By Paul von Zielbauer, New York Times. April 9, 2007

Army prosecutions of desertion and other unauthorized absences have risen sharply in the last four years, resulting in thousands more negative discharges and prison time for both junior soldiers and combat-tested veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Army records show.

The increased prosecutions are meant to serve as a deterrent to a growing number of soldiers who are ambivalent about heading — or heading back — to Iraq and may be looking for a way out, several Army lawyers said in interviews. Using courts-martial for these violations, which before 2002 were treated mostly as unpunished nuisances, is a sign that active-duty
forces are being stretched to their limits, military lawyers and mental health experts said.

“They are scraping to get people to go back, and people are worn out,” said Dr. Thomas Grieger, a senior Navy psychiatrist. Though there are no current studies to show how combat stress affects desertion rates, Dr. Grieger cited several examples of soldiers absconding or refusing to return to Iraq because of psychiatric reasons brought on by wartime deployments.

At an Army base in Alaska last year, for example, “there was one guy who literally chopped off his trigger finger with an axe to prevent his deployment,” Dr. Grieger said in an interview.

The Army prosecuted desertion far less often in the late 1990s, when desertions were more frequent, than it does now, when there are comparatively fewer.

From 2002 through 2006, the average annual rate of Army prosecutions of desertion tripled compared with the five-year period from 1997 to 2001, to roughly 6 percent of deserters, from 2 percent, Army data shows.

Between these two five-year spans — one prewar and one during wartime — prosecutions for similar crimes, like absence without leave or failing to appear for unit missions, have more than doubled, to an average of 390 per year from an average of 180 per year, Army data shows.

In total, the Army since 2002 has court-martialed twice as many soldiers for desertion and other unauthorized absences as it did on average each year between 1997 and 2001. Deserters are soldiers who leave a post or fail to show up for an assignment with the intent to stay away. Soldiers considered absent without leave, or AWOL, which presumes they plan to
return, are classified as deserters and dropped from a unit’s rolls after 30 days.

Most soldiers who return from unauthorized absences are punished and discharged. Few return to regular duty.

Officers said the crackdown reflected an awareness by top Army and Defense Department officials that desertions, which occurred among more than 1 percent of the active-duty force in 2000 for the first time since the post-Vietnam era, were in a sustained upswing again after ebbing in 2003, the first year of the Iraq war.

At the same time, the increase highlights a cycle long known to Army researchers: as the demand for soldiers increases during a war, desertions rise and the Army tends to lower enlistment standards, recruiting more people with questionable backgrounds who are far more likely to become deserters.

In the 2006 fiscal year, 3,196 soldiers deserted, the Army said, a figure that has been climbing since the 2004 fiscal year, when 2,357 soldiers absconded. In the first quarter of the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, 871 soldiers deserted, a rate that, if it stays on pace, would produce 3,484 desertions for the fiscal year, an 8 percent increase over 2006.

The Army said the desertion rate was within historical norms, and that the surge in prosecutions, which are at the discretion of unit commanders, was not a surprise given the impact that absent soldiers can have during wartime.

“The nation is at war, and the Army treats the offense of desertion more seriously,” Maj. Anne D. Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman, said. “The Army’s leadership will take whatever measures they believe are appropriate if they see a continued upward trend in desertion, in order to maintain the health of the force.”

Army studies and interviews also suggest a link between the rising rate of desertions and the expanding use of moral waivers to recruit people with poor academic records and low-level criminal convictions. At least 1 in 10 deserters surveyed after returning to the Army from 2002 to mid-2004 required a waiver to enter the service, a report by the Army Research Institute found.

“We’re enlisting more dropouts, people with more law violations, lower test scores, more moral issues,” said a senior noncommissioned officer involved in Army personnel and recruiting. “We’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel trying to get people to join.” (Army officials agreed to discuss the issue on the condition that they not be quoted by name.)

The officer said the Army National Guard last week authorized 34 states and Guam to enlist the lowest-ranking group of eligible recruits, those who scored between 16 and 30 on the armed services aptitude test. Federal law bars recruits who scored lower than 16 from enlisting.

Desertions, while a chronic problem for the Army, are nowhere near as common as they were at the height of the Vietnam War. From 1968 to 1971, for instance, about 5 percent of enlisted men deserted.

But the rate of desertion today, after four years of fighting two ground wars, is “being taken much more seriously because we were losing so many soldiers out of the Army that there was a recognized need to attack the problem from a different way,” said an Army criminal defense lawyer.

In interviews, the lawyer and two other Army lawyers each traced the spike in prosecutions to a policy change at the beginning of 2002 that required commanders to welcome back soldiers who deserted or went AWOL.

Before that, most deserters, who are often young, undistinguished soldiers who have fallen out of favor with their sergeants, were given administrative separations and sent home with other-than-honorable discharges.

The new policy, ordered by the secretary of the army, effectively eliminated the incentive among squad sergeants to urge returning AWOL soldiers to stay away for at least 30 days, when they would be classified as deserters under the old rules and dropped from the roll.

But some unit commanders, wary of scrutiny from their superiors, go out of their way to improperly keep deserted soldiers on their rosters, and on the Army’s payroll, two officers said in interviews. To counter that, the Army adopted a new policy in January 2005 requiring commanders to formally report absent soldiers within 48 hours.

Such problems are costly. From October 2000 to February 2002, the Army improperly paid more than $6.6 million to 7,544 soldiers who had deserted or were otherwise absent, according to a July 2006 report by the Government Accountability Office.

Most deserters list dissatisfaction with Army life or family problems as primary reasons for their absence, and most go AWOL in the United States. But since 2003, 109 soldiers have been convicted of going AWOL or deserting war zones in Iraq or Afghanistan, usually during their scheduled two-week leaves in the United States, Army officials said.

With the Iraq war in its fifth year, a new subset of deserter is emerging, military doctors and lawyers said: accomplished soldiers who abscond reluctantly, as a result of severe emotional trauma from their battle experiences.

James, a 26-year-old paratrooper twice deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, went AWOL in July after being reassigned to Fort Bliss, Tex., an Army post in the mountainous high-desert region near El Paso.

“The places I was in in Iraq and Afghanistan look exactly like Fort Bliss,” said James, who agreed to talk about his case on the condition that his last name not be printed. “It starts messing with your head — ‘I’m really back there.’ ”

In December, he and another deserter, Ronnie, 28, who also asked that his last name not be used, tried to surrender to the authorities at Fort Bliss. A staff sergeant told them not to bother, James said.

James and Ronnie, who both have five years of service, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and abuse alcohol to self-medicate, said Dr. David M. Walker, a former Air Force psychiatrist who has examined both men.

With help from lawyers, James and Ronnie returned to Fort Bliss on Tuesday. They were charged with desertion and face courts-martial and possibly a few months in a military brig.

“If I could stay in the military, get help, that’s what I want,” said Ronnie, who completed an 18-month combat tour in Kirkuk, Iraq, with the 25th Infantry Division in 2004.

The Army said combat-related stress had not caused many soldiers to desert.

Major Edgecomb, the spokeswoman, said more than 80 percent of the past year’s deserters had been soldiers for less than three years, and could not have been deployed more than once.

Morten G. Ender, a sociologist at the United States Military Academy at West Point, said soldiers’ decisions to go AWOL or desert might come in response to a family crisis — a threat by a spouse to leave if they deploy again, for instance, or a child-custody battle.

“It’s not just that they don’t want to be in a war zone anymore,” Dr. Ender said. “We saw that a lot during Vietnam, and we see that a lot in the military now.”