Is Quitting the Military a Crime? Unpacking UCMJ Rules

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You’ve probably wondered what happens if someone decides to call it quits on their military service. It’s not like walking out of a regular job—there’s a web of legalities and consequences that come into play. Quitting the military isn’t a decision to take lightly, and it’s crucial to understand the potential legal ramifications.

Whether it’s going AWOL, desertion, or seeking a discharge, the military has strict rules about service commitments. You’ll want to know the difference between a dishonorable discharge and an honorable one, and how each affects your future. Let’s dive into what it really means to leave the military and whether it’s considered a crime.

Understanding Military Service Commitments

When you enlist in the military, you’re signing a binding contract. This isn’t like a typical job agreement; it’s a serious commitment with legal obligations. These contracts typically specify a minimum period of service, which can range from two to eight years, depending on the branch and role. Knowing the specifics of your contract is crucial as it outlines your responsibilities and the terms of your service.

Enlistment contracts are governed by military law, different from civilian law. The Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) regulates your conduct and sets forth the penalties for failing to meet your commitments. Under the UCMJ, actions such as going AWOL or desertion are not only breaches of your contract but also criminal offenses.

Let’s break down what might happen if you don’t fulfill your service commitment:

  • Going AWOL (Absent Without Leave): Temporarily leaving your post without permission can lead to significant consequences like demotion, pay forfeiture, and even imprisonment.
  • Desertion: If you abandon your duty with no intention of returning, the consequences are more severe. You could face a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and imprisonment.

Seeking a discharge is a lawful way to end your service, and there are different types. Here’s a brief overview:

  • Honorable Discharge: You’ve met or exceeded the requirements of your service. Your record will reflect your good standing with the military.
  • General Discharge Under Honorable Conditions: Your service has been satisfactory but may have had some minor disciplinary or performance issues.
  • Other Than Honorable Discharge: Issues such as misconduct can lead to this type of discharge, potentially affecting future employment and benefits.

Your military service is a commitment that can shape your future. Abiding by the terms of your contract ensures you uphold your duties and avoid legal repercussions that can last a lifetime. Stay informed and know your rights, but also beware of the responsibilities that come with donning the uniform.

The Difference Between a Dishonorable Discharge and an Honorable Discharge

Understanding the differences between a dishonorable discharge and an honorable discharge is crucial for any service member. Your discharge status can significantly impact your post-military life, particularly when it comes to employment and benefits.

Dishonorable Discharge is the most severe punitive discharge in the military. You’ll receive this type of discharge only if you’re convicted by a general court-martial for serious offenses – acts that civilian law typically considers felonies. Such offenses include desertion, sexual assault, or murder. If you’re given a dishonorable discharge, you’ll lose virtually all military and veteran benefits, and it’ll likely carry a significant stigma in civilian life, making it difficult to find employment.

On the other hand, an Honorable Discharge indicates that you’ve met or exceeded the conduct and performance standards of the military. Receiving an honorable discharge means that you completed your service with good to excellent ratings, without significant negative incidents. Benefits of an honorable discharge include:

  • Eligibility for veteran benefits, including educational benefits under the GI Bill
  • Preferential treatment in hiring for federal positions
  • Access to military commissaries and exchanges
  • VA loan eligibility for home buying

A stark contrast between the two types of discharges is that with an honorable discharge, you’ll carry with you a sense of pride and a commendable service record. This often facilitates a smoother transition back into civilian life.

It’s essential to recognize that other discharge statuses exist, such as a General Discharge under Honorable Conditions and an Other Than Honorable Discharge. Both of these have their own implications, which are less severe than a dishonorable discharge but carry more consequences than an honorable one. Their impact on post-military life varies, as they can limit access to certain benefits.

Awareness of how your actions while in service affect your discharge type – and accordingly, your future – is paramount. You must consider the long-term effects each type of discharge could have on your civilian life.

Going AWOL: Consequences and Legal Ramifications

When you sign up for military service, you’re committing to a term of engagement that’s not only a moral obligation but also a binding legal contract. Going AWOL, or Absent Without Leave, is a violation of this contract and a criminal offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). When you’re AWOL, you fail to report for duty or are absent from your post without a valid pass, leave, or excuse.

