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U.S. Military Desertion Rates

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Updated March 13, 2005

Many people confuse the terms "Desertion" and "Absent without Leave (AWOL).

It's commonly believed that if one is absent from the military for more than 30 days, they are "deserters." That's only partially true. Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) defines "desertion" as being absent from the unit (without authority) with the intent to remain away permanently, or being absent with the intent to avoid hazardous duty or shirk important service.

The word "intent" is important here. In order to support a finding of guilty by a court-martial for the offense of desertion, the military would have to prove (beyond a reasonable doubt) that the memberintended to remain away permanently, or that the member's intent was to avoid hazardous duty or important service.

An individual can be absent for one hour and be charged with desertion. On the other hand, a military member can be absent without authority for 50 years, and the crime may only be AWOL, under Article 86.

The distinction between the two offenses is important, because the maximum permissible punishment under the Manual for Court-Martial (MCM) is much greater for the offense of desertion, than allowed for the offense of AWOL.

Desertion:

  • In time of war -- Death
  • With intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service -- Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 5 years.
  • Terminated by apprehension -- Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 3 years.
  • Terminated otherwise -- Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 2 years.

AWOL:

  • For not more than 3 days -- Confinement for 1 month and forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for 1 month.
  • For more than 3 days but not more than 30 days -- Confinement for 6 months and forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for 6months.
  • For more than 30 days -- Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 1 year.
  • For more than 30 days and terminated by apprehension -- Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 18 months.
  • From guard or watch duty -- Confinement for 3 months and forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for 3 months.
  • From guard or watch duty with intent to abandon -- Bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 6 months.
  • With intent to avoid maneuvers or field exercises -- Bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for 6 months.

Where the confusion often arises in the definition of "desertion" is that, under military law, if a member is absent for longer than 30 days, the court is allowed to assume that there was no intent to return. In other words, the burden of proof for "intent to return" shifts from the prosecution to the defense.

Therefore, when one is absent without authority for longer than 30 days, the military services drop the individual from the unit rolls (which then allows the unit to get a replacement) and administratively categorizes them as deserters.

Below are statistics for each DoD service for members who have been administratively categorized as deserters. This means military members who remained absent from their units (without authority) for longer than 30 days.

Note: "Rate per 1000" is approximate. The rates are based on active duty strength of 483,880 for the Army; 367,470 for the Air Force; 382,338 for the Navy; and 173,142 for the Marine Corps, and actual numbers may have fluctuated (slightly) from FY 1997 to FY 2004.

Desertion Rates

Army
Fiscal Year Number of Deserters Rate Per 1000
1997 2,218 4.58
1998 2,520 5.20
1999 2,966 6.13
2000 3,949 8.16
2001 4,597 9.50
2002 4,483 9.26
2003 3,678 7.60
2004 2,376 4.91
Air Force
1997 26 0.07
1998 27 0.07
1999 45 0.12
2000 46 0.12
2001 62 0.17
2002 88 0.24
2003 56 0.15
2004 50 0.14
Navy    
1997 1,858 4.86
1998 2,038 5.33
1999 2,485 6.50
2000 3,255 8.51
2001 1,619 4.23
2003 Not Available  
2004 Not Available  
Marine Corps
1997 1,375 7.94
1998 1,460 8.43
1999 1,689 9.75
2000 2,019 11.66
2001 1,310 7.57
2002 1,136 6.56
2003 1,236 7.14
2004 1,297 7.49

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