UCMJ AWOL Article 86: Avoiding Penalties & Understanding Defenses

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Facing the consequences of being AWOL under Article 86 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is a situation no service member wants to find themselves in. It’s a serious offense that can lead to severe penalties, including dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay, and even confinement. Understanding the intricacies of Article 86 is crucial for any military personnel, whether you’re contemplating the ramifications of going AWOL or simply seeking to stay informed about your obligations under military law.

Navigating the legal landscape of the UCMJ can be daunting, but it’s essential to grasp the specifics of Article 86. This piece of legislation not only defines what constitutes being AWOL but also outlines the potential consequences and defenses available to those accused. Arming yourself with knowledge about Article 86 can help you make informed decisions and potentially mitigate the repercussions if you’re ever faced with such allegations.

Understanding UCMJ AWOL Article 86

Building on the critical importance of Article 86 under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), it’s essential to dive deeper into what being Absent Without Leave (AWOL) entails and its legal ramifications. As a member of the military, knowing the specifics can help you navigate the potential pitfalls of Article 86.

Firstly, AWOL refers to a service member’s failure to be where they are supposed to be at a given time. Unlike desertion, which involves an intent to never return, AWOL might occur due to misunderstandings, personal issues, or temporary lapses in judgment. However, the consequences, while varying in severity, pose significant risks to one’s career and liberty.

Under Article 86, penalties for AWOL offenses range based on the duration of the absence, the circumstances, and the service member’s intent. Absences under three days might result in lighter punishments, whereas prolonged or repeated absences or absences under aggravating circumstances can lead to dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement.

Defense against AWOL charges under Article 86 often hinges on proving the absence was not intentional or was due to factors outside the service member’s control, such as family emergencies or medical issues. Evidence of such circumstances can significantly impact the outcome of a case.

Each branch of the military enforces Article 86 through its respective military courts and legal procedures, making consultation with a military lawyer crucial for anyone facing AWOL charges. They can provide guidance, represent you in legal proceedings, and work towards achieving the best possible outcome considering the circumstances.

Remember, while Article 86 sets a strict framework for handling AWOL cases, each situation is unique. Ensuring you’re informed and prepared can make a substantial difference in addressing any concerns related to being AWOL under UCMJ Article 86.

Consequences of Going AWOL Under Article 86

Understanding the consequences of going AWOL under Article 86 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) is crucial for any service member. Your actions have real and significant implications, and penalties vary based on several factors including duration of absence, circumstances, and service member’s intent. Here’s what you need to know:

  • Non-Judicial Punishments: For shorter or less severe instances of AWOL, commanders often resort to non-judicial punishments. These can include extra duties, grade reduction, restriction to certain areas, or forfeiture of pay for a certain period. While these are milder compared to judicial consequences, they still impact your military career and personal life.
  • Court-Martial: In more serious cases, especially when AWOL is prolonged or involves aggravating circumstances, a court-martial may ensue. This could result in a range of outcomes from confinement to dishonorable discharge, based on the gravity of the offense. A dishonorable discharge not only ends your military career but also strips you of military benefits and may hinder future employment opportunities.
  • Forfeiture of Pay and Allowances: Regardless of whether the punishment is via non-judicial penalties or a court-martial, forfeiture of pay and allowances is common. The duration and amount of forfeiture depend on the severity of the absence and whether it’s a first-time or repeated offense.
  • Confinement: For severe cases, including repeated offenses or instances where the AWOL period significantly disrupts military operations, confinement is a likely outcome. The length of confinement can vary widely, from a few months to several years.
  • Impact on Civil Life: Beyond the immediate military consequences, going AWOL can have lasting effects on your life as a civilian. A dishonorable discharge, in particular, might limit career options, affect eligibility for certain benefits, and tarnish your reputation.

Facing charges under Article 86 of the UCMJ demands a serious and informed response. Contacting a military lawyer early can help you navigate the complexities of defense against AWOL charges, potentially mitigating the severity of the consequences. Remember, AWOL charges not only affect your military career but extend well into your post-military life, affecting opportunities and personal freedom.

Notable Cases and Examples

Exploring notable cases and examples of AWOL under Article 86 of the UCMJ provides insight into the application of military law and the consequences individuals face for such violations. These cases illustrate the wide range of circumstances under which service members go AWOL and the subsequent actions taken by military authorities.

