Jul. 26, 2004. 05:42 PM
Fewer soldiers desert U.S. army
Though possible penalties are harsh, only one in three deserters actually wants to leave the military
SYRACUSE, N.Y. (AP) — A U.S. Army soldier accused of deserting his Fort Drum unit in Afghanistan was caught last week by local police in his upstate New York hometown.
But Pvt. Anthony Wirmusky is one of a disappearing breed, according to Army officials, who say the number of deserters has declined even as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have persisted.
The Army reported 2,781 deserters in 2003, the first time since 1999 that the desertion rate was less than 1 percent of the Army’s overall trained enlisted force. That pace has continued in 2004, with 1,470 desertions reported through May, said Lt. Col. John Jessup, who collects Army desertion data for the Pentagon.
“It has been a healthy trend. The decline has been significant,” Jessup said.
During most of the 1990s, while the country was relatively at peace, the Army’s desertion rate was about 0.3 percent. In contrast, it averaged about 5 percent during the protest-packed Vietnam War years, 1968-1971.
Despite Wirmusky’s case, the recent decline also is observable in the 10th Mountain Division, the military’s most deployed division over the past decade and a main combat participant in both Iraq and Afghanistan, said Sgt. Cain Claxton, a Fort Drum spokesman.
Desertion cases have fallen from 259 in 2002 to 218 last year. During the first six months of 2004, there have been 69 deserters among the division’s more than 10,000 soldiers.
“The Army puts a lot of effort into keeping its soldiers motivated. I can say the morale here is still high and the resolve is to continue the fight as long as we have to,” Claxton said. “With a 10th Mountain Division soldier, I also think there is the matter of pride because of the division’s history and its ongoing prominence.”
Wirmusky, 20, of Hoosick Falls, N.Y., failed to return to his unit in April after being granted emergency leave to go home to mourn the death of his mother and stepfather while he and his unit were stationed in Afghanistan. Police questioned Wirmusky in an unrelated stolen property case and discovered there was a federal warrant for his arrest.
Soldiers are classified as deserters when they have been absent without leave for 30 days and show no intention of returning.
Wirmusky’s fate will be determined by his commanding officer, who can recommend a range of penalties from dishonorable discharge to three years’ confinement with forfeiture of pay, Claxton said. It’s also possible the commander could recommend no punishment, if he decides there were mitigating circumstances, Claxton said.
Though soldiers convicted of desertion during a time of war can be sentenced to death, no U.S. deserters have been executed since Pvt. Eddie Slovik in World War II.
Even until a few years ago, the Army generally booted out deserters. But in today’s Army, the revamped policy is to return deserters to their parent unit, where the soldier and chain of command attempt to resolve their differences.
“Desertion is no longer an easy ticket out of the Army,” Jessup said.
According to a 2002 study by the Army Research Institute, only about one of every three deserters actually want out of the Army. Often times, the issue is something that can be fixed, the report said: no overseas duty; assignment to another unit; a change of jobs, an extended leave.
Full text of the study
(24-page .pdf file)
About 70 percent of deserters “go over the hill” during their first year of duty, according to the study. Deserters tended to be younger than the average recruit, more likely to come from broken homes, and often times with a past criminal history, the study also found. The majority cited either family problems or a “failure to adapt” as the reason they deserted.
Tod Ensign, director of Citizen Soldier, a New York City-based group that provides legal support to conscientious objectors, agreed desertion was declining, as was the number of soldiers applying for conscientious objector status. There were 23 conscientious objection applications made to the Army in 2002, but that dwindled to five last year and just six this year, Ensign said.
Citizen Soldier helped defend Staff Sgt. Camilo Mejia, a 28-year-old Iraqi war veteran who was convicted of desertion in May by a military court at Fort Stewart, Ga. Mejia was sentenced to a year in a military prison, received a dishonorable discharge and had his rank reduced to private. He has a request pending for conscientious objector status.
Ensign said there were several reasons for the decline, most significant among them that many young people have been “hardened” by years of terrorism and Sept. 11, 2001, and they feel the war is justified.
“There is a sense almost that this is a holy war against something dark and evil,” Ensign said.
On more tangible terms, the Army has improved its benefits and re-enlistment bonuses, and with the private economy offering fewer jobs, a military life is an alluring path for a young person, he said.
“Kids now feel the Army is better than anything else they can get, so they are more willing to put up with stuff,” Ensign said.