After you read this fact sheet, please call the GI Rights Hotline (877-447-4487) to talk over your options with a counselor.
Thousands of people contact the GI Rights Hotline each year seeking information about absence offenses. The Army and Air Force usually refer to such offenses as AWOL (Absent WithOut Leave) while the Navy and USMC usually use the term UA (Unauthorized Absence). Such offenses are a violation of Article 86 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, (UCMJ) which states that:
Any member of the armed forces who, without authority-
(1) fails to go to his appointed place of duty at the time prescribed; (2) goes from that place; or (3) absents himself or remains absent from his unit, organization, or place of duty at which he is required to be at the time prescribed;
shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.
While it would be illegal for GI Rights Hotline counselors to encourage or assist someone in breaking the law, GI Rights Hotline counselors are available to give specific information regarding absence offenses, the consequences one might face, and ways the situation might be resolved. Our counselors will not tell someone what to do or not do, but they will help someone explore options in light of probable consequences. All calls to the hotline are confidential.
It is also important to recognize and respect that people go AWOL/UA for very different reasons. Some people are looking for a discharge. Some have family emergencies they could not get permission to deal with. Some people leave in a rash move of frustration without giving much thought to the consequences. Still others leave to protect themselves from harassment and threats or to get medical attention for serious physical or psychological problems which the military has failed to treat. Whatever the reasons, GI Rights counselors will discuss the situation. Additionally, the GIs who have gone AWOL/UA have a wide variety of reactions to the consequences of their decision: some feel it was a huge mistake, while others have claimed it saved their lives. Because of these differences, people who are AWOL/UA get differing levels of support and or opposition from different friends and family members who are also concerned about the consequences.
What kind of punishment might I face if I go AWOL or UA?
For people looking for specific guidance about punishments for going AWOL/UA, the phrase "as court-martial may direct" of the UCMJ is not very helpful. Actual punishments can vary from nothing at all to General Court-Martial, which could include a sentence of dishonorable discharge (a felony level conviction) and also could include years of jail time. Typically, punishments range in between these two extremes. In an effort to deter GIs from going AWOL/UA many commands circulate threats of worst case scenarios and unrealistically harsh punishments. (Note: while many people have been told that desertion during a time of war is punishable by death, OIF and OEF are recognized as police actions rather than as congressionally declared wars and no one has received such punishment in decades.) These rumors generate fears and consequently many absent GIs are reluctant to return to the military and resolve the issue. For many people the fears are increased by the mistaken idea that they are the only person in their situation, when in reality thousands of others have done it. In a majority of cases the actual punishments upon surrender/apprehension are less severe than absentees and their families and friends feared. Most cases are resolved without court-martial.
The specific punishments that any one person will face depend on a number of factors, all of which can be discussed with a GI Rights Hotline counselor:
Military branch and component Duration of the absence Time in Service Place of Surrender Apprehension vs. surrender Intent of GI Mitigating factors Command discretion
How can I get accurate information about AWOL or UA?
Because of the factors involved and the uncertainty of all things involving the military, no one can ever predict a guaranteed outcome for a specific situation. The military reserves the right to handle offenses case by case. However, because the GI Rights Hotline handles thousands of cases each year, its counselors can normally give an accurate picture of likely outcomes.
Often people in AWOL/UA status contact the military for information and options. Sometimes the military has given helpful information, but in many cases the information given was inaccurate. Some in the military are well meaning but misinformed about the latest policies or just careless with the details. Some will say whatever they think they need to to get the person to return to duty regardless of the GI's intent. People should always be cautious of any deals or promises made to a GI while absent. There is no guarantee that these deals will be honored upon surrender. The military is not bound by such agreements. They could deny that they ever took place or claim that anyone who made such an agreement did not have proper authority to do so. Contacting a GI Rights Hotline counselor can help you to confirm the accuracy of information that comes from the military.
Many people who have been discharged from the military for going AWOL/UA have described their experiences on the internet to help guide others. While many of these descriptions include helpful information it is essential that people recognize that the circumstances of their own situation may result in very different results. It is recommended that anyone looking for information contact the GI Rights Hotline (877-447-4487) for comprehensive, up to date information, even if a person's situation seems identical to one explained in an internet posting.
Topics our counselors can discuss in an free, anonymous, confidential consultation include:
How length of absence can affect outcome Mitigating evidence that could reduce the likelihood/severity of punishment including places people might go for medical and other documentation When the military typically issues warrants and the effort they make to search for people Consequences of apprehension by civilian/military authorities Options for return to military control Available legal resources The difference between the article 85 UCMJ charge of desertion (which presumes the intent of never returning or avoiding hazardous or important duty) and simply being in deserter status (gone over thirty days)
GI rights counselors can also provide helpful information regarding absent service members who have been apprehended and may be in temporary custody.