Mideast edition, Sunday, June 10, 2007

According to the Army, more soldiers deserted in 2001 and 2002 — before the Iraq war — than in any subsequent year.

And while there has been an increase in deserters in the last two years — 3,300 last year — the number still constitutes less than 1 percent of the force, the Army says.

Desertion can lead to serious consequences. But the majority of the time, it ends with a less-than-honorable discharge but no criminal prosecution.

“What happens to many of the deserters is that they get administratively discharged,” said Maj. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman.

Edgecomb did not provide statistics on how deserters’ cases were handled; a news report in April citing Army statistics said more deserters were facing courts-martial than in previous years. But Edgecomb said that of deserters outprocessed at Fort Knox, Ky., where many U.S. Army Europe soldiers who desert end up, 70 percent are administratively discharged.

The Military Counseling Network near Heidelberg, Germany, has noted that few soldiers based in Europe who desert face criminal penalties, as long as they fall under certain conditions.

These are: they must not be on a deployment list; they must not have pending actions against them under the Uniform Code of Military Justice; they have to make it back to the U.S. before 30 days, when an arrest warrant is issued; and they should turn themselves in after 30 days when they’ve been dropped from their unit’s rolls to one of two personnel control centers, Fort Knox or Fort Sill, Okla.

Michael Sharp, at the MCN, said his organization would never encourage anyone to break the law and desert, but when soldiers ask what happens if they go absent without leave, the MCN can tell them what it knows.

Chris Capps, 23, had asked MCN about what happens when a soldier goes AWOL before he decided to do it — after, he said, he had become disillusioned with the military and the effects the war had on Iraqis — and before he could be deployed to Afghanistan.

Capps went on leave, flew to the States and stayed in New York City until he knew he had been dropped from his unit’s rolls. After that, Capps said, his commander had no authority over him.

Capps turned himself in at Fort Sill. In fewer than four days, he was out of the Army, with an other-than-honorable discharge.

“What else are they going to do with them?” Sharp said. “What are they going to use their resources for? It’s a way for the Army to get rid of these guys without using extensive resources and time. They have hundreds of soldiers going AWOL.”

Edgecomb said each desertion case is handled based on its own merits. “There’s no ‘magic formula’ for the handling of a deserter,” Edgecomb wrote in an e-mail. “The disposition of each case is handled individually and the consequences depend on the circumstances surrounding the Soldier’s desertion.”

Still, she said, most deserters — if not on deployment orders — are discharged without being prosecuted. That’s because, she said, deserters are generally young soldiers who’ve served less than three years and have a variety of problems. The Army, she said, is neither interested in keeping them nor bringing them to court-martial.

“How effective are they going to be if they become the bad apple?” she said.

But according to an April story in The New York Times, prosecutions for desertion and being AWOL have increased markedly since the Iraq war began.

According to the story, from 2002 through last year, the average annual rate of Army prosecutions of desertion “tripled compared with the five-year period from 1997 to 2001.” According to the story, that meant that about 6 percent of yearly deserters were being prosecuted, up from 2 percent previously.

“Between these two five-year spans, prosecutions for similar crimes, like absence without leave or failure to appear for unit missions, have more than doubled, to an average of 390 per year from an average of 180 per year, Army data show.”

According to the story, the “crackdown” was a reflection of Army officials’ awareness that desertions, which the story said exceeded 1 percent of the active- duty force in 2000 for the first time since the post-Vietnam era, were “in a sustained upswing again after ebbing in 2003, the first year of the Iraq war.”

“The nation is at war and the Army treats the offense of desertion more seriously,” Edgecomb was quoted as saying in that story.

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

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