  1. Extended Absences: One of the most talked-about cases involved a soldier who was absent for over a decade, only to be apprehended upon attempting to reenter the United States. The soldier faced not only confinement but also a dishonorable discharge, showcasing the serious ramifications of extended unauthorized absence.
  2. Failure to Report: In another case, a service member failed to report back to duty after authorized leave, citing personal issues as the reason. Despite the non-combat related absence, the service member faced non-judicial punishment, illustrating that even short-term AWOL instances can lead to significant consequences.
  3. Emergency Leave Abuse: A common scenario involves service members extending emergency leave without proper authorization. One case highlighted a service member who, after attending to a family emergency, did not return at the specified time and communicated inadequately with their command. This resulted in court-martial proceedings and forfeiture of pay, emphasizing the importance of following proper protocols even in emergencies.
  4. Desertion Versus AWOL: Highlighting the distinction between desertion and AWOL, a case emerged where a service member left their post without intent to return, categorizing their absence as desertion rather than AWOL. The individual faced severe penalties, including confinement and a dishonorable discharge, underscoring the gravity of intent in such cases.

Through these examples, it’s clear that the consequences of going AWOL vary but invariably affect both military careers and future civilian life. Each case underscores the importance of adherence to military regulations and the significant impact of unauthorized absences under Article 86 of the UCMJ.

Defenses Against AWOL Charges

Understanding the potential defenses against AWOL charges under Article 86 of the UCMJ equips service members with necessary insights should they ever need to navigate these situations. Given the severe implications of AWOL on both military and civilian life, knowing your defense options is crucial.

  1. Lack of Intent to Remain Away
    Demonstrating that there was no intent to stay away from your post indefinitely can serve as a defense. If you can provide evidence that shows your absence was due to misunderstandings, errors, or circumstances beyond your control, you may successfully contest AWOL charges.
  2. Inability to Return
    Situations where you’re physically unable to return to duty due to illness or injury, and have made efforts to notify superiors, can be valid defenses. Documented medical emergencies or unavoidable circumstances that prevented your return can be significant in your defense.
  3. Mistake of Fact
    A misunderstanding or lack of knowledge that led to your absence may also serve as a defense. If you can prove that you were not aware of your duty status due to incorrect information or a genuine misunderstanding, this might mitigate the charges against you.
  4. Administrative Errors
    Sometimes, administrative mistakes can result in individuals being incorrectly labeled as AWOL. Proving an administrative error, such as improper processing of leave requests or failure to document a return, may exonerate you from charges.
  5. Authorization or Approval
    If you can demonstrate that you had received prior approval from your commanding officer for your absence, this approval can act as a substantial defense. Documentation or witness testimony confirming the authorization can be crucial to your case.

Each of these defenses requires substantial proof and proper presentation during legal proceedings. It’s imperative to consult with a military legal expert who can help navigate the complexities of UCMJ Article 86 and ensure your defense is robust and well-argued.

Preventative Measures and Advice

Understanding the importance of compliance with the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) Article 86, you’ll find that taking preventative measures plays a crucial role in avoiding the severe consequences of going Absent Without Leave (AWOL). Here are actionable steps and advice to prevent facing AWOL charges:

  1. Stay Informed: Make sure you fully understand your obligations under the UCMJ, specifically Article 86. Regularly attend briefings and seek clarifications on leave policies and procedures to avoid unintentional violations.
  2. Effective Communication: Maintain open lines of communication with your commanding officers and peers. If you’re facing difficulties that might affect your ability to report for duty, inform your superiors as soon as possible. Early communication can lead to support or solutions that preclude the need for an AWOL designation.
  3. Seek Assistance: If you encounter personal, financial, or psychological challenges that may impede your service, seek assistance immediately. Military support services, such as counseling, financial advising, and legal services, are available to help you navigate through these issues.
  4. Properly Manage Leave: Plan and request your leaves well in advance. Ensure that you understand the leave approval process and abide by the rules. Keep copies of all leave-related documentation in case disputes arise.
  5. Understand the Consequences: Familiarize yourself with the consequences of failing to report for duty without approval. Recognizing the potential penalties, including legal actions and impact on future civilian employment, can deter decisions that lead to AWOL status.
  6. Legal Consultation: In situations where you’re unsure about the legality of your actions regarding leave or if you’re facing charges under Article 86, consult with a military lawyer. Legal experts can offer guidance, help you navigate through your defense, and possibly mitigate the consequences.

By implementing these measures, you’ll significantly reduce the risk of facing charges under UCMJ Article 86. Keeping abreast of your responsibilities, actively managing your leave, and utilizing available resources ensures adherence to military regulations and protects your career and future.


Facing AWOL charges under Article 86 of the UCMJ can have severe repercussions on your military career and future. However, understanding the penalties and knowing your defense options are just the first steps. It’s imperative to take proactive measures to prevent such charges. Staying informed about your responsibilities, maintaining open communication with your superiors, and seeking help when facing personal challenges are key. Additionally, managing your leave responsibly and being aware of the potential consequences of AWOL can safeguard your career. Should you find yourself in a challenging situation, consulting with a military lawyer is crucial. By implementing these strategies, you’ll not only protect your future but also ensure compliance with military regulations.


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