The difference between Absence Without Leave (AWOL) and Desertion is typically the 30 Day Rule. Once a person who is absent from military duties extends above 30 days, he/she is administratively placed in deserter status. Missing a movement or deployment -- especially into battle zones -- the offenses get much more serious with respect to punishment. The length, circumstances, and events missed while absent will also determine a minor judgment by your commanding officer or a full UCMJ court-martial possibly ending in jail time.
AWOL and Desertion Charges
Here are many of the issues the military reflects upon when deciding to apprehend or punish the member who is AWOL or a Deserter:
- The length of absence can affect the outcome of your punishment
- Mitigating evidence that could reduce the likelihood/severity of the punishment
- The military may issue a warrant for your arrest, and if they put effort into your capture the punishment will be greater than if you voluntarily return as the consequences of apprehension by civilian/military authorities are real
- Voluntary return is your best option
AWOL and Desertion charges are not uncommon in the military with the Army accumulating anywhere between 2,500 and 4,000 annually. Typically, these members will be released from the military with an Other Than Honorable or a Bad Conduct Discharge, however depending upon the importance of the evolution one missed and the time away from the command, you could receive jail time.
By definition, you are considered AWOL even if you are one minute late for a formation, but common sense rules and there will likely just be a counseling session or a warning given to being "AWOL" for a few minutes.
If you are AWOL or in desertion status, the most important thing for reduced punishment is to return voluntarily. If you know someone who is in AWOL or desertion status (30 Day Rule), convince them to return to military control voluntarily. The sooner, the better. Also, punishment will be much more lenient if one voluntarily returns to military control than if one is arrested by law enforcement and involuntarily returned to the military.
Additionally, if one voluntarily returns, they are less likely to be placed in confinement while awaiting disposition of their case. If one is apprehended by civilian law enforcement, on the other hand, they will likely spend several days in a civilian jail, while waiting for the military to make arrangements to pick them up and transport them to a military base. Upon return to military control, they would then likely be confined while waiting for the authorities to decide what to do with their case.
Hiring an Attorney
While you should voluntarily return as soon as possible, it's often very helpful to obtain an attorney with military law experience prior to surrendering to military control. An experienced civilian attorney can contact military authorities on behalf of the AWOL/deserter and negotiate (sort of a "plea bargain"), what will happen with the case once you return. There are several civilian lawyers available who specialize in military law. If you can't afford a civilian attorney, contact a military defense attorney at the military base you plan to turn yourself into. They can represent you for free.
Depending upon your case, there is a difference between the article 85 UCMJ charge of desertion (which presumes the intent of never returning or avoiding hazardous or important duty) and simply being in deserter status (gone over thirty days) or AWOL (under thirty days) is major with regard to punishments.
In the end, it does not pay to go AWOL or Desert your duty. If the military is an option you prefer to choose as a career or on the job training, take your oath seriously and do your time. Having an Other than Honorable Discharge is no way to start your life as it can prevent many opportunities for you in the future.