Returning from AWOLFebruary 15, 2021
Returning from AWOL
AWOL stands for "absent without leave." It is a status given to a Servicemember who is not at their assigned place of duty. Typically, after a Servicemember is AWOL for a certain number of days, his/her status will change to being a deserter (using a DD Form 553). For the purposes of this article, it does not matter if a Servicemember is considered AWOL or is formally a deserter.
Believe it or not, units do not typically search for members of their unit that are AWOL. Perhaps more alarmingly, there is no task force that searches for AWOL Servicemembers. The military simply completes paperwork that puts a warrant in Civilian Law Enforcement databases which indicates that the Servicemember is AWOL. Commands will also typically write letters to the Servicemember's family, urging their return. What this means is that if a Servicemember leaves his/her unit, he/she will not be returned unless they have an interaction with Law Enforcement that results in their name being run through the warrant database. An example of this would be a traffic stop (possibly) or an arrest for unrelated conduct.
In these situations, typically the Civilian Law Enforcement agency will contact the Military Police at the Servicemember's old installation to arrange a transfer. These types of situations, where an AWOL Servicemember is arrested and returned to their unit in constraints, is the worst possible way to return. In fact, "terminated by apprehension" is an added element to AWOL/Desertion that can be added on that could result more punishment (i.e. jail time). Furthermore, if a Servicemember is arrested and returned to his/her unit, he/she will most likely be placed in Pretrial Confinement, explained more at this link.
Obviously, a Servicemember wishing to return from AWOL should voluntarily turn themselves in. This can be done by showing back up at the Servicemember's last base or by simply going to the Military Police at the nearest military installation. If a Servicemember shows up at the nearest military installation, it is possible that a unit at that location will process him/her out. However, it is also possible that the Servicemember could be returned to their old unit for processing.
When this happens, Servicemembers are sometimes driven back by members of his/her old unit. Sometimes, however, Servicemembers are ordered to report back to his/her old unit on their own volition.
Choosing when and how to turn yourself in is a very important decision, and one that should be discussed with a Military lawyer before making it. Furthermore, Servicemembers returning from AWOL can retain a lawyer to contact his/her old unit and to negotiate a return.
Of course, Servicemembers returning from AWOL will face consequences. There was a time when Servicemembers came back from extended periods of AWOL and were just put back to work. This doesn't usually happen anymore. However, if the period of AWOL was very small, a unit may decide to take no action. Servicemembers returning from AWOL should expect to face the consequences discussed below.
It is possible for Servicemembers in this situation to be processed administratively; essentially, get "chaptered." In these situations, Servicemembers should expect to receive a General or Other than Honorable Discharge. Administrative separations for each Service is discussed at the following links: Army, Marines, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard.
It is also possible, and more likely, for Servicemembers returning from lengthy periods of AWOL to face Court-Martial charges. Sometimes in these situations, Commands are quick to accept Discharges in Lieu of Trial by Court-Martial (i.e. Chapter 10s, Chapter 4s). However, Commands will also sometimes push for a conviction, jail time, and a punitive discharge.
Returning from AWOL is a complicated process with potentially severe consequences. Any Servicemember who wishes to do this should consult with a Military Lawyer, who can assist with the return and follow on actions taken by the Command.
This article was written by Attorney Matthew Barry.