What Happens to Military Deserters?

Failing to report for military duty is a serious offense carrying severe penalties up to and including capital punishment (the death penalty) for desertion during wartime. The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) covers three charges relating to failure to report for duty—desertion, absence without leave (AWOL), and missing movement.

Being absent without leave for more than 30 days is considered desertion, and missing movement is the failure to board an assigned ship or aircraft. Learn more about these offenses and what happens to military deserters.

Why is Desertion So Serious?

The culture in the military differs profoundly from civilian life. Many individual freedoms are stripped away after joining the armed forces. Each service member plays an important role as a cog in the military machine. Everyone must do their jobs for the collective safety of those around them. When anyone shirks their duties, the machine starts to fall apart.

Desertion was a huge problem during the Civil War when both the Confederate and Union armies were largely volunteer forces comprised of men unfamiliar with the rules of war and the rigors of military life. Interestingly, Samuel Clemens—whose career later took off under the pen name Mark Twain—was among these deserters. He joined a ragtag team of about a dozen men, who spent two uneventful weeks retreating from Union troops. The group soon disbanded, with several joining other Confederate units, but most scattered, including Clemens. He reasoned that his desertion was acceptable because he was “not made for soldiering.”

While many deserters during the Civil War were granted leniency, some received punishments. These included lashing and branding, incarceration in the stockade, non-lethal punishments meant to humiliate the offender, and execution.

Today, the sentences for desertion, AWOL, and missing movement often involve forfeiture of pay, confinement, and other punishments. The maximum penalties are purposely intimidating to prevent would-be deserters from going through with their plans.

Punishments for Desertion

Article 85 of the UCMJ covers desertion with intent to permanently leave the armed forces, shirk critical service, or avoid high-risk duty. Desertion also applies to anyone who tenders their resignation and quits their post or proper duties before receiving notice of its acceptance. An offender who is AWOL for 30 days is automatically considered a deserter, regardless of intent.

Desertion carries various maximum sentences, depending on the circumstances surrounding the charge. For instance:

Punishments for deserting but voluntarily returning to the military may include:

  • Reduction to the lowest enlisted grade
  • Forfeiture of all pay and allowances
  • Dishonorable discharge
  • Confinement for two years

Punishments for deserting and then terminating the desertion due to apprehension may include:

  • All of the above punishments
  • Confinement for three years

Punishments for deserting with the intent to avoid hazardous duty, deployment, or important service may include:

  • All of the above punishments
  • Confinement for five years

Punishments for deserting during wartime may include:

  • Life in prison
  • Capital punishment
  • Other punishments at the discretion of the court-martial

Punishments for Absence without Leave (AWOL)

Article 86 addresses offenders who fail to report to their unit or appointed place of duty, leave that place, or are otherwise absent without the permission or knowledge of their superior officers. Absence without leave is a less serious offense than an Article 85 desertion charge.

AWOL punishments depend on the severity of the offense and the commanding officer’s discretion. For instance:

Punishments for arriving late, leaving a post early, or being absent for three days or less may include:

  • Reduction to the lowest enlisted grade
  • Forfeiture of two-thirds pay for one month
  • Confinement for one month

Punishments for leaving guard or watch duty without authorization may include:

  • Reduction to the lowest enlisted grade
  • Forfeiture of two-thirds pay for three months
  • Confinement for three months

Punishments for being absent from a unit, organization, or another place of duty for three to 30 days may include:

  • Reduction to the lowest enlisted grade
  • Forfeiture of two-thirds pay for six months
  • Confinement for six months

Punishments for leaving guard or watch duty without authorization and with the intent to avoid field exercises or abandon the post permanently may include:

  • Reduction to the lowest enlisted grade
  • Forfeiture of all pay and allowances
  • Confinement for six months
  • Bad-conduct discharge

Being AWOL for more than 30 days is considered desertion. Punishments may include:

  • Reduction to the lowest enlisted grade
  • Forfeiture of all pay and allowances
  • Confinement for one year
  • Dishonorable discharge

Punishments for Missing Movement

Article 87 deals with service members assigned to board a ship, unit, or aircraft, who were aware that the vessel would move at a specific time, yet missed boarding the vessel. Be aware that missing movement refers to a ship, unit, or aircraft relocating a significant distance away for a substantial period of time. As a result, the punishments are quite severe, even if the service member acted unintentionally. For instance:

Punishments for missing the movement through negligence may include:

  • Reduction to the lowest enlisted grade
  • Forfeiture of all pay and allowances
  • Confinement for one year
  • Bad-conduct discharge

Punishments for missing the movement deliberately may include:

  • Reduction to the lowest enlisted grade
  • Forfeiture of all pay and allowances
  • Confinement for two years
  • Dishonorable discharge

Seek Representation from a Military Defense Lawyer

As a service member, you may decide to leave your post for many reasons. Having unrealistic expectations, failing to adjust to military life, learning about a family emergency, or wanting to avoid a dangerous assignment are just a few examples. Regardless of the reason, you may now be facing serious consequences for your actions.

In many cases, it’s best to turn yourself in because the longer you’re absent, the more severe your punishment is likely to be. However, before you make such a consequential decision, you should contact an attorney who specializes in defending military service members.

Joseph L. Jordan, Attorney at Law, is a knowledgeable military defense lawyer with experience handling all kinds of UCMJ violations, including desertion, AWOL, and missing movement. We seek justice for service members from all branches of the military stationed worldwide. Mr. Jordan’s aggressive, uncompromising approach helps promote positive results for our clients.

For more information about defending yourself against desertion allegations, please call us toll-free at 800-580-8034 or 254-221-6411 to speak directly with Mr. Jordan about your case.

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