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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

Army to Deserters: So Long!

Prosecution and prison time for going AWOL are rare today. 'If folks don't want to stay around, we don't want them,' an official says.

May 21, 2003|Paul Pringle | 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.

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