirds
of their pay for one month.
Harsh, but it's unlikely you'll face any of these punishments if you're just late to work
a few times a month, but make it a habit and you could very well face one of these punishments,
If a soldier leaves their post without authorization while on guard or watch duty, but does so
without the intent to abandon that post, then they can face the following punishments: confinement
for three months, reduction to lowest rank, and forfeiture of two-thirds pay for three
If a soldier leaves their post but with the intent to actually abandon their post, the
soldier could receive a bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction
to the lowest rank, and confinement for six months.
If a soldier goes absent for no more than three days they can face the following: confinement
for one month, reduction to lowest rank, and forfeiture of two-thirds pay for one month.
Going absent for more than three days but not more than thirty days can land you confinement
for six months, reduction to the lowest rank, and forfeiture of two-thirds pay for six months.
If a soldier goes awol for more than thirty days they can face dishonorable discharge,
forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest rank, and confinement for one
If they are awol for more than thirty days and their official awol status is terminated
by apprehension, meaning the soldier got caught, they face all the same penalties plus confinement
for eighteen months.
If a soldier only goes awol to avoid field exercises or maneuvers, and not to permanently
leave the military, that soldier can face a bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of all
pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest rank, and confinement for six months.
Once a soldier is awol for more than thirty days they can officially be considered a deserter-
although there is a prerequisite that they be found as having gone awol with no intention
of ever returning.
Desertion is the most serious of offenses, and punishments vary on how the soldier was
discovered after deserting, and why they deserted.
If a soldier willingly turns themselves in, they face a dishonorable discharge, reduction
to the lowest rank, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for two years.
If the soldier is apprehended by law enforcement and does not willingly turn themselves in,
they face the same punishments except a three year jail sentence instead of two years.
If however a soldier deserted in order to avoid hazardous duty or shirk important service-
such as a deployment to a combat zone- then they face all the previous punishments and
a jail sentence of five years.
If however a soldier deserts during a time of war, the military court has the right to
sentence the soldier to death or life in prison.
Surprisingly though, the US military very rarely ever goes after soldiers who go awol
or desert, and only around 5% of awol soldiers or deserters ever face punishment.
Typically only those who leave the military and then draw attention to themselves, such
as by becoming anti-war protesters, are caught by law enforcement, with the military generally
happy to let a low-morale troop go and save money by simply training a new one.
With such attractive enlistment boons there's little reason for the military to waste time
and money chasing down a deserter, a new volunteer is never far away.
Do you think you would ever desert the military?
Why or why not?
Let us know in the comments!
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