AWOL and Desertion: Maximum Punishments

The consequences for going AWOL vary by degree

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In the military, AWOL stands for Absent Without Leave and basically means you are not where you are supposed to be at a particular time. After a certain period of time (30-day rule), the AWOL status turns to a desertion status. These type of offenses can vary in seriousness from 15 minutes late for formation to being placed on the FBI Most Wanted List. 

Punishment for Going AWOL

It is unlikely that a person who has been AWOL or in desertion status would receive the maximum punishment upon return to military control, except in the most aggravating circumstances (such as if someone went AWOL and then went on a crime spree). Besides, the maximum punishment according to the law is death or life in prison if desertion is carried out to avoid war.

In fact, the vast majority of AWOL and desertion cases are disposed of with an administrative discharge.

The maximum possible punishments shown below assume the member is tried by general court-martial, which is the most serious type of court-martial.

Article 87—Missing Movement Punishments

The maximum punishments for missing movements (meaning a departure of soldier's unit for a deployment) is serious. The soldier who misses movement could be subject to the following:

  • If the member missed the movement on purpose: Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and confinement for two years.
  • If the member missed the movement through neglect: Bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and confinement for one year.

Article 86—Absent Without Leave Punishments

There are several AWOL punishments as they typically depend upon the severity or circumstances of the soldier's absence. The maximum punishment for this offense depends on the exact circumstances of the absence:

Failing to go to, or going from, the appointed place of duty (such as being late for work, leaving work early, or missing an appointment): Confinement for one month, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for one month.

  • If the member is on guard or watch duty and then leaves the post without authorization, but doesn't intend to abandon the post: Confinement for three months, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for three months.
  • If the member is on guard or watch duty and then leaves the post without authorization, with the intent to abandon the post: Bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and confinement for six months.
  • If the member is absence from the unit, organization, or other place of duty for not more than three days: Confinement for one month, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for one month.
  • If the member is absence from the unit, organization, or other place of duty for more than three days but not more than 30 days: Confinement for six months, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for six months.
  • If the member is absence from the unit, organization, or other place of duty for more than 30 days: Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and confinement for one year.
  • If the member is absence from their un, organization, or other place of duty for more than 30 days and the AWOL is terminated by apprehension: Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and confinement for 18 months.
  • If the member goes AWOL with the intent to avoid field exercises or maneuvers: Bad-conduct discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and confinement for six months.

Article 85—When AWOL Becomes Desertion

Desertion is the most serious of the absentee offenses. The primary difference between AWOL and desertion is the intent to remain away from the military permanently. The punishments vary based on length and intent.

  • If a member deserted but voluntarily returned to military control: Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and confinement for two years.
  • If the member deserted and the desertion was terminated by apprehension: Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and confinement for three years.
  • If the member deserted with the intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service (an example of this would be a member ordered to deploy to Iraq and then deserts to avoid the deployment): Dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest enlisted grade, and confinement for five years.
  • If the member deserts during time of war: Death or such other punishment (such as life in prison) as a court-martial may direct.