In 'army of one,' restless soldiers just desert

Some will call two years after they've gone AWOL. Others call minutes before leaving their bases. Many want to know their options. Just as many simply want to tell their story. But whatever their circumstances, Jennifer Merrill, a volunteer at the GI Rights Hotline, says that deserters or would-be deserters in the military make up 90 percent of the calls she takes during her three-hour weekly shift.

"I think everyone in the military reaches that point where they wish they never went in," says Ms. Merrill, who served two out of a three-year enlistment term in the Army before she was discharged on medical grounds in 1997. "Only some are willing to overcome it."

In all branches of the military, the number of individuals who are simply walking away from their service commitment is on the rise. Approximately 9,400 deserted from the four main branches during fiscal year 2000. That's less than 1 percent of the 1, 371,280 men and women on active duty that year. But it's also about 2-1/2 times as many as deserted five years earlier, when the total was about 3,800.

There may be as many individual reasons for going AWOL as there are deserters. But many military analysts think they have a pretty good idea of what is causing the increase.

For more than a decade, they say, about one-third of those who enlisted in the military left before completing their first term of enlistment. From the late 1980s until the late '90s, military forces were largely downsizing.

During that time, the military was willing to let many enlistees who didn't fit in simply go home, and approved early discharge papers.

"If soldiers had a bad attitude or a bad aptitude," says David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organizations, commanders were told: "Help them get out."

Circumstances are different now. The military is no longer downsizing, and recruiting is much more challenging, with the services until a year ago having to compete with a roaring economy. As a result, the military is less willing to let enlistees - in whom it may have invested tens of thousands of dollars worth of training - just go home.

Now that they can't so easily receive discharges, analysts say, some enlistees who are determined to leave are just picking up and walking away anyway. Perhaps more important, they seem to be doing so with few repercussions.

In wartime, soldiers who desert face a court martial. Now, the process is practically mundane, with most deserters getting sent away with an other-than-honorable-discharge - a status that doesn't imply bad conduct in the way that a dishonorable discharge does.

In the Army, for example, once an enlistee surrenders or is captured, the paperwork for a discharge can take as little as three days, and is handled at one of two bases in the US that specialize in deserters.

Leaving under cover of night

Manuel Garcia, a former private first class who deserted the Marine Corps, knows the routine.

After an altercation with his corporal and souring relations with his company, Mr. Garcia had had enough. Convinced a discharge was unlikely, Garcia decided his surest way out was to simply leave his base in Hawaii. He did - late one night last February on a ticket to New York.

Garcia's plan, he says, was to return to his parents' house in New Jersey and, when he was ready, maybe turn himself in.

He knew the Marines would have a warrant out for his arrest. Yet, while getting approved for a new credit card may have been tricky, Garcia hardly felt like a bandit during that time.

"The only thing I was nervous about was getting caught [as I was leaving]," he says, referring back to his midnight crawl out of the barracks with his luggage.

Things didn't go quite according to plan. Police in Kearny, NJ., where Garcia was staying with his parents, arrested him two months after he went UA (unauthorized absence).

But after six weeks of part-time work on a base in Quantico, Va., he got what he wanted: an other-than-honorable discharge. This September, he returns to school at the Hudson City Community College in New Jersey.

The Army, for one, wants to cut down on its desertion problem. "We're making every effort" to rehabilitate soldiers, rather than discharge them, says spokeswoman Elaine Kanellis. This fall, the Army hopes to take the deserters who return, as 95 percent of them eventually do, and send them back to their original units.

The Army also tracks reasons enlistees leave early, whether or not it was with the service's permission. The ones most frequently cited are medical disorders, misconduct, personality disorders, and pregnancy.

Behind those stated reasons lie deeper ones, military analysts say.

The issue of retaining people who want to leave the military early is "really more a decision about economics, culture, and lifestyle today, and dealing with authority," says Michael O'Hanlon, an analyst at the Brookings Institution here.

Thus, it is "harder to fix" than recruiting or reenlistment problems. In addition, more enlistees today see the military as an employer, he says, and are less willing to respect authority.

Also increasing as a reason, says Mr. Segal, is departure for "reasons of sexual orientation." Segal says many enlisted personnel are using this as a "get-out-of-jail-free card."

If someone is unhappy, he says, he or she can just tell a commanding officer they're gay and be discharged.

Regardless of why enlistees leave, many do so under extreme duress. "At some point, there's something that snaps," says hotline volunteer Merrill.

'An easy way out'

"Almost anyone that calls us wants out of the Army or whatever branch they're in," says Bill Galvin, a counseling coordinator at the Center on Conscience and War in Washington. But "even people with legitimate grounds for discharge, they ask, 'What if I go AWOL?' "

Mr. Galvin suggests that access to the Internet, making it easier for enlistees to learn their rights, might account in part for a rise in desertions.

Just this past week, he says, "I can think of two to three cases of people who decided to go AWOL... We didn't want them to, but [then] they find out it's an easy way out.... It's a no-brainer."

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