In 'Army Of One,' Restless Soldiers Just Desert
Christian Science Monitor (August 12, 2001)
WASHINGTON - Some will call two years after they've gone AWOL. Others call
minutes before leaving their bases. Many want to know their options.
Just as many simply want to tell their story. But whatever their
circumstances, Jennifer Merrill, a volunteer at the GI Rights
Hotline, says that deserters or would-be deserters in the military
make up 90 percent of the calls she takes during her
three-hour weekly shift.
"I think everyone in the military reaches that point where they wish
they never went in," says Ms. Merrill, who served two out of a
three-year enlistment term in the Army before she was discharged on
medical grounds in 1997. "Only some are willing to overcome it."
In all branches of the military, the number of individuals who are
simply walking away from their service commitment is on the rise.
Approximately 9,400 deserted from the four main branches during
fiscal year 2000. That's less than 1 percent of the 1, 371,280 men
and women on active duty that year. But it's also about 2-1/2 times
as many as deserted five years earlier, when the total was about
There may be as many individual reasons for going AWOL as there are
deserters. But many military analysts think they have a pretty good
idea of what is causing the increase.
For more than a decade, they say, about one-third of those who
enlisted in the military left before completing their first term of
enlistment. From the late 1980s until the late '90s, military forces
were largely downsizing.
During that time, the military was willing to let many enlistees who
didn't fit in simply go home, and approved early discharge papers.
"If soldiers had a bad attitude or a bad aptitude," says David Segal,
director of the Center for Research on Military Organizations,
commanders were told: "Help them get out."
Circumstances are different now. The military is no longer
downsizing, and recruiting is much more challenging, with the
services until a year ago having to compete with a roaring economy.
As a result, the military is less willing to let enlistees - in whom
it may have invested tens of thousands of dollars worth of training -
just go home.
Now that they can't so easily receive discharges, analysts say, some
enlistees who are determined to leave are just picking up and walking
away anyway. Perhaps more important, they seem to be doing so with
In wartime, soldiers who desert face a court martial. Now, the
process is practically mundane, with most deserters getting sent away
with an other-than-honorable-discharge - a status that doesn't imply
bad conduct in the way that a dishonorable discharge does.
In the Army, for example, once an enlistee surrenders or is captured,
the paperwork for a discharge can take as little as three days, and
is handled at one of two bases in the US that specialize in deserters.
Leaving under cover of night
Manuel Garcia, a former private first class who deserted the Marine
Corps, knows the routine.
After an altercation with his corporal and souring relations with his
company, Mr. Garcia had had enough. Convinced a discharge was
unlikely, Garcia decided his surest way out was to simply leave his
base in Hawaii. He did - late one night last February on a ticket to
Garcia's plan, he says, was to return to his parents' house in New
Jersey and, when he was ready, maybe turn himself in.
He knew the Marines would have a warrant out for his arrest. Yet,
while getting approved for a new credit card may have been tricky,
Garcia hardly felt like a bandit during that time.
"The only thing I was nervous about was getting caught [as I was
leaving]," he says, referring back to his midnight crawl out of the
barracks with his luggage.
Things didn't go quite according to plan. Police in Kearny, NJ.,
where Garcia was staying with his parents, arrested him two months
after he went UA (unauthorized absence).
But after six weeks of part-time work on a base in Quantico, Va., he
got what he wanted: an other-than-honorable discharge. This
September, he returns to school at the Hudson City Community College
in New Jersey.
The Army, for one, wants to cut down on its desertion problem. "We're
making every effort" to rehabilitate soldiers, rather than discharge
them, says spokeswoman Elaine Kanellis. This fall, the Army hopes to
take the deserters who return, as 95 percent of them eventually do,
and send them back to their original units.
The Army also tracks reasons enlistees leave early, whether or not it
was with the service's permission. The ones most frequently cited are
medical disorders, misconduct, personality disorders, and pregnancy.
Behind those stated reasons lie deeper ones, military analysts say.
The issue of retaining people who want to leave the military early is
"really more a decision about economics, culture, and lifestyle
today, and dealing with authority," says Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst
at the Brookings Institution here.
Thus, it is "harder to fix" than recruiting or reenlistment problems.
In addition, more enlistees today see the military as an employer, he
says, and are less willing to respect authority.
Also increasing as a reason, says Mr. Segal, is departure for
"reasons of sexual orientation." Segal says many enlisted personnel
are using this as a "get-out-of-jail-free card."
If someone is unhappy, he says, he or she can just tell a commanding
officer they're gay and be discharged.
Regardless of why enlistees leave, many do so under extreme duress.
"At some point, there's something that snaps," says hotline volunteer
'An easy way out'
"Almost anyone that calls us wants out of the Army or whatever branch
they're in," says Bill Galvin, a counseling coordinator at the Center
on Conscience and War in Washington. But "even people with legitimate
grounds for discharge, they ask, 'What if I go AWOL?' "
Mr. Galvin suggests that access to the Internet, making it easier for
enlistees to learn their rights, might account in part for a rise in
Just this past week, he says, "I can think of two to three cases of
people who decided to go AWOL... We didn't want them to, but [then]
they find out it's an easy way out.... It's a no-brainer."
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