Attrition: Deserters Deserted


July 30, 2007: If you are in the U.S. Army and desert, they won't come after you. It's not worth the effort. Of course, you are cut off from veterans benefits (a substantial part of the overall compensation package), and your name it put on the national fugitives list. If you encounter the law and they run your name past this list, you will be arrested for desertion. But even with that, only five percent of 3,196 deserters last year were court martialed and officially thrown out of the army. Back in the 1990s, only about two percent of deserters were caught. But since September 11, 2001, national criminal databases have gotten more thorough, and heavily used. So more deserters are being found.

The desertion rate has been going up. There were 2,543 in 2005, and 2,357 in 2004, 2,771 in 2003, 4,483 in 2002, 4,597 in 2001, 3,949 in 2000 and 2,966 in 1999. The decline in desertions after 2002 was mainly the result of the army to screen more carefully for adaptation (to military life) problems. Desertion is the largest cause of losses in the military, larger than combat, and non-combat, deaths and serious (resulting in medical discharge) injuries.)

The draft ended in 1972, and since then, deserters have largely resulted from volunteers who had problems adapting to military life. A deserter is anyone on active duty that is away from their unit, without permission, for more than 30 days.

When a deserter is caught, he (it's usually a he) is turned over to military police. The deserter is then returned to their unit, where the punishment ranges from loss of rank and dishonorable discharge, to that, plus up to five years in prison. The most common punishments are at the low end, although in the last few years, there have been more cases of deserters being given another chance to complete their enlistment. Those arrest warrants for deserters never expire, and some Vietnam era deserters are still getting picked up. They get the same treatment as deserters of more recent vintage.

The military never expects to completely eliminate desertion. Despite increased efforts to keep potential deserters (usually the less educated and those from broken homes) out of uniform, the rate is expected to go up again once the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan is over. The current desertion rate, about .5 percent of the force, is much lower than the peak year for Vietnam era desertions, when 3.4 percent of the force took off.


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