In dealing with deserters, military has limited resources but stiff penalties
SEOUL — Army Sgt. Scottie B. Robinson stood at attention in his dress uniform, medals and ribbons pinned to his chest.
He wasn’t receiving another commendation for leading junior soldiers in the dining facility where he worked at Camp Castle. He wasn’t re-enlisting — he had done that less than a year before, pledging another four years’ service. And he wasn’t graduating from the military school he’d been scheduled to attend.
Robinson instead listened as a military judge sentenced him to jail time, reduction to private and a bad conduct discharge.
His promising career came crashing down because he stopped coming to work one day in June. One day stretched to one week. Then one month. By the time Robinson, 31, turned himself in to military authorities after more than six months, he was a deserter, dropped from his unit’s records and facing court-martial charges.
“I felt a little stressed at work,” he told the court before his sentence.
He fled the Army’s 2nd Infantry Division and lived with a friend in Taegu, on the peninsula’s southern end.
Instead of traveling back to the United States in December to buy his sister a car to go to college and to visit his 9-year-old son, he turned himself in to military authorities and entered the military judicial system.
AWOL / desertion
Robinson is just one of the thousands of troops who desert or go absent without leave each year.
Statistics for 2001 — the latest available from the Defense Department — show that 5,060 Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen were declared deserters.
According to a DoD fact sheet, some confusion exists about what defines a deserter.
“The most common misunderstanding … is that you have to be AWOL for 30 days before you are a deserter,” the fact sheet states. “The status of deserter is based on the servicemember’s intent to remain away from his or her unit permanently.”
Maj. Mark Kulish, the 8th Army’s criminal law chief, explained the distinction.
He said if a troop goes AWOL and leaves evidence of not planning to come back, he can be charged with desertion before 30 days have passed.
“This comes into play with the evidence in any UCJM action,” Kulish said, referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
After 30 days, an AWOL troop is classified administratively as a deserter, and the commanding officer signs a charge sheet, Kulish said.
And there are three Uniform Code of Military Justice specifications under which a servicemember can be charged: Article 86, Absent Without Leave (AWOL); Article 85, Desertion; and Article 87, Missing Movement.
Catch me if you can
When a soldier is reported AWOL, the local command conducts an initial investigation trying to discover his or her location and possible reason for leaving, according to military officials.
But absent any sign of foul play, the military can’t spend an inordinate amount of time looking for missing troops, mainly because it lacks the manpower.
“We do a search, and when it’s deemed that we’ve done all we can, we discontinue the active search,” spokesman Lt. Col. Steve Boylan said. “We don’t have the resources to conduct a manhunt around the world.”
This policy became an issue in the Robinson case, both when he was missing and at his court-martial.
Robinson’s mother, Geraldine Bromell, was convinced something bad had happened to her son. She blasted the Army publicly, claiming it wasn’t doing enough to help her.
She also traveled to South Korea in September to search for her son, spending almost two weeks in the country, canvassing the streets, looking for Robinson. She later said the Army was extremely helpful, letting her stay in Camp Casey base lodging and providing her a driver. She still questioned, however, why he hadn’t been found.
“But after two weeks, I just got tired,” she said. “I’m 53 years old, and I was worn out.”
During his court-martial, prosecutors stressed how much time investigators spent on Robinson’s case. One military investigative agent testified his command spent at least 1,000 man-hours searching for Robinson, mainly because of the public attention.
Reasons for leaving
According to a Fiscal 2002 report prepared by the U.S. Army Research Institute, deserters tend to be less educated, come from broken homes and often had engaged in delinquent behavior. As soldiers, they’re usually in the lower enlisted ranks and work in combat-related jobs.
Their reasons for leaving center around family, personal or financial problems and an inability to adjust to military life. And they’re most likely to desert while in transit or on leave.
In 1974, then-President Gerald Ford instituted a clemency program in which Vietnam draft evaders and deserters could return to American society, according to the report.
Forty percent to 50 percent of deserters said they left because of personal, family or financial problems. About 25 percent said they couldn’t adjust to military life; 12 percent said the decision was related to the war in Vietnam; others mentioned causes including Army leadership and administration, drug use or legal issues.
More recently, the Personnel Control Facility at Fort Knox collected information from more than 12,000 Army deserters from 1997 to 2001. According to the report, the results are remarkably consistent with the 1974 data.
Fort Knox researchers found the following percentages of Army deserters claimed these reasons:
33 percent: family problems31 percent: failure to adapt to the military19 percent: issues with the chain of command12 percent: financial problems5 percent: other reasonsStatistics regarding deserter-apprehension rates are not available.
Why are the Air Force’s desertion rates so much lower than the other services?
Jennifer Stephens, an Air Force spokeswoman from Washington, D.C., said keeping airmen happy plays a big role.
“The Air Force is very concerned about quality of life,” she said.
