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Failure to Report for Duty: Desertion, AWOL, and Other Charges

A military service member who fails to report for duty often faces serious charges. There are three related offenses that fall under this category—absence without leave (or AWOL), desertion, and missing movement—all carrying very serious penalties, up to and including the death penalty for desertion during war. Being AWOL for 30 days is considered desertion, while missing movement is charged when a service member misses the movement of a ship or aircraft intentionally or out of neglect.

See FindLaw's Military Criminal Law section for additional articles and resources.

AWOL: Absence Without Leave

A member of the armed forces is considered AWOL if he or she fails to go to an appointed place, leaves that place, or is otherwise absent from his or her unit or appointed place of duty. For example, a service member ordered to guard a weapons cache would be charged with absence without leave if he left his post two hours early without permission. The Manual for Courts-Martial (PDF) identifies the following ways a service member may be absent without leave (including the elements of each):

1. Failure to go to appointed place of duty

  • The accused was appointed to a certain time and place of duty;
  • Knew of the time and place; and
  • Without authority, failed to go the appointed place of duty at the prescribed time.

2. Going from appointed place of duty

  • The accused was appointed to a certain and place of duty;
  • Knew of the time and place; and
  • Without authority, left the appointed place after reporting for duty.

3. Absence from unit, organization, or place of duty

  • The accused excused himself or herself from a place of duty, unit, or organization;
  • The absence was without authority; and
  • The absence was for a certain period of time or was terminated by apprehension.

4. Absence from unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to avoid maneuvers or field exercises (same elements as #3, but with the addition of the following)

  • The accused knew the absence would occur during maneuvers or field exercises; and
  • Intended to avoid all or part of the maneuvers or field exercises.

5. Abandoning watch or guard

  • The accused was a member of a guard, watch, or duty;
  • Absented himself or herself from this guard, watch, or duty;
  • The absence was without authority; and
  • The accused intended to abandon his or her post.

Punishment depends on the severity of the offense and the discretion of the commanding officer, but often includes forfeiture of pay and confinement. For instance, being AWOL for less than three days can result in a maximum penalty of confinement for one month and forfeiture of two-thirds pay for one month. After 30 days or more, service members face dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and a one-year confinement.

Desertion

Desertion is similar to AWOL in that it involves a military service member's failure to report for duty—or more specifically, the act of leaving one's assigned post. Desertion typically involves the intent to leave one's unit or place of duty permanently, but an offender who is AWOL for 30 days automatically is considered to have deserted his or her post (without proof of intent). An example would be a service member deployed in a foreign war leaving his post after informing his commanding officer that he no longer wants to serve.

The Manual for Courts-Martial identifies the following types of desertion (including the elements of each):

1. Desertion with intent to remain away permanently

  • The accused left his or her unit, organization, or place of duty;
  • The absence was without authority;
  • At some time during the absence, the accused intended to remain away from his or her unit, organization, or place of duty; and
  • The accused remained absent until the date alleged; or was apprehended.

2. Desertion with intent to avoid hazardous duty or important service

  • The accused quit his or her unit, organization, or place of duty;
  • Did so with the intent to avoid a certain duty or service;
  • The duty or service to be performed was hazardous or particularly important;
  • The accused knew the duty or service was required; and
  • Remained absent until the date alleged.

3. Desertion before notice of acceptance of resignation

  • The accused was a commissioned officer and had tendered his or her resignation;
  • Before receiving notice of acceptance of resignation, the accused quit his or her duties;
  • Did so with the intent to remain away permanently; and
  • Remained absent until the date alleged; or was apprehended.

Attempted desertion also is charged as a military crime, as long as the attempt went beyond mere preparation. Desertion carries a maximum punishment of dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay, and confinement of five years. For desertion during a time of war, however, the death penalty may be applied (at the discretion of the court-martial).

Missing Movement

Neglectfully or intentionally missing one's ship, aircraft, or unit may result in a missing movement charge. For example, a sailor who accidentally fails to board her aircraft carrier before it leaves port has violated military law and faces a possible bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of pay, and confinement for one year. Intentionally  missing movement can result in a dishonorable discharge and two-year confinement.

The elements of missing movement are:

  • The accused was required to move with a ship, aircraft, or unit;
  • Knew of the prospective movement of the ship, aircraft, or unit;
  • Missed the movement of the ship, aircraft, or unit; and
  • Missed the movement through design (intent) or neglect.

A military member may not be found guilty if her missing movement is due to situations beyond her control. For instance, a military pilot who had every intention of boarding his aircraft but was struck by a drunk driver would not be charged with missing movement.

Consider contacting a military lawyer if you have been charged with desertion or another offense related to the failure to report for duty.

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