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Soldiers won’t be classified AWOL under new policy until Army proves they are intentionally absent

Alpha Company, 40th Expeditionary Signal Battalion conducts a live fire exercise on Range 1B at Fort Huachuca, Arizona.

LARA POIRRIER/U.S. ARMY PHOTO

By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: October 15, 2020

WASHINGTON — Soldiers who fail to report for duty will not be officially classified as AWOL until the Army can prove they have intentionally shirked duty, under a forthcoming policy endorsed this week by the service’s top leaders.

The new policy will create a “clear and unequivocal” category within the service’s records to classify soldiers who fail to show up for work as missing, Gen. James McConville, the Army chief of staff, said Thursday. The change, expected to be made official in the coming weeks, comes as the Army probes several recent cases — primarily at Fort Hood, Texas — of soldiers who were designated AWOL or charged as deserters before being found dead.

“It’s really a mindset issue,” McConville told reporters during a telephone news briefing. “It could be a lot of reasons why the soldier is not present for duty, and, also, not on leave. And I think AWOL carries a connotation with it that we just don't want for soldiers that are missing.”

McConville said the adjustment is meant to clear up confusion about the Army’s longstanding AWOL policies, which automatically qualified a soldier who missed work as AWOL, but did not trigger efforts to locate that individual. The new policy makes clear that soldiers who are missing should immediately and “aggressively” be searched for, the general said.

Commanders should make efforts to contact a missing soldier’s family, their close friends, or others who might know their whereabouts or any issues with which the soldier might be coping, McConville said.

“That's the philosophy that we want in the Army — we wouldn't leave soldiers behind in combat, and we don't want to leave them behind in garrison,” he said.

After a thorough investigation and search effort, soldiers determined to have voluntarily left the service will be declared AWOL. Soldiers classified as AWOL for 30 days automatically become classified as deserters.

The change was triggered, at least in part, as the Army continues probes of the command climate at Fort Hood after the disappearance and death of Spc. Vanessa Guillen this year. The 20-year-old soldier was classified as AWOL after she was murdered by a fellow soldier April 22 in an arms room on the installation. Her dismembered remains were not found until June 30, about 20 miles from Fort Hood.

Guillen’s case “affected us all,” McConville said Thursday. “And quite frankly, we didn’t take care of her.”

Army Secretary Ryan McCarthy said it felt “peculiar” for Guillen to be classified as AWOL, even as the Army knew within one day that she was not intentionally absent.

“But it was just the way the status was declared, that she was AWOL, and so we did learn from that,” the Army’s top civilian said Thursday. The change will “ensure that everybody's mindset is that they're missing until we can prove why they're missing. So I think that's a very, very profound thing, and it'll make our policy much tighter and more sustainable.”

The Army leaders did not provide a specific date when the new policy would be adopted. They also did not say if current cases of AWOL soldiers would be reviewed to determine if some might instead be designated missing.

But McConville encouraged people who believe a soldier is wrongly considered AWOL to contact the Army.

“If there's a family out there that has an AWOL soldier and is concerned about it … we’ll be glad to do whatever we can,” the general said. “Work with that family, with law enforcement to try and help them locate that soldier.”

dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC