Since the beginning of the war, hundreds of deserters have fled to Canada, fearful of being jailed or forced to return to duty. It’s starting to look like they need not have bothered: Despite troop shortages and problems hitting recruitment targets, Pentagon officials say it would be a poor use of time to go after deserters. “We don’t actively look for a deserter or have bounty hunters who go out knocking on doors,” Army spokesman Major Nathan Banks says. “It doesn’t serve our purpose to lose manpower or focus in the global war on terror to find them, because the system is set up [so] that they’ll be caught.”
The military enters deserters’ names into a national criminal database at the FBI, which is alerted when an absconder is stopped for a routine traffic violation or does anything to trigger a background check. The official military line remains that desertion is grave misconduct. “The Army has always taken the offense of desertion very seriously and taken legal action accordingly,” the Army’s official Desertion Fact Sheet reads. “During periods when our Nation is at war, addressing desertion becomes even more critical as any case of desertion represents an erosion of readiness, impacting our mission to defend the Nation.”
But Lawrence A. Hildes, a Bellingham, Washington, attorney who has represented about two dozen military deserters since the war began, says that the time it would take to track each deserter influences the military’s approach. “The military doesn’t have the personnel to fight the warthey certainly don’t have the personnel to run around chasing people down,” he says. The wisdom appears to be that as long as they don’t attract the attention of law enforcement, deserters are in little danger of getting caught. But ironically, awareness of the relaxed attitude toward desertion has encouraged many absentees to simply turn themselves in and face military justice.
Chris Capps-Schubert, 24, enlisted in the Army Reserve in 2004 and signed up for the active-duty Army in September 2005. On Thanksgiving Day, he arrived at Camp Victory in Baghdad, where he would repair phone and computer lines for Abu Ghraib prison. When he returned to his base in Germany a year later, he learned he was to be transferred to another unit, which was scheduled to leave for Afghanistan the following summer. In February 2007, he took a month’s leave to go back to the United States and never returned.
“While I was AWOL, I lived fairly openly,” he says. “I managed to get my passport, get married, join and participate a little with Iraq Veterans Against the War. I expected the MPs to maybe stop at my parents’ house once, just to check and see if I was there and to ask them if they knew where I was.” While he’s not sure whether this happened, Capps-Schubert was contacted by the militaryin the form of an e-mail from someone he believes to have been his first sergeant, through his MySpace page. “Hey, I [sic] writing you to find out where you are right now,” the message read. “We all have heard that you were considering going awol and as from what I have found out lately is that you did in fact go awol, as you didnot [sic] report to your next duty assignment. As you know, going AWOL is a criminal offense, and if you do not return to you unit within the next few days you will be considered a disserter [sic]. This type of designation you do not want to have.”