U.S. Army prosecutions of desertion rise sharply
International Herald Tribune
By Paul von Zielbauer
April 8, 2007

U.S. Army prosecutions of desertion and other unauthorized absences have risen sharply in the past four years, resulting in thousands more negative discharges and prison time for junior soldiers and combat-tested veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, military records show.

The increased prosecutions are meant, in effect, to serve as a deterrent to a growing number of soldiers who might be looking for a way to avoid heading - or heading back - to Iraq, several U.S. Army lawyers said during interviews. The use of courts-martial for these violations, which before 2002 were treated mostly as unpunished nuisances, is a sign that active-duty forces are being stretched to their limits, said military lawyers and mental health experts.

"They are scraping to get people to go back, and people are worn out," said Thomas Grieger, a senior Navy psychiatrist.

Though there are no current studies to show how combat stress affects desertion rates, Grieger, cited several examples of soldiers absconding or refusing to return to Iraq because of psychiatric reasons brought on by wartime deployments.

At an army base in Alaska last year, for example, "there was one guy who literally chopped off his trigger finger with an axe to prevent his deployment," Grieger said.

The increase in prosecutions comes even though the rate of desertions is lower than it has been at many points in recent years, even during the Vietnam conflict.

From 2002 through 2006, the average annual rate of army prosecutions of desertion tripled compared with the five-year period from 1997 to 2001, to roughly 6 percent of yearly deserters from 2 percent, army data show.

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.

Since 2002, the army has court-martialed twice as many soldiers for desertion and other unauthorized absences than it did on average each year between 1997 and 2001.

Deserters are soldiers who leave a post or fail to show up for an assignment with the intent to stay away. Soldiers considered absent without leave - or AWOL, which a presumes that they plan to return - are classified as deserters and dropped from a unit's rolls after being absent 30 days.

Most soldiers who return from unauthorized absences are punished and discharged. Few return to regular duty.

Officers said the crackdown reflected an awareness by top U.S. Army and Defense Department officials that desertions, which exceeded one percent of the active duty force in 2000 for the first time since the post-Vietnam era, are in a sustained upswing again after ebbing in 2003, the first year of the Iraq war.

At the same time, the increase in desertions and other illegal absences, starting in 2002, highlights a cycle long known to army researchers: as the demand for soldiers increases during a war, desertions rise and the U.S. Army tends to lower enlistment standards, recruiting more people who are, statistics show, far more likely to become deserters.

In the financial year 2006, 3,196 soldiers deserted, the U.S. Army said, a figure that has been climbing since financial 2004, when 2,357 soldiers absconded.

In the first quarter of the current financial year, 871 soldiers deserted, a rate that, if it remained on pace, would produce 3,484 desertions, an 8 percent increase over financial 2006.

The army said that the desertion rate was within historical norms, and that the surge in prosecutions, which were at the discretion of unit commanders, was not a surprise given the profound impact that absent soldiers can have during wartime.

"The nation is at war and the army treats the offense of desertion more seriously," Major Anne Edgecomb, a U.S. Army spokeswoman, said.

"The army's leadership will take what ever measures they believe are appropriate if they see a continued upward trend in desertion, in order to maintain the health of the force."

Army studies and interviews also suggest a link between the rising rate of desertions and its expanding use of moral waivers to recruit people with poor academic records and low-level criminal convictions.

At least 1 in 10 deserters surveyed after returning to the army between 2002 to mid-2004 had required a waiver to enter the service, a 2004 report by the Army Research Institute found.

"We're enlisting more dropouts, people with more law violations, lower test scores, more moral issues," said a senior noncommissioned officer involved in U.S. Army personnel and recruiting.

"We're really scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to get people to join."

Most deserters list dissatisfaction with army life or family problems as primary reasons for their absence, and most go AWOL in the United States.

But since 2003, 109 soldiers have been convicted of going AWOL or deserting war zones in Iraq or Afghanistan, usually during their scheduled two-week leaves in the United States, army officials said.

Desertions, while a chronic problem for the army, are nowhere near as common as they were at the height of the Vietnam War a generation ago.

Between 1968 and 1971, for instance, about 5 percent of enlisted men deserted.

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