Wrong. That was precisely the designation Capps-Schubert wanted. Under the military criminal code, the maximum penalty for desertion during a declared war is death. But Capps-Schubert, like others among the growing number of servicemen taking indefinite leaves, understood that service members who are caught or turn themselves in rarely face punishment harsher than minimal jail time. He also believed that if he returned while still designated AWOL, he would likely be forcibly reintegrated into his unit. If he turned himself in after being officially declared a deserter and dropped from the military rolls, he stood a good chance of being processed out.
In May, after being given deserter status (the military confers it if a member is missing for more than 30 days), he took a Greyhound bus from New Jersey to Oklahoma City. There he met with a lawyer, who accompanied him to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, one of two army bases where soldiers who have deserted are processed. The surrender was anticlimactic. “Welcome to AWOL Camp,” someone yelled when he arrived.
There were about 40 others just like him, including one service member who had simply walked away six years earlier. Capps-Schubert spent a couple of days filling out paperwork and being interviewed by various civilian government employees whose primary responsibility was processing out returning soldiers. Three days after checking in, he was a free man with an “other than honorable” dischargea classification that makes him ineligible for military benefits or government employment. The next day, he took a plane back to Germany and his wife.
Hildes says Capps-Schubert’s experience is pretty typical. Only one of his clients, Sergeant Ricky Clousing, who worked as an interrogator in Iraq, received any significant jail time. Clousing was sentenced to 90 days and was released after 67. “They wanted to make an example out of him because Fort Bragg has a huge problem with AWOL soldiers,” Hildes says. “At the time we knew of at least 10 other AWOL cases at Fort Bragg. Some were being court-martialed, while others were left alone.”
Circello has no regrets about his decision. Despite the Army’s designating him a deserter, his only concern is that if he ends up in jail after he turns himself in, which he plans to do soon, he might find it difficult to speak his mind. “I encourage anyone else who feels like I do to follow their hearts,” he says. “I talk to so many people in the Army who don’t believe this war is right, but they’re scared to talk about it.”
Asked where he expects to be in two years, Circello pauses. “I hope to be a civilian,” he says, “and I hope I’m not doing this antiwar thing, because I hope this war is over. I hope all of our soldiers are out of Afghanistan and Iraq.”
Nathan Banks, the Army spokesman, says the Army has no plans to change the way it deals with soldiers like Circello. After all, less than one percent of its half-million troops desert each year. But despite the military’s confidence that it can trace AWOL members, it seems that the major spur for servicemen on the lam to turn themselves in is not the fear of being caught but the knowledge that they will face few major consequences.