One big aspect is the Aerospace Expeditionary Force concept, which lets the service provide stable deployment schedules. “They know they’re only supposed to be deployed once every 15 months under normal-ops tempo,” Stephens said.
She also pointed to an aggressive law enforcement policy as a strong deterrent.
Maj. Mike Richmond from the Office of Special Investigations at Andrews Air Force, Md., agreed.
He said the Air Force began aggressively pursuing non-fugitive deserters in February 2000. “We’ve caught more than 100 non-fugitive deserters since the program began,” he said.
He also added that OSI pushes to publicize the captures, on the theory that the publicity might give troops considering desertion cause to reconsider.
One thing they might wish to consider, said a former military lawyer, is the myth that going AWOL or deserting is a quick way to get out of the service.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an easy route,” said Annette Eddie-Callagain, who spent almost 12 years as an Air Force legal officer, both defending and prosecuting airmen facing AWOL and desertion charges. She now works as a civilian lawyer on Okinawa, specializing in defending troops.
“You might be court-martialed … might end up in military prison,” she said. “There’s definitely a risk.”
Eddie-Callagain also thinks life as a deserter would be miserable.
“You’re on the run,” she said, “always looking over your shoulder. You don’t know when you’re going to get stopped and caught. You can’t get a real job.”
Troops who desert in Japan and Korea can forget about leaving the country, she said: “You’re kind of stuck. Where are you living? Where are you sleeping? What are you eating? You’re in a foreign country … trying to get a job.”
She said going AWOL or deserting carries no set punishment. Mitigating circumstances — a family death, for instance — are considered. “You have to look at the total package,” the lawyer said.
Even though Eddie-Callagain now defends such cases instead of prosecuting them, she said she can understand the military’s position when punishing those who leave their duty illegally.
“You can see the negative impact on the unit,” she said. “They’re usually trying to accomplish the mission with one less body.”
Kulish, the 8th Army chief of law, said it’s been his experience that going AWOL isn’t a guaranteed way out of the Army.
“Usually the commander will say, ‘Soldier on; I don’t care what you want,’” Kulish said of troops who want to get out of the service after a short absence.
Going AWOL or deserting are “serious breaches of military discipline,” according to the DOD fact sheet. They impact “morale, cohesion and esprit of the entire unit. It is also very costly in terms of training dollars for each of the services.”
In Sgt. Robinson’s case, prosecutors called witnesses — including junior enlisted soldiers — to testify about how Robinson’s desertion impacted their unit and mission.
One private who worked for Robinson in the dining facility said she was “worried about him and just wanted him to come back” — but when she learned he’d deserted, she felt “very disappointed.”
“To me, an NCO going AWOL is not leading from the front, it’s leading from the back,” she said.
And with tens of thousands of U.S. troops at war with Iraq, the private said she’d be worried about going into combat with Robinson: “What’s to say he might not run out again?”
In his closing argument, prosecuting attorney Capt. Gabriel Colwell argued passionately that Robinson must be punished severely because of what his actions meant to the Army as a whole.
“This case is important,” he said to the judge, “because an NCO quit on his unit, on his family and the Army, and he failed to show leadership by disappearing for six months and going AWOL.
“Although the accused quit, no one else did — not his mother, not his unit, and not the Army. His unit didn’t quit,” Colwell said. “They picked up the slack left by his absence by putting a junior enlisted soldier in an NCO’s job in rationing, and they expended tremendous efforts looking for him.
“This case is also important because it’s about leadership. The accused is a noncommissioned officer. He’s supposed to set the standard. Soldiers look up to him, and he set a terrible example. By going AWOL, he told them that it’s OK to run out on your fellow soldiers and team members and to quit.
“This court needs to show leadership by demonstrating to soldiers that it’s not OK to quit on the Army. The Army has issued a stop movement order, which means that many soldiers in Korea are not going to get to their assignments of choice on time. Consequently, many soldiers are going to be increasingly disgruntled in their assignment, and, quite probably, incidence of AWOL and desertion will increase.
“The court needs to tell the rest of the soldiers in Korea that no matter what happens, it’s not all right to quit on the Army. Each and every soldier made a commitment to the Army when they signed their enlistment contract that they would serve out the term of their enlistment no matter what. If you abandon your duties and your fellow soldiers, this court needs to show that you must suffer the consequences.
“This court must send a message,” he said, “that if you quit on the Army, you’re going to prison. If you run, the Army is going to track you down, and when it finds you, you don’t get a slap on the wrist. You don’t get to go back to your unit and just go back to work; all you get to do is go to jail.”
Army1997 — 2,2181998 — 2,5201999 — 2,9662000 — 3,9492001 — 4,611Navy1997 — 1,8581998 — 2,0381999 — 2,4852000 — 3,2552001 — 1,619Air Force1997 — 261998 — 271999 — 452000 — 462001 — 64Marine Corps1997 — 1,3751998 — 1,4601999 — 1,6892000 — 2,0192001 — 1,310