The UCMJ classifies the severity of the offense based on the duration of the absence and the intentions associated with it. Penalties for going AWOL can be steep and may include:

  • Reduction in rank
  • Forfeiture of pay
  • Confinement
  • A less than honorable discharge

Being AWOL for less than 30 days leads to a different set of consequences than longer-term unauthorized absences, which may be classified as desertion, a much more serious offense. Desertion is defined as leaving your post with the intent to not return, or to shirk hazardous duty or important service. If it’s believed that your disappearance is permanent, or if you have deserted during a time of war, the penalties can be as severe as:

  • Death (in times of war)
  • Dishonorable discharge
  • Forfeiture of all pay and allowances
  • Lengthy incarceration

The impact of going AWOL extends beyond immediate legal consequences. The type of discharge you receive can affect your life long after your military service ends. For example, a less than honorable discharge may prevent you from accessing veteran benefits, securing federal employment, or enjoying the general goodwill often bestowed upon those who have honorably served. Employers have the right to ask about your military service, and the details of your discharge will be a matter of permanent record, potentially influencing your future career opportunities and reputation.

Understanding the full weight of your actions while serving in the military is crucial as they have lasting implications on your discharge and civilian life. Choose your actions wisely and always consider the long-term effects they may have.

Desertion: What It Is and How It Is Punished

Desertion is a step beyond going AWOL and is considered one of the most serious offenses you can commit in the military. It’s defined as the act of leaving your post or duty station with the intent to never return, or avoiding one’s duties by leaving without the intention of coming back. If you desert during a time of war or if you have intentions to shirk important service or avoid hazardous duty, your actions carry even heavier weight.

When you’re charged with desertion, the consequences are severe and often include lengthy incarcerations, dishonorable discharge, and forfeiture of all pay and allowances. The stigma associated with a dishonorable discharge can follow you for life, impacting future employment opportunities and access to veterans’ benefits.

Consequence of Desertion Description
Dishonorable Discharge Permanent severance from the military with stigma.
Forfeiture of Pay and Allowances Loss of all military pay and benefits.
Incarceration Potential imprisonment, which can be extensive.
Death (in times of war) The most severe punishment under the UCMJ.

It’s crucial to note that the military views desertion during a time of war with utmost seriousness, and in such cases, the ultimate penalty can be death, although this punishment is rare and has not been executed in many years.

Being charged with desertion requires a court-martial, which is a judicial proceeding similar to a civilian trial. You’re entitled to legal representation and the right to present evidence and witnesses on your behalf. The burden of proof is on the prosecution to demonstrate that you intended to remain away from your duties permanently.

Charge sheets and legal proceedings for desertion detail the specifics of the absence, including dates, duration, and the nature of duties from which you absented yourself. These factors, along with your military service record, will influence the severity of the punishment meted out should you be found guilty.

Understanding the gravity of desertion is key in realizing that quitting military service in such a manner is not simply a breach of contract but a serious crime with lasting repercussions.

Is Quitting the Military Considered a Crime?

Quitting the military is not as straightforward as leaving a civilian job. It’s governed by a unique set of laws that consider unauthorized absence from the service as a criminal offense. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), desertion is indeed a crime. It’s a serious breach of military law, especially if the intent to shirk important duty or avoid hazardous duty is evident.

Unlike civilian employment, enlisting in the military is a commitment not only to your unit and comrades but to the security of your country. This contract stipulates that you serve for a designated period of time or under certain conditions. Breaching this contract without official approval can lead to significant legal consequences.

If you’re contemplating leaving the military, you should be aware that the process is regimented. A premature departure requires an authorized discharge. There are various types of discharges — honorable, general, other-than-honorable, bad conduct, and dishonorable — and they are contingent upon the nature of your departure and conduct in service.

Here’s a breakdown of unauthorized absences and their potential categorizations within the military justice system:

  • Absence Without Leave (AWOL): An absence from one’s post without official permission but without intent to desert.
  • Desertion: Failing to report for duty or leaving the post with no intention of returning.
  • Missing Movement: Failing to deploy or move with your assigned unit.
Absence Type UCMJ Article Intent Requirement Possible Penalties
AWOL 86 No specific intent Demotions, forfeiture of pay, jail
Desertion 85 Intent to remain away Dishonorable discharge, jail, death in wartime
Missing Movement 87 Demotions, forfeiture of pay, jail

It’s crucial to consider all potential repercussions and seek the appropriate legal guidance before making any decisions regarding your military service. Your actions not only impact your career but can potentially have broader implications on your life outside the military.


Remember, walking away from your military commitment isn’t as simple as quitting a regular job. It’s a serious offense that can carry heavy penalties. If you’re contemplating leaving, it’s crucial to understand the gravity of such a decision. Ensure you explore all legal avenues and seek professional advice to navigate this complex area. Your future and reputation could hinge on the choices you make regarding your military service. Always weigh the consequences and make informed decisions to protect your rights and your career.


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