It is not uncommon for employees to be absent without leave (AWOL) in workplaces; the military is no exemption. In the military it’s also known as “UA” or Unauthorized Absence. There is also a variation in the Navy when a crewman is left behind by his ship when it leaves port called, ‘Missing Movement.”

As the name suggests, AWOL means you are Absent WithOut Leave without notification or permission from your employer, be it by being late by one minute or not coming to work in a week. Aside from receiving written notice or getting a word or two from your boss, going AWOL is not that big of a deal in some workplaces. Unless you’re going AWOL from the military, then that’s a whole different story.

It’s a BIG deal

So, you enlisted and have already taken an oath to serve and defend our nation, and then you realized you didn’t want to push forward. Meh, it’s probably no biggie. Yes, it is. Technically, leaving your post for 30 minutes without permission or showing up 15 minutes late for formation is already considered AWOL. Most of the time, when people say AWOL, they are actually referring to desertion. According to Mark Weitz, desertion is defined as “leaving the military with the intent not to return.” In the military, someone who has been AWOL for 30 days is considered to have deserted from the military. In fact, desertion was a huge problem during the American Civil War, with over 103,000 confederate soldiers and about 200,000 union soldiers deserted.

WWI soldiers.

When are service members considered AWOL?

According to FindLaw.com, these are the ways that a service member may be considered AWOL:

1. Desertion with intent to remain away permanently

  • The accused left their unit, organization, or place of duty;
  • The absence was without authority;
  • At some time during the absence, the accused intended to remain away from their unit, organization, or place of duty; and
  • The accused remained absent until the date alleged or was apprehended.

2. Desertion with intent to avoid hazardous duty or important service

  • The accused quit their unit, organization, or place of duty;
  • Did so with the intent to avoid a certain duty or service;
  • The duty or service to be performed was hazardous or particularly important;
  • The accused knew the duty or service was required; and
  • Remained absent until the date alleged.

3. Desertion before notice of acceptance of resignation

  • The accused was a commissioned officer and had tendered their resignation;
  • Before receiving notice of acceptance of resignation, the accused quit their duties;
  • Did so with the intent to remain away permanently; and
  • Remained absent until the date alleged or was apprehended.

Reasons Why They Go AWOL

Crying soldier (study for Konstantin Savitsky’s painting “To war,” 1888)

There could be a lot of reasons why soldiers go AWOL or become a deserter. Here are some of them:

  • Difficulty adjusting to the rigors of military life like poor food or inadequate clothing
  • Homesickness
  • Avoiding difficult or dangerous assignments
  • Drinking or drug addiction
  • Illness
  • Dissatisfaction with treatment— could be unjust treatment, medical treatment, disagreeing with officers’ decisions

Could you get away with it?

The short answer is no. There are factors affecting the level of consequences that one might get for going AWOL or deserting their post. None of them is taken lightly.

If a soldier fails to go to his appointed place of duty, for example, they could be confined for a month, reduced to the lowest enlisted grade, and forfeited two-thirds of their pay for one month. That’s the same punishment for being absent from the unit, organization, or another place of duty for three days or less.

If a soldier, however, is absent from duty for more than 30 days, he will get dishonorable discharge, forfeit all his pay and allowances, and get reduced to the lowest enlisted grade, and be confined for one year. The military will not look to hard for you, they simply issue a federal warrant for your arrest and when you get stopped for a routine traffic stop they run your license and you get arrested and handed over to the military.  You will then be locked up until your court martial and conviction will often bring a jail sentence equal to the time of your absence.  Then you get discharged with a characterization of Dishonorable or Bad Conduct.  That basically leaves you with a felony record and all the bad stuff that goes with it. 

Desertion during wartime can bring down a whole different world of hurt down on you.  Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the penalty can include being executed by firing squad. The last soldier executed for desertion was Private Edward Slovik. There may have been as many as 50,000 U.S. service members who deserted during WWII, so Private Slovik was an incredibly unlucky guy to be the only U.S. soldier executed for desertion in WWII, which General Eisenhower personally signed off on as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.

If you attempt to desert in the face of the enemy during a battle, you can be shot on the spot by an officer or non-commissioned officer.

If a soldier suddenly goes missing, is it immediately tagged as AWOL?

In December 2020, the Secretary of the Army announced a new AWOL policy following the disappearance and murder of Spc. Vanessa Guillen and other soldiers who were reported as AWOL and later found dead. According to Army Chief of Staff James McConville,  soldiers “only become AWOL after a thorough investigation, a thorough look for the soldier, dealing with the family, dealing with law enforcement and we can prove that they are absent without leave.”

This is a bit better than the previous policy, but its important to remember that showing up late in the civilian world is nothing like showing up late or not showing up at all in the military.  You’d be lucky to just get your pay docked for a month or two when the consequences of being  AWOL can include imprisonment or even execution.

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