September 27, 2011:
Desertion in the U.S. army, which peaked at 4,698 in 2007, has constantly fallen since then, to about a thousand a year. This is about .3 percent of the total force. This decline is due to less combat, fewer troops overseas and higher quality recruits. Up until 2006 there were fewer deserters in the U.S. military each year, and this was after Afghanistan and Iraq were invaded. In 2005, the rate was .24 percent of the total force. That was down from the Vietnam era high (in 1971) of 3.4 percent (more than twice the 2007 rate). Actually, there was another upward trend in the late 1990s (peaking at about .45 percent on September 11, 2001), nearly doubling from the rate in the early 1990s.
After 2001, the rate started coming down, and was lower each year until 2006. At this point, more troops were overseas (mainly in Iraq), there was more combat and recruiting was more difficult. Standards were lowered, and it was known that lower quality recruits were more difficult to train, and more likely to desert. Technically, a soldier deserts after they have been absent (without permission) for more than a month. Before that, they are AWOL (Absent WithOut Leave), which is a less serious offence. But repeated AWOLs can get you tossed out of the military.
Most desertions are usually the result of personal problems, and in recognition of that the U.S. Army changed the way it handled deserters in the last decade. Instead of promptly discharging deserters (most of whom either turn themselves in after a few months, or get picked up the next time they show ID to a cop), they were sent back to their unit. The deserter has a talk with his (most deserters are men) commanding officer. In a growing number of cases, the deserter was given another chance, and usually succeeded at finishing his enlistment.
What has shocked so many observers is that the military, despite a decade of war and a lot of anti-war coverage in the media, recruiting, retention (troops staying in when they could leave) and morale have remained high. A lot of this has to do with the volunteer force. There have been no draftees in the army since the early 1970s. Then there was the generally high quality of the volunteer troops. This meant the troops were more effective, and they knew it. For example, troops were over 60 percent less likely to get killed in combat than their counterparts in Vietnam or World War II. It's a very different army, and the lower desertion rate is only part of it.