Army to Deserters: So Long!

Times Staff Writer

Nick Thomas is a soldier without pity. He serves flag and country by dealing with the men and women who shucked the same Army uniform he wears. And he can’t stand their whining.

“I have no respect for these people,” said Thomas, 25, his soft face stiffening. “I hate hearing their sob stories.”

He hears plenty. As a military police investigator based at Ft. Irwin in a Mars-colored corner of the Mojave Desert northeast of Barstow, Thomas is responsible for picking up deserters who get snared in the law enforcement net across Southern California and Nevada.


Listening to their tales of woe is distasteful enough in peacetime, Thomas says. When comrades are under fire overseas, he finds the subjects of his mission particularly offensive.

“They train as part of a group, as a family, and then they don’t go,” he said, shaking his head in disgust. “You want to make them cry.”

But he says he does nothing to evoke tears -- no interrogation-room bullying about a court-martial, no threats of a long stretch in the brig.

Officials say today’s Army takes a passive, good-riddance approach to its runaways, who account for fewer than 1% of enlistees. Prosecutions and prison sentences have become rare.

Most of the several thousand deserters who bolt each year aren’t even actively pursued. Of those who do wind up in custody, more than 90% are discharged as quickly as the paperwork can be processed.

“Hunt them down? No way,” said Thomas, who sat in a wind-hammered bungalow as Humvees lumbered along the dusty roads outside. “I’ve never heard of a court-martial” for a deserter.

The Army has been a volunteer vocation since the end of the Vietnam War-era draft, so commanders have grown increasingly content to cut loose anyone unwilling to fight.

A similar attitude prevails in the Marine Corps and Navy, officials say, adding that it hasn’t changed because of the campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We really don’t look for deserters anymore,” said Mark Raimondi, spokesman for the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command. “If folks don’t want to stay around, we don’t want them.”

From the Revolutionary War on, deserters have been seen as the dirty laundry of the armed forces -- the mockers of code and honor, the drags on morale.

They come in varied shadings of character and motivation: lonesome 19-year-olds with a sick mom back home. Late-blooming conscientious objectors who signed up for the college benefits. Miscreants with an appetite for drugs and street violence. And the ones who simply got scared.

During the Vietnam War, especially in its early stages, the FBI helped the military track down deserters. Courts-martial were common.

Many Surrender

Now deserters are generally free to run until local civilian authorities happen to detain them -- often for traffic violations -- and warrant checks identify them as military fugitives. A large number turn themselves in. Others are given up by parents or spouses.

The Sudbury brothers did not flee, but their actions carried the risk of a desertion charge. As their units prepared to deploy to Iraq, Wes Sudbury, then an Army private based in Germany, and Michael Sudbury, who was an Army Reserve sergeant in Provo, Utah, refused to go. Instead, they asked to be released as conscientious objectors.

“I had become opposed to all war, and I would have taken any consequences,” said Michael, 27, who spent nearly nine years as a reservist. “What kind of army would put a gun to your head and say you have to go anyway?”

Wes, 25, who lives in Hawaii, was halfway through his four-year enlistment when he sought to get out. “I joined the Army for career options and to learn about the world,” he said. “But later I didn’t really agree with the way things were done in the Army.”

In the end, the Sudburys were granted honorable discharges, Wes as a conscientious objector and Michael because his enlistment expired while his request was pending. They were never arrested.

Their experience was very different from that of Erik Larsen, a Marine who declared himself a conscientious objector during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. The Corps jailed him at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, charged him with desertion and denied his conscientious objector status.

After the accusation was reduced to unauthorized leave, he got five months in the brig and a dishonorable discharge.

“They wanted to send a message, and they went overboard,” said Larsen, 35, now a neighborhood services worker for the city of San Jose. “The military has since learned its lesson.”

Sooner or later, most deserters face the music, Pentagon officials say. The tune is typically an administrative discharge on less-than-honorable terms, which can disqualify deserters for federal jobs as well as government-subsidized home loans and tuition grants. That doesn’t seem enough to gung-ho types like Nick Thomas, not when soldiers are shipping out to foreign fronts. They say deserters, at minimum, should be required to finish their tour -- preferably in an undesirable assignment.

“You join the Army to serve your country, and now that it’s time to serve, you’re going to leave?” asked Peter Cormier, 30, Thomas’ supervisor. “I’m not a field soldier, but if I was asked to go, I’d go.”

