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.
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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
2. Going from appointed place of duty
3. Absence from unit, organization, or place of duty
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)
5. Abandoning watch or guard
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 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
2. Desertion with intent to avoid hazardous duty or important service
3. Desertion before notice of acceptance of resignation
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).
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:
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.
Contact a qualified military law attorney to help you with military-related issues.