Going AWOL

Thousands of soldiers have deserted the Army since the beginning of the Iraq war. So why is an overstretched military doing the bare minimum to bring them back?

James Circello is a wanted man. The 29-year-old’s name appears in every law-enforcement database in the country. Yet he is not on the run or in hiding. Attend a major peace demonstration anywhere in the country and you’re likely to bump into him making a passionate case against the war in Iraq. His feelings are grounded in firsthand experience: Circello—despite his outlaw status—is an Army sergeant assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade, one of the first units deployed to Iraq in March 2003.

In 2001, Circello was attending junior college in Lake Jackson, Texas. Ten days after 9/11 he enlisted. “I was angry and got caught up in the fever that was sweeping America,“ he says. Even so, he always believed that the invasion of Iraq was a military and foreign-policy blunder, a belief that only hardened as the war progressed. Circello completed his year’s tour and returned to his base in Vicenza, Italy. But over the next few years, he grew increasingly angry about the conflicts in both Iraq and Afghanistan and started thinking seriously about whether he wanted to remain in the military. When, in January 2007, the Democrats took control of Congress but offered no clear timetable for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, he put his plan for going AWOL in motion.

The night before Easter in 2007, he abandoned almost everything he owned, packed a backpack, and walked off the base. The following day Circello took a train to Milan and boarded a plane to New York, where he had friends who were willing to let him hide out. Several days later, he traveled to Ohio to visit his parents, who had received a letter from the Army seeking information about their son’s whereabouts. They did not respond. To date, that letter remains the only effort the military has made to find him. But his family did receive calls from strangers who claimed to be inquiring about Circello’s Visa bill. As Circello doesn’t have a Visa card, he speculates that these calls were from “rogue“ members of his unit.

Circello is one of more than 20,000 American service members who have gone AWOL since the beginning of the Iraq war. Some lost faith in the management of the war; others no longer support the war itself. Still others simply got fed up with repeated deployments that took a toll on their families and personal lives.

Michael Sharp has seen a steady increase in the number of soldiers wanting to quit the service in his two years with the Military Counseling Network, a group that provides free advice on how to leave the armed forces. “Choosing to go AWOL is one of the more extreme options, but it’s also becoming a popular one among those who have decided they don’t want anything more to do with the military,“ Sharp says.

According to the Army, the number of desertions began to fall after 9/11, from a high of 4,399 in 2001 to 2,450 in 2004, before creeping back up to 3,301 in 2006. Through March, 1,710 soldiers had gone AWOL in 2007, putting the number of desertions on track to be more than double the number from last year. But people at organizations like the GI Rights Hotline and the Military Counseling Network believe that the government’s official tally of 20,000 military desertions is too low. They estimate that the number is higher, by a factor of two or more.

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 war—they 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 military—in 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.“

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“ discharge—a 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.

On August 3, Circello’s parents persuaded him to surrender and drove him to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. But when they reached the base, nobody knew what to do with him. He was finally told to return at 9 a.m. the following day. Then that plan changed. “I don’t know what I was thinking,“ the sergeant in charge said. “Today is Friday. You’ll have to come back Monday morning at 0900.“

Over the weekend, Circello learned that he would ultimately be sent to either Fort Knox or Fort Sill. On Monday morning, he boarded a bus for Fort Sill and made it as far as Lawton, Oklahoma, before deciding not to turn himself in. Just one mile from the gate, he changed course: There was a Veterans For Peace convention in St. Louis the next week—he thought he’d head there instead.

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