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Absence Without Leave (AWOL) and Desertion

Members of the Armed Forces are required to be at or near their assigned duty station at all times unless military orders or leave requests dictate otherwise. Failing to report in a timely manner to your appointed place of duty can lead to an Absence Without Leave (AWOL) charge under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). Specifically, the statute states:

UCMJ Article 86

Any member of the armed forces who, without authority-

  • Fails to go to his appointed place of duty at the time prescribed;
  • Goes from that place; or
  • 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.

AWOL can include being late to work, leaving work early, failing to go to the appointed place of duty, being absent from your unit, missing drill, and more, if you do not have authority to miss or be late. For instance, the actor Steve McQueen while serving in the Marine Corps failed to return after a weekend pass expired because he was with his girlfriend, he resisted arrest and spent 41 days in the brig. While missing a meeting with a commander or being late to a drill might not seem like a big deal, repeated absences or repeatedly being tardy can lead to a court-martial, although one time is enough to bring a charge. Depending on the length of your unauthorized absence, the punishment can include: confinement, forfeiture of pay, and a dishonorable discharge. The length of confinement and the amount of pay you forfeit will depend on the length of your unauthorized absence.

Like AWOL, desertion is also a crime under the UCMJ, the main difference between being charged with AWOL and desertion is that the latter requires an additional element that you intend to leave permanently. The most famous deserter in recent history was Bowe Bergdahl who received a dishonorable discharge and forfeiture of pay, and if not for his five years of captivity by the Taliban, would have likely received prison time as well. Punishment for desertion depends on whether it occurred in a time of war, and can result in dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, confinement, and even death if it occurs in time of war!

Desertion also expands to leaving before your resignation has been accepted. Commissioned officers who submit a resignation must wait to receive the notice of acceptance of the resignation, otherwise if they leave before doing so, they can face desertion charges. Let’s say you are thinking of deserting and make moves to do so, but when you are hiding out in the railroad car trying to make your getaway you have a change of heart and decide to return to your unit, this attempt to desert is also a crime and you can face charges for this attempt.

The same concept exists outside the military.  For instance, federal employees cannot be absent without leave either. Federal employees who are AWOL may be disciplined for misconduct. A federal employee is AWOL when they are absent from their assigned place of duty without authorization and/or the employee’s leave request has been properly denied.

If you are faced with an AWOL charge either in the military or civilian world, having legal representation may help you greatly. An experienced attorney can assist you to reduce the punishment, or help to find the evidence that might show that you were not AWOL if you received proper authorization to be absent.