Cormier was walking through the provost marshal’s station, a cinderblock maze that houses the lockup at Ft. Irwin, 37 miles from Barstow. MPs in camouflage fatigues milled about. The words “loyalty,” “duty” and “respect” were painted on the walls of a holding cell -- scoldings for a captive audience.

The only prisoner on this day was a young soldier who had been AWOL for two weeks. He surrendered at the front gate and was awaiting transport to Ft. Lewis in Washington state, the post he fled. He would travel by commercial airline, unescorted. The man, whom MPs would not allow to be interviewed, sat in the cage with his head bowed.

Soldiers usually are classified as deserters when they have been absent without leave for 30 days and show no intention of returning. Last year 3,800 Army troops deserted, meaning that the Army’s desertion rate was one-sixth of what it was during the Vietnam War, when it totaled 5% of the rolls.

The other, smaller services report lower desertion numbers. About 1,300 Marines skipped out in 2001, the last year for which figures are complete, according to the Department of Defense. The Navy logged 1,619 deserters that year. The Air Force had a mere 64.

Similar Policies

The Marines and Navy handle desertions much as the Army does. The Air Force has taken a harder line since 2000, assigning special investigators to find deserters. As a result, arrests have increased.

“We owe this to the nation,” said Air Force Maj. Michael Richmond. “We spent a lot of time and money recruiting and training the people who desert.”

The Air Force can afford to get tough, because its deserter caseload is tiny, officials say. As a rule, the military has scaled back desertion investigation teams. The Marine Corps, for example, had 60 investigators a decade ago; it now has 26.

“We do all our work on the phone,” said Chief Warrant Officer Joseph Stines, who heads the Marine program.

Gary Solis, a retired Marine judge advocate who is the corps’ chief oral historian, says chasing and jailing deserters is not worth the expense in a volunteer military. “In a sense we’re a business, and you have to look at it in a sensible way,” he said. “Why not just send them home?”

A 2002 study by the Army Research Institute found that about 70% of deserters left in their first year of duty. They tended to be younger than the average recruit and likelier to come from broken homes. Many had been in trouble with the law before. Most cited family problems or a “failure to adapt” as the reason they deserted.

Wartime desertions can be a capital crime, on paper anyway. The last U.S. deserter put to death was Eddie Slovick, a World War II Army private. He was executed by a firing squad in France. Army spokespersons say an official count of battlefield desertions since the Vietnam War is not available, but they could recall none occurring.

Lesser penalties range from extra chores for rehabilitated deserters who serve out their hitch to three years behind bars. Most of those sentenced to prison had committed crimes such as robbery and assault while AWOL. Otherwise, the norm for deserters is an order to get lost.

That’s the way it should be, say advocates for soldiers who choose to leave.

“There are hopelessly naive young people who went into the military for the college money and never thought about going to war -- and then they face being deployed to Iraq,” said J.E. McNeil, executive director of the Center on Conscience & War. The Washington, D.C., group counsels soldiers seeking conscientious objector discharges. The Army approves about 40 such petitions a year.

‘Desperate Straits’

Teresa Panepinto, a coordinator for the Oakland-based Central Committee for Conscientious Objectors, said a third of the callers to her committee’s hotline had gone AWOL or were thinking of doing so. “They are in desperate straits,” she added.

Back at Ft. Irwin, Thomas remains unmoved.

“I hear it all the time: ‘I didn’t feel like being in the Army anymore,’ ” he said. “ ‘I have family problems, I have financial problems, I just wanted the college money.’ ” He rolled his eyes. “I hate that stuff.”

The Kentucky native is the son of two retired Army officers; his father served in Vietnam, his mother in Somalia. Thomas joined six years ago and has done stints at Ft. Knox, Ky., and in South Korea.

He has been on deserter detail for the last year. To locate the absent soldiers, he mainly sits by the phone, waiting for calls from police departments and border agents. He picks up two or three deserters in the average week. This day was busy, with four cases: the soldier in the cell, a woman who turned herself in after six years on the lam, a man stopped at the Mexican border and another arrested in the San Diego area.

If they had sad stories to tell, Thomas wasn’t interested.

“You have soldiers thousands of miles away who are getting shot at it,” he said. “They have problems too: family problems, children who are sick. But they don’t leave.”