The military does not pay rewards for information received concerning the whereabouts of absentees and deserters. (Exception: If the deserter is also wanted for serious crimes, such as rape or murder, the services sometimes offer rewards for information leading to their capture.) However, there are several differences between unauthorized absences, AWOL, and Desertion and the punishments vary as well.
More About AWOL and Desertion
Types of Unauthorized Absences
There are three types of unauthorized absences (UA) while serving in the military. Missing Movement, Absent without leave (AWOL), and after 30 days, AWOL turns into desertion in some cases — but not always. The difference between AWOL and Desertion typically is based on intent and what "important duty" the offender intentionally missed. In the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) the articles 87,86, and 85 give further legal definitions and punishment ranges for the respective UA’s.
The 30-Day Rule
There is a bit of grey area within the services as to classifying someone as AWOL or a deserter. After 30 days, a military member who has been away from his/her duties will be classified as a deserter. Whether or not the members get charged with desertion or the lesser offense AWOL depends on the circumstances of returning, captured, and the intention of leaving.
Apprehension and Arrest
If a military member were apprehended by military or civilian police authorities while in an AWOL or Deserter status, the punishment will be greater and the deserter will likely be charged with several related crimes as well. However, if the member turns himself in to authorities, the military will typically place a lighter USMC article of punishment on the offender. But once again, it all depends on the circumstances of the offense.
Return to Military Control
When you return to military control, you could receive jail time if AWOL and Desertion charges are filed, however, that is very unlikely. Most deserters and those charged with AWOL are released from the military with an Other Than Honorable or a Bad Conduct Discharge. If you are in a prolonged AWOL or in desertion status, the most important thing for reduced punishment is to voluntarily return. If the military spends time and effort to find and detain you, you will be punished more severely.
Maximum Possible Punishments
There has only been one person executed for Desertion in the history of the United States. Most punishments do not require jail time unless highly publicized and the members spoke out against the government. For instance, When you return to military control, you could receive jail time if AWOL and Desertion charges are filed, however, that is very unlikely. Most deserters and those charged with AWOL are released from the military with an Other Than Honorable or a Bad Conduct Discharge. If you are in a prolonged AWOL or in desertion status, the most important thing for reduced punishment is to voluntarily return. If the military spends time and effort to find and detain you, you will be punished more severely. For instance, in 2015, the U.S. Army announced that Army soldier Bowe Bergdahl would be tried by general court-martial on charges of desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. His trial is still waiting.
If charged with AWOL or a Deserter, the commander could impose Article 15 (nonjudicial punishment), possibly imposing a fine, or restriction, or correctional custody, or reduction in rank, and then allow the member to return to duty. The commander could impose an administrative discharge. The commander could impose Article 15 punishment, and then follow it up immediately with administrative discharge proceedings. Or, though unlikely, the commander could refer the case to trial by court-martial with a Special Court, or a General Court-Martial. If the commander chooses a Summary Court, the maximum punishment is limited to confinement for 30 days, forfeiture of two-thirds pay for one month, and reduction to the lowest pay grade.
AWOL and Desertion in the National Guard and Reserves
Members of the Army and Air National Guard are not subject to the UCMJ. This is because the National Guard belongs to the individual state and not the federal government. This means that members of the National Guard cannot be punished (Court-Martial or Article 15) for missing weekend drills or failing to show up for the two weeks of annual training. However, if the National Guard is called to active duty within the military, they are subject to the UCMJ.
What to Do if You're AWOL or in Desertion Status
The best advice is to turn yourself in to the authorities at your command as soon as possible. The difference between AWOL and desertion can be significant with regards to your future.
Who to Contact
If you believe you know the whereabouts of someone who is AWOL or has deserted, you can report them to the individual service's Deserter Information Point, who will then determine whether or not the person is in desertion or AWOL status and take appropriate action. The DIP phone numbers are:
- Army: (502) 626-3711/ 3712/3713
- Navy: (847) 688-2106 (or toll free: 1-800-423-7633)
- Marine Corps: (703) 614-3248/3376
- Air Force: (210) 566-3752 (or toll free: 1-800-531-5501)
- Coast Guard: 1-800-986-9678 ext. 3-6600