A service member is considered AWOL (Absent Without Leave) when her or she fails to go to an appointed place, willingly leaves that place without permission, or is absent from the unit or place of duty. Serious ramifications have the potential to haunt someone who fails to report for duty with no intention to return, including discharge from the military and jail time. Someone can go AWOL for days, months, or even years, and can be considered a deserter if he or she has no intention to ever return.
Articles 85 through 87 of the UCMJ (Uniform Code of Military Justice) describe three different types of AWOL. The severity of the punishment received depends on the length of the absence.
Article 87 - Missing Movement
When a service member intentionally misses their ship, aircraft, or unit, it could result in a missing movement charge. If the missing movement was an intentional act, punishment may be
- A dishonorable discharge
- Forfeiture of pay
- And confinement for 2 years
If the service member accidentally or neglectfully, misses their ship, aircraft, or unit, punishment may be:
- A possible bad-conduct discharge
- Forfeiture of pay
- And confinement for 1 year
Article 86 - AWOL
Punishments of AWOL vary depending on the circumstances of the absence and the discretion of the commanding officer, possibly referring the case to trial by court-martial. If a service member fails to show up to their post, leaves their post early, or fails to return to their appointed place of duty completely, it may result in 1-3 months of confinement, a reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and forfeiture of pay and allowances.
Article 85 - Desertion
Desertion is the most serious AWOL offense. The main difference between AWOL and desertion is the intention to leave the military permanently. An individual who deserts the military may face harsher penalties if they are caught by law enforcement or if they desert in a "time of war," where they could potentially face life imprisonment. If a service member abandons their duties in a time of war, they can even face the death penalty at the discretion of the court-martial. Outside of these circumstances, desertion faces a maximum penalty of 5 years of confinement, dishonorable discharge, and forfeiture of all pay.
There are measures a service member can take if they face punishments due to AWOL. By hiring an attorney experienced in military law, they could potentially negotiate the terms of confinement and return to service. Because of the lengthy and time consuming process a court-martial requires, commanding officers may avoid this route entirely, opting to give the soldier an Other than Honorable (OTH) discharge.