Declaring his client is "not a deserter," Lt. Richard Poirier, a Navy attorney, said Friday that he is seeking an administrative discharge for Tambra Leigh Morrison, a Navy petty officer and daughter of a Buena Park engineer who mysteriously disappeared from her West Coast ship eight months ago and turned up in Norfolk, Va, recently.
In the months after she disappeared, her family and friends worried that Morrison may have met with foul play. The Navy conducted a lengthy search until Morrison, accompanied by her mother, surrendered at a Norfolk Navy base on April 13.
Poirier said Friday that he could not say what had happened to Morrison or why she suddenly left the Port Hueneme-based Norton Sound last Aug. 3 for fear of jeopardizing her case.
But he said Morrison's explanation justified an honorable, administrative discharge. "If you're under duress, if you feel your life is endangered and the only way you can protect someone is to leave, then UA (unauthorized absence) is authorized" by the Navy, said Poirier, who cautioned that his remark did not necessarily apply to the specific circumstances of Morrison's case.
Classified as Deserter
Poirier said he hopes for a discharge ruling within a week.
A Navy official in Washington agreed that Morrison has never been court-martialed for desertion but added that she has been classified as a deserter since Sept. 2. Lt. Cmdr. Scott Wilson said such a classification is automatic if a sailor is absent without leave for more than 30 days. Another Navy official, this one in Norfolk, said Morrison had apparently left the Norton Sound "because of the pressures of her job on the ship."
"That's what she tells people in Transient Personnel (the unit to which she is assigned)," said Troy Snead, a master chief petty officer at the Norfolk Naval base. "She felt too much responsibility within her rate (as a petty officer on the Norton Sound's telephone repair crew). She left the ship and didn't come back."
Snead added that Morrison is restricted to the base but is not confined in any way. "She's just being held at the naval station" in a unit that sends sailors on work assignments. "We don't consider her a criminal of any kind," Snead said.
Disappearances Not Uncommon
Both Wilson and and Snead said that it was not uncommon for sailors to disappear without authorization for long periods of time. Morrison's disappearance probably has been "blown out of proportion based on the circumstances," Snead said, adding, "We just had a guy turn himself in the other week who was gone for seven years."
According to Wilson, in fiscal 1986, the Navy had 16,095 unauthorized absentees for a rate of 31.5 per 1,000 enlisted personnel. In the same fiscal year, the Navy counted another 4,828 deserters for a rate of 9.4 per 1,000 .
Morrison was 21 when she suddenly disappeared from her ship, apparently taking only her car and the clothes on her back. All her bank records and personal possessions remained in her ship bunk. A shipmate was said to have recalled that on the day she disappeared that she had waved to a friend and said, "See you tomorrow."
Morrison's friends and family members worried that she had met with foul play and appealed to the media for help in finding her. Their concern mounted in November, after learning that her blue, two-door Honda Civic was found abandoned at a truck stop in Corning, Calif.
Wilson said she was formally declared an unauthorized absentee last Aug. 4 before being declared a deserter about 30 days later.
A decision about how to treat Morrison and what penalty, if any, to impose, is under consideration, according to Wilson and Poirier.
The maximum penalty for desertion is five years' confinement at hard labor, plus forfeiture of all pay and allowances, reduction to the lowest pay grade and dishonorable discharge, Wilson said.
Someone who deserts but voluntarily returns could receive a maximum of two years' hard labor plus all the other penalties. However, reviewing officers can order much lesser penalties and may decide against taking an administratively classified deserter to trial, Wilson said.