What Really Happens When You Go AWOL?

What Happens When You Go AWOL

Despite the reasons why you decided to join any one of the six branches of service, taking the oath to support and defend is an obligation. Just as you expect the government to honor its responsibility of providing your income, pension, health benefits, housing, food, and more, the military expects you to own up your end of the bargain as well.

Unfortunately, many servicemembers walk away from life in the military for several reasons. As a result, they go AWOL and become a deserter, which is not uncommon in the military considering that the Army accumulates between 2,500 and 4,000 each year.

What Does AWOL Mean?

In the military world, AWOL stands for absence without leave or absent without official leave. In the eyes of the law, going AWOL is a criminal offense. Article 86 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) states:

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.

Technically, whenever a member of the Armed Forces is not where they should be, they are AWOL.

Consequences of Going AWOL

What Happens When You Go AWOL

At a minimum, the consequences of going AWOL include:

If you’re interested, check out the maximum punishments for going AWOL. To understand how one can rack up those consequences, here’s an example of what happens when someone goes AWOL.

Example of what happens when someone goes AWOL

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI) reported in a news article that in 1983, an Air Force Captain went AWOL and was declared a deserter. He claimed he was depressed about being in the Air Force, so he left, moved to California, and changed his name and identity.

35 years later, on June 6, 2018, Air Force OSI Detachment 303 Special Agents at Travis Air Force Base, California, apprehended Air Force fugitive Capt. William Howard Hughes, Jr., also known as Barry “Tim” O’Bierne, at his California residence.

According to the court ruling, he was tried by a general court-martial and convicted on September 5, 2018. He was dismissed from the Air Force and given a reprimand. He also spent 45 days in prison.

In addition to the above consequences, the reputation of being labeled AWOL or deserter and a convicted felon has long-lasting effects on the rest of your life, particularly when it comes to employment opportunities.

How to Know if You’re AWOL

What Happens When You Go AWOL

The Department of Defense defines and sets the criteria for those who go AWOL. You are AWOL if you are late for duty, but being a few minutes late is likely to lead to a conversation with your commander.

You can be deemed legally AWOL if you:

  • Fail to appear at your appointed place of duty at the time you were ordered to appear without permission or authority from a commanding officer.
  • You leave your appointed place of duty without permission or authority from a commanding officer.
  • You are absent or remain absent from your place of duty, unit, or organization without permission or authorization.
  • Fail to report to a transportation terminal as ordered.
  • Fail to report to a duty station as ordered.

AWOL is commonly used as a catch-all phrase for anytime someone in the military goes away without approval. However, the Air Force and Army use the term AWOL, while the Navy and Marine Corps calls it an Unauthorized Absence (UA).

Go AWOL for too long, specifically 30 days or more, and the unauthorized absence or AWOL turns into desertion.

At this point, the military will stop your pay, actively search for you (meaning you could end up on the FBI’s most wanted list) and issue a warrant for your arrest.

AWOL vs. Desertion

What Happens When You Go AWOL

A military member who has been AWOL for more than 30 consecutive days will be classified administratively as a deserter. The rules state that if the absence lasts through midnight or 2400 on the 30th consecutive day, change the absentee’s status to deserter at 0001 on the 31st day (On the 10th day during times of emergency or war declared by the President or Congress).

Desertion is different from absence without authorized leave.

Desertion happens when the service member leaves their unit, organization, or place of duty without authority and with the intent to remain away permanently. Desertion comes with harsh penalties while AWOL comes with lesser punishment. 

Desertion is like AWOL because it involves a military service member’s failure to report for duty—or more specifically, the act of leaving one’s assigned post. Remember, Desertion involves the intent to leave one’s unit or place of duty permanently. But someone who is AWOL for 30 days is automatically considered to have deserted his or her post (without proof of intent).

For more information on Desertion, visit Article 85 of the UCMJ. And while you’re there, learn about missing movement. A missing movement happens when a service member misses their ship, aircraft, or unit.

Keep in mind that “Oh, I forgot” is not a good reason for getting out of trouble when it comes to AWOL, desertion, or missing movement.

But I’m in the National Guard, Does AWOL Affect Me Too?

What Happens When You Go AWOL

Members of the Army and Air National Guard are not subject to the UCMJ. Remember our article, Seven Reserve Components of the Military? In that article, we mentioned how the National Guard is the property of each individual state, within the U.S., as well as the District of Columbia (D.C.), and directly reports to the respective governor of that state, according to Title 32 of the U.S. Code.

This is the reason why the UCMJ does not apply to National Guard members. As a result, as a member of the National Guard, you cannot be punished (Court-Martial or Article 15) for missing weekend drills or failing to show up for the 2 weeks of annual training. But on the flip side, if you are ever called up to active duty within the military, the UCMJ stands.

Absent Unknown: The Army’s New Policy for Missing Soldiers

With the recent uptick in missing person cases in the U.S. Armed Forces, particularly in the Army, Army leadership is taking a different approach for dealing with Soldiers who do not show up for duty.

Instead of assuming the soldiers are AWOL, the Army now considers Soldiers to be “missing” without immediately jumping toward the disciplinary absent without leave label.

Army Directive 2020-16 states “Determination and Reporting of Missing, Absent-Unknown, Absent Without Leave, and Duty Status-Whereabouts Unknown Soldiers” outlines a new policy for the Army to follow when a Soldier is unaccounted for.

Absent Unknown, or AUN, is the code to use for the missing Soldier’s first 48 hours after failing to report. Duty Status Whereabouts Unknown, or DUSTWUN, is used when the Army has exhausted all efforts to find the missing Soldier and is sure the absence is involuntary.

For more information on the new Army policy, review the Army Directive mentioned above and check out the Army Times article from August 2020 to see how Army leaders are categorizing missing soldiers.

What to do if you’re AWOL

What Happens When You Go AWOL

If you’re AWOL and seeking employment, a military warrant doesn’t always show on an employment background check. However, after 30 days, a desertion will show up. If there is a deserter warrant out for your arrest, even if your AWOL status doesn’t show up on a background check, it doesn’t mean that you’re in the clear. The longer you remain AWOL, once caught, the worse the punishment will be.

The best thing you can do is turn yourself in and hire a lawyer, if necessary. AWOL servicemembers should return to military custody as soon as possible. Coming forward sooner than later demonstrates acknowledgement of the severity of the matter and your desire to rectify the situation.

Continuing to remain AWOL will typically make the situation worse, and it will only be a matter of time before you are arrested and taken into custody.

If you are AWOL, the contact number for the deserter’s information point for your respective military branch is below:

  • U.S. Marine Corps: Visit the Marine Corps Deserter Information Point online or call the Marine Corps Deserter Information Point, Arlington, Virginia (DSN 664-3667/0395 or Commercial: 703-604- 3667/0395).
  • U.S. Navy: Visit the Navy Deserter Information Point online or immediately contact the Navy Deserter Information Point, Naval Station Great Lakes, Great Lakes, Illinois (DSN: 882-2522 or Commercial: 901-874-2522 or 1- 877-663-6772).
  • U.S. Air Force: Contact AFPC/DPFCM (DSN 665-3727 or Commercial: (210) 565-3727, or 1-800-433-0048).

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What Happens When You Go AWOL

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Dr. Phillip Gold is President/CEO of Empire Resume and has vast experience writing resumes for both professionals and servicemembers transitioning from the military into civilian roles. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and was responsible for leading nuclear missile security. Phillip is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and holds a BA in Communications from The Ohio State University, an MS in Instructional Technology, an MBA in Finance, and a PhD in Finance.

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