What’s It Called When You Leave the Military Without Permission? Exploring Desertion and Its Consequences

by | UCMJ | 1 comment

Leaving the military without permission is a serious offense that carries significant legal consequences. When you take this unauthorized step, it’s known as desertion or AWOL (Absent Without Leave). These terms might sound familiar, but understanding their implications is crucial for anyone connected to the military.

Desertion and AWOL aren’t just breaches of military protocol; they can have lasting effects on your life and future. From legal repercussions to the impact on your career and personal relationships, the stakes are high. This article will break down what these terms mean, the differences between them, and the potential consequences you could face.

Understanding Desertion

Definition and Context

Desertion occurs when a service member leaves their post or fails to return after an authorized leave, with the intent to remain away permanently. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), desertion distinguishes itself from being Absent Without Leave (AWOL) by the duration and intent of the absence. Desertion typically involves intent to abandon all duty and avoid returning, rather than a temporary absence. Historical records and contemporary military justice cases highlight this serious offense’s gravity.

Legal Implications of Desertion

Military law views desertion as a severe crime, potentially punishable by court-martial. Depending on the circumstances, disciplinary actions range from dishonorable discharge to imprisonment or even the death penalty during wartime. Data from military legal affairs show that desertion rates correlate significantly with increased punishment severity. Authorities emphasize that desertion severely undermines military cohesion, readiness, and operational effectiveness, necessitating strict legal consequences for those found guilty.

Historical Perspective on Military Desertion

Notable Cases Through History

Throughout history, several notable cases of military desertion have profoundly impacted the perception and consequences of this act. One well-known instance occurred during the American Civil War. Over 200,000 Union soldiers deserted, and authorities pursued many of them aggressively (National Park Service). This created significant challenges for military leaders managing troop strength and morale.

During World War II, the high-profile case of Private Eddie Slovik stands out. Slovik became the only American soldier executed for desertion since the Civil War. This case highlighted the gravity with which military authorities treated desertion, especially during high-stakes conflicts (Smithsonian Magazine). These cases underscore the severe repercussions that have historically accompanied desertion.

Impact on Military Operations

Desertion directly affects military operations by undermining unit cohesion and readiness. When personnel abandon their duties, it strains remaining soldiers who must compensate for the loss. This disruption can lead to lower morale and increased operational risks.

Historically, desertion has often forced military leaders to reassign or retrain soldiers, diverting resources from critical missions. For example, during the Vietnam War, higher desertion rates led to operational inefficiencies and lowered combat effectiveness (Vietnam Veterans Against the War). As a result, military organizations have continually emphasized severe penalties to deter desertion and maintain the integrity of their forces.

Psychological Aspects of Desertion

Factors Leading to Desertion

Various factors contribute to desertion, often rooted in psychological challenges. Combat stress, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression are prevalent among military personnel. Exposure to prolonged danger and intense combat can deteriorate mental health. Moreover, personal issues, like family problems or financial troubles, exacerbate stress levels. It’s important to recognize that these issues may lead to feelings of isolation and helplessness, which subsequently increase the likelihood of desertion.

The pressure to conform to military culture also significantly impacts mental wellbeing. Some individuals struggle to adapt to the regimented lifestyle and strict hierarchy. This struggle is particularly intense among new recruits who find the transition from civilian life challenging. If not addressed, these psychological strains can escalate, promoting the decision to desert.

Psychological Support and Prevention

To counter desertion, military organizations emphasize psychological support and preventive measures. Providing access to mental health services, such as counseling and therapy, is crucial. These interventions help service members manage stress and cope with mental health disorders. Regular mental health screenings also enable early detection of issues, facilitating prompt intervention.

Moreover, unit cohesion plays a critical role in prevention. A strong support network within the unit fosters a sense of belonging and mutual reliance. Encouraging open communication and peer support groups contributes to better mental health outcomes. Leadership training that focuses on recognizing signs of distress among troops and providing appropriate support is another key strategy in preventing desertion.

Preventive measures extend to addressing personal issues as well. Financial counseling services and family support programs help mitigate external stressors. By creating a holistic support system, military organizations aim to reduce the psychological triggers that lead to desertion.

Legal Consequences of Leaving the Military Without Permission

Penalties and Charges

Leaving the military without permission incurs severe penalties. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ), service members face charges of unauthorized absence (UA) or desertion, depending on the duration and intent. Unauthorized absence can lead to pay forfeiture, reduction in rank, and confinement. Desertion, deemed more severe, can result in dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and incarceration for up to five years. In wartime, punishment escalates to life imprisonment or even the death penalty.

Legal Processes and Rights of the Accused

Accused service members undergo specific legal processes. Commanders often initiate an investigation, followed by pretrial confinement if necessary. You have rights during this process, including representation by military or civilian defense counsel and the right to remain silent. Article 32 hearings, akin to civilian grand jury proceedings, determine if sufficient evidence exists for a court-martial. During the court-martial, evidence presentation and witness testimonies occur, ensuring a fair trial. Appeals can follow a conviction, subject to legal review mechanisms within the military justice system.


Leaving the military without permission, known as desertion, carries significant legal and personal repercussions. It not only disrupts military operations and unit cohesion but also subjects you to severe penalties under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Understanding the gravity of desertion and the legal processes involved is crucial. Military organizations are committed to providing psychological support and preventive measures to help service members cope with stress and personal issues, aiming to prevent such drastic actions. If you or someone you know is struggling, seeking help early can make a significant difference.


post page form.


Next Steps: Sync an Email Add-On

To get the most out of your form, we suggest that you sync this form with an email add-on. To learn more about your email add-on options, visit the following page (https://www.gravityforms.com/the-8-best-email-plugins-for-wordpress-in-2020/). Important: Delete this tip before you publish the form.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.