Warrants Issued for AWOL Soldiers… Up to 100 Held at Ft. Drum
This past August, an unusual call came into the GI Rights Hotline. Two soldiers arrested on charges of military desertion reported that a large number of soldiers were being held at Ft. Drum on similar charges.
|To Take Action|
• Contact Jessica at the Peace Council for more information on visiting Ft. Drum.
• Donations are also needed for transportation costs for pro-bono lawyers and other legal costs.
• To reach someone at the GI Rights Hotline, call 413-256-8647 or 877-447-4487.
The GI Rights Hotline is a nonprofit, non-governmental organization offering free and confidential adv
ice on military policy and soldiers’ rights. Volunteers routinely counsel soldiers facing desertion charges, but the sheer scale of the arrests described made this call d
“They were pretty clear from the beginning that this… affected a lot of soldiers,” recalls Jeff, a retired social worker and peace activist who’s been volunteering with the hotline for six years. (He asked that his real name not be used.) “One of them guessed that 50-80 people were being held in the barracks, and the other guessed… over 100… just in their brigade.” Another soldier at Ft. Drum later reported that numbers posted on the base indicate that an additional 200 arrest warrants have been issued.
All of these soldiers are being given the same choice: plead guilty and face a court-martial, likely to result in a Bad Conduct Discharge and six months in Ft. Leavenworth Prison, or contest the charges, with the risk of receiving increased sentences of up to 18 months.
There’s another element of this case that makes it unusual, besides the number of people affected. Most of these soldiers went AWOL years ago, but their absences remained unreported until this past spring when the army began issuing warrants for their arrests.
Standard military procedure requires the army to report AWOL soldiers to the US Army Desertion Information Point (USADIP) after 30 days of absence. The FBI then issues a warrant, leading to a soldier’s arrest during a routine traffic stop or overseas travel.
One of Jeff’s colleagues at the hotline began making inquiries and discovered that due to a paperwork glitch, there were periods between 2001 and 2009 when a large number of warrants weren’t issued. Evidently, they are now being issued retroactively.
Realizing the seriousness of the situation, Jeff contacted fellow peace activist, Ted, a 15-year Army National Guard veteran and member of Iraq Veterans Against the War and Veterans for Peace. Ted enlisted in the military at age 17 and served in the National Guard before deploying to Afghanistan. Witnessing the military’s inhumane treatment of the Afghan people and reflecting on his own complicity made him skeptical about the mission. On his return, he was sent to provide aid following Hurricane Katrina. Having assisted with many prior humanitarian missions, he was struck by the Guard’s armed approach to civilians, especially the emphasis on defending private property over supplying humanitarian aid. At that point, he says, “I followed my conscience and maintained my integrity by separating from the military completely—walking away from potential retirement and a $20,000 reenlistment bonus. That was the hardest but truest decision I’ve ever made in my life.”
Conversations with the Soldiers
Ted and Jeff visited Ft. Drum in early September and met with seven soldiers arrested for desertion. Most said their arrests came as a complete surprise; they didn’t know warrants had been issued. Some tried to turn themselves in after going AWOL but were turned away; there was no record of their cases on file. Now, after years spent building productive civilian lives, they’re being torn away from their families and careers. Most have lost their jobs; some have young children from whom they’ll be separated for many months.
Those who go AWOL cite complicated reasons for leaving. Some suffer from PTSD and can’t get adequate mental health services on the base. Others return home to deal with family crises after being turned down for leave by their commanding officers. In the case of the two soldiers who initially contacted the hotline, one was seriously concerned about the welfare of his daughter and decided that being a father had to take precedence over his contract with the military. The other was being sexually harassed by an NCO.
Two others left because of extremely harsh treatment by their NCOs. “They were being hazed, ridiculed, and abused,” Ted explained. “They became traumatized and depressed and had to leave.” His report on the meeting reads:
Some seasoned NCOs… brag to each other about pushing the young troops to the edge, making them go AWOL or making them depressed and suicidal. (I overheard the same kind of bragging by MPs in Afghanistan about their abuse of detainees brought into Bagram.) … It seems to me that many NCOs in the whole 10th Mountain Division that has deployed several times to Afghanistan, are suffering from PTSD. They’re on power trips… because they were essentially not in control of their own lives for so long in combat. Some commanders are absent much of the time, leaving the non-coms to their own devices, no matter how abusive or illegal.
This kind of treatment, he says, is more commonly experienced by young troops, whom the NCOs regard as easy targets.
A Volunteer Military?
Among the hardships these soldiers now confront is the stigma attached to going AWOL. Many people regard military desertion as cowardly or traitorous, and believe the military justified in issuing harsh punishments. However, Ted raises a compelling counterargument: “Should we be criminalizing people just because they walk away from a job? It doesn’t matter whether that job is military or not,” he says. “We like to think we have a volunteer military force, but these people have a binding contract that is more binding than any other legal contract. No other legal contract is enforced in this way.”
Moreover, the punishment for desertion hasn’t always been so severe. An April 2007 New York Times article reports that in the years prior to the Afghanistan War desertions were treated by the military as “unpunished nuisances.” However, sharp increases in desertions during the years following the invasion of Iraq caused the military to reevaluate its penalties. According to the Associated Press and Army Times, desertions increased by 80% between 2003 and 2007, peaking at 4,698 in 2007, or nearly 1% of all active duty troops. With this increase, prosecutions became more aggressive.
The GI Rights Hotline is now preparing soldiers emotionally and legally for their courts-martial. They’ve obtained some assistance from civilian attorneys and from the Military Law Task Force. Caseworkers are assisting soldiers by providing advice on crafting personal statements and obtaining letters of support. They’re encouraging soldiers to collect mitigating evidence to help justify their desertions. However, even with such evidence, it is uncertain whether any of these soldiers’ sentences will be substantially reduced. The disruption and trauma sure to result from their imprisonment stands as another example of the collateral damage of war.