WASHINGTON – With the nation fighting two wars, the number of soldiers deserting has increased and the Army is stepping up prosecutions.
Army statistics released this week show the number of desertions rose in the four years before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America prompted the Bush administration's war on terrorism. Desertions then fell for three years but they have been rising steadily again in the last three years as the increasingly unpopular campaign in Iraq has worn on.
Even with the recent increases, less than 1 percent of the Army's active duty force of 507,000 soldiers desert, according to Army data. That compares with 3.4 percent of the 1971 force that fought the Vietnam war, Maj. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman, said Tuesday.
And even with a sizable boost in the rate of prosecutions, the overwhelming majority of cases still are handled through administrative discharge. Some 5 percent of cases go to trial, Edgecomb said.
Junior enlisted soldiers are the most likely to desert, Army researchers say.
More than 60 percent of deserters over the past 1 1/2 years had less than a year in service, Edgecomb said. More than 80 percent have less than three years of service.
"The three primary reasons deserters cite for their actions are dissatisfaction with military life, family problems and homesickness," she said.
The problem "tends to increase in magnitude during wartime" and the Army treats the offense more seriously during war, she said, because it can affect a soldier's unit and its mission.
"We prosecute for desertion much more heavily in a time of war than in a time of peace," said Paul Boyce, another Army spokesman.
Army statistics include the following:
—Desertions rose steadily from about 1,800 in budget year 1998 to about 4,400 in the budget year ended Sept. 30, 2001.
—After the Sept. 11 attacks, desertions trended down for three years. There were roughly 4,000 in fiscal year 2002, 2,600 in 2003, and 2,450 in 2004.
—Desertions rose in 2005 and 2006 and appear to be slightly higher again in the 2007 fiscal year that started Oct. 1. They went from approximately 2,700 in 2005 to 3,300 last year and are at about 1,700 for the first half of this budget year.
—Army statistics for prosecutions were impossible to match exactly against the number of desertions because deserters were counted by fiscal year and prosecutions by calendar year. But as an example of the increased rate of prosecutions in recent years, the Army said 167 soldiers were prosecuted in the calendar year started January 2002 against roughly 4,000 desertions counted in the fiscal year started October 2001. That compared with 59 prosecuted the previous year out of 4,400 desertions.
When a soldier is reporting missing or AWOL — absent without leave — the military attempts to find him or her. After 30 days of consecutive absence, the soldier is classified as a deserter, Edgecomb said.
When the soldier returns or is apprehended, a commander has discretion to prosecute the deserter through a court-martial, discharge, retain and rehabilitate, as well as apply a wide range of administrative punishments.
"Our primary course of action is to attempt to rehabilitate the soldier — reintegrate him/her back into their unit," Edgecomb said.
Administrative actions include counseling, a reprimand, forfeiture of pay, reduction in rank and involuntary discharge.