There is no crack team of bounty hunters, no elite military unit whose job is to track them down and bring them in.
Despite a rise in desertions from the Army as the Iraq war drags on into a fifth year, the U.S. military does almost nothing to find those who flee and rarely prosecutes those it gets its hands on.
An Associated Press examination of Pentagon figures shows that 174 troops were court-martialed by the Army last year for desertion — a figure that amounts to just 5 percent of the 3,301 soldiers who deserted in fiscal year 2006. The figures are about 1 percent or less for the Navy and the Marines, according to data obtained by the AP under the Freedom of Information Act.
Some deserters are simply allowed to return to their units, while the majority are discharged in non-criminal proceedings on less-than-honorable terms.
Pentagon officials say that while the all-volunteer military is stretched thin by the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of deserters represents an extremely small percentage of the armed forces, and it would be a poor use of time to go after them, particularly when there is a war on.
As a result, the Pentagon does little more than enter deserters’ names into an FBI national criminal database.
'Looking over his shoulder'
In most cases, as long as a deserter stays out of trouble — as long as, say, police don’t pull him over for speeding and run his name through the computer — he is in little danger of getting caught.
“A deserter either returns voluntarily or he spends the rest of his life looking over his shoulder wondering when he’ll be discovered,” said Maj. Anne Edgecombe, an Army spokeswoman.
She added: “Rather than dedicate seasoned noncommissioned officers to the task of tracking down a deserter, commanders choose to spend time and resources to ensure their soldiers are properly trained and prepared to perform the missions they will be tasked with in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Sgt. Ricky Clousing of the Army’s storied 82nd Airborne Division found that out after he slipped away from Fort Bragg in the middle of the night in 2005 rather than return to Iraq.
Having left a note in his barracks announcing his intentions, he was sure police would be waiting for him with handcuffs by the time he reached his home in Washington state. But no one was there.
A year later, when he tried to turn himself in near Seattle to make an anti-war statement, he was not hustled off to the stockade in leg irons. He was given a bus ticket and told to report to Fort Bragg on his own.
“I thought I would be more of a priority,” said Clousing, a 24-year-old paratrooper and military intelligence interrogator with combat experience.
Clousing ultimately pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of being absent without leave. He was given a bad-conduct discharge and sentenced to three months in prison.
Rise in desertions
The Army is by far the biggest branch of the military, with a half-million active-duty members, and accounts for the vast majority of U.S. troops in Iraq. The number of Army deserters plummeted after the 2001 terrorist attacks and the start of the Iraq war in 2003, perhaps in a burst of patriotism, and bottomed out in fiscal year 2004.
But desertions crept back up as the fighting dragged on and the death toll climbed. Since fiscal year 2004, desertions are up by more than a third.
A total of 4,399 soldiers deserted the Army in fiscal year 2001; 3,971 in 2002; 2,610 in 2003; 2,450 in 2004; 2,659 in 2005; and 3,301 in 2006.
Desertions from the Navy have declined steadily since 2001, and are down 36 percent over the past three calendar years, falling to 1,296 in 2006. Desertions from the Marines and the Air Force bounced up and down after 2001 and stood at 834 and 42, respectively, in fiscal year 2006.
Exactly how many deserters are caught is unclear, largely because each branch of the military keeps statistics in different ways and does not give breakdowns of how many people who deserted in a given year are ultimately caught.
Many deserters decide to turn themselves in and face the consequences. Others are eventually caught, but usually after they expose themselves in some way — they get arrested for a civilian offense, or apply for a passport or a job that requires a background check, military officials say.
Under the military criminal code, the maximum penalty for desertion during a declared war is death. But such a sentence has been carried out just once since the Civil War, when Pvt. Eddie Slovik went before a firing squad during World War II. The next-highest punishment is five years in prison.
'Equivalent of a firing'
The number of Army soldiers prosecuted for desertion tripled in the year after Sept. 11. But it has essentially held steady since 2002. The Navy prosecuted 17 deserters in 2006, the Marine Corps just four. There were 10 prosecutions for desertion in the Air Force during fiscal year 2006.
The decision of whether to prosecute is up to the soldier’s unit commander.
Deserters who are discharged on less-than-honorable terms through an administrative, or non-criminal, proceeding lose the medical and educational benefits and other privileges available to veterans.
“I sort of look at the administrative discharge process as the equivalent of a firing ... leaving with a bad reference,” said David Miner, a former Army attorney now in private practice, with Clousing among his clients.
The number of Army deserters in 2006 amounted to less than 1 percent of the active-duty force. That compares with 3.4 percent at the height of the Vietnam War in 1971.
“We had a larger problem in Vietnam because we had the draft,” said Scott Silliman, a law professor and director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University, who added he knows of no units that chased down deserters back then, either. “Here the individual is not going to go into the military unless they had some inclination to do so in the first place.”
'Dropped from the rolls'
In the Army, officials said deserters are typically junior enlisted soldiers in their teens or early 20s, with less than three years of service. Most often, they cite financial or personal problems as a reason for leaving, officials say.
Army and Marine officials say there is no evidence that repeated deployments to Iraq are leading to more desertions. The Army’s Edgecombe said that more than 60 percent of deserters over the past 18 months have had less than a year of service, so they haven’t been deployed at all.
In recent years, the military has lowered its standards to fill its ranks, letting in more recruits with criminal records or low aptitude scores. But officials said that does not appear to be a factor in the rising desertion rate either.
In fact, Edgecombe said, recruits who got into trouble before they enlisted tend to shape up under the influence of the military’s code of honor and discipline.
Those who leave without permission are considered AWOL for 30 days, after which they are “dropped from the rolls” and branded deserters.
That is when the paychecks are supposed to stop, but a congressional audit found that more than 7,500 deserters and soldiers who were absent from duty improperly received $6.6 million in pay between October 2000 and February 2002.
Once a soldier is dropped from the rolls, employees at a small Army office at Fort Knox in Kentucky enter the deserter’s information into the FBI database.
'Years and years'
When someone is arrested for a civilian offense and the computer flags him as a deserter, local authorities typically hold him and contact the military, which might send someone to bring him in, or ask him to come in on his own.
The military does actively chase down deserters who committed crimes before abandoning their posts. Military officials do not have jurisdiction off-base to arrest a deserter, and so the federal Marshals Service works with the military in such cases. Spokeswoman Nikki Credic said federal marshals arrested 68 deserters from all services in fiscal year 2006.
“People have been hiding for years and years. If you want to hide out, you can,” said Maj. Jay Delarosa, a Marine Corps spokesman. But he added that in the information age, it is less likely that a deserter can hide forever.
“There’s other ways people reveal themselves besides being caught with a broken tail light,” Delarosa said.