Attrition: Desertion Not As Fashionable As It Used To Be


July 17, 2008: In the last five years, the U.S. military has had about 30,000 deserters. A deserter is anyone on active duty that is away from their unit, without permission, for more than 30 days. About half of them were army. However, about half the troops on active duty during that period were army. In the last year, 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.

The navy actually has a slightly higher desertion rate. While the navy has suffered far fewer casualties than the army, the fleet has been at sea for longer periods since September 11, 2001, and that tends to wear you down. The marines have about the same desertion rate as the army, and the air force has a much lower one. None of the combat, or time-at-sea stresses in the air force.

All of the services see desertion as a failure of someone to adapt to military life. For example, most of those who desert and say it's "because of the war" have never been in combat or been exposed to combat stress. They just don't want to be in the military anymore. It's long been a problem, even after the U.S. went all-volunteer in the 1970s.

During the Vietnam war, there were years where the desertion rate was more than three times what it is now. Part of that was due to the use of conscription, mainly for the army. Since the end of the Vietnam war, only volunteers are accepted for the military, and the main problem now is people who 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. But most deserters just don't like military life, and are not smart enough to scam their way to an early discharge.

Another aspect of desertion is that, if you walk away, the military 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 military 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 shown leniency, and 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. Fleeing the country does little good. Nearly all foreign countries, including Canada, refuse asylum to those who volunteered for military service, and then just walked away. Canada, for example, has a volunteer military as well, and understands that there other ways to get out of the military besides just walking away. Canada has begun returning U.S. military deserters who were unable to obtain legal immigrant status up north, and had claimed political asylum because they were deserters.





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