Attrition: Deserters As A Cost Of Doing Business


November 19, 2007: The desertion rate for the U.S. Army has been going up. There were 42 percent more in 2007, than the year before. In fiscal 2007 (that ended on September 30th), the army lost nine soldiers per thousand to desertion. That's twice as many soldiers as were lost to combat (dead and seriously wounded). Desertion is the largest cause of losses in the military, larger than combat, and non-combat, deaths and serious (resulting in medical discharge) accident injuries. A deserter is anyone on active duty that is away from their unit, without permission, for more than 30 days.

Actually, the desertion rate is about the same as it was before the Iraq invasion. There were 4,698 deserters in 2007, 3,301 in 2006, 2,543 in 2005, 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. But since 2003, the army has made many changes in its recruiting, so that now, about 20 percent of the recruits are people who would not be accepted before 2003. But new screening and training methods have turned nearly all of those "unacceptable" recruits into effective soldiers. But there has been additional costs, in terms of more expensive training, and higher dropout rates. For the army, a deserter is basically a dropout, a recruit that didn't work out.

The draft ended in 1972, and during the Vietnam war, there were years where the desertion rate was more than three times what it is now. Since then, only volunteers are accepted, and the main problem is people do have problems adapting to military life. The current war has meant that about 60 percent of army personnel will end up in a combat zone. That tends to be a high stress situation for some, and that often results in desertion.

Another aspect of desertion is that, if you walk away, the army won't come after you. It's not worth the effort. Of course, deserters 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 current deserters are court martialed and officially thrown out of the army each year. 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.

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.




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