Earth & Conservation

What Makes A Soldier Desert The Army?

Throughout history, thousands of soldiers have deserted armies, resulting in either death or prison. So why would soldiers desert the army?

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U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl is facing a court martial for allegedly deserting his post in Afghanistan in 2009. After walking away from his assigned unit, Bergdahl ended up being held captive by the Taliban. Five years later, Bergdahl was exchanged for five Taliban detainees who were being held at Guantanamo Bay Prison. Although Bergdahl's story is receiving a great deal of attention from the media and public, military desertion is still fairly common in the U.S. According to official reports from the U.S. Army, since 2006, there have been over 20,000 soldiers who have abandoned their posts. Only about 2,000 individuals have been prosecuted.

Technically speaking, when a soldier first leaves their post, they have gone "absent without leave" (AWOL). After a month passes, the soldier becomes recognized as a deserter, provided that the soldier left permanently with the intent to avoid dangerous or important duty. In the past, particularly before and during World War II, punishment for desertion was severe. It's estimated that the Nazis executed 15,000 of their own soldiers for desertion. The U.S. only killed one soldier in that war-the first and only one to die for such a crime since the Civil War. Sergeant Bergdahl could face up to five years in prison on the charge of desertion as well as a life sentence for endangering the soldiers who went looking for him.

Learn More:
House Republicans Denounce Obama's Handling of Prisoner Exchange (
"After months of secret talks in early 2014 on a potential deal to swap five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, for a captive American soldier, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an agreement seemed near that May."

Causes for Military Desertion a Study in Criminal Motives (
"[We have the privilege of presenting here a remarkable study in criminal motives, one of the few of its kind ever made, and an example of that kind of study which must be the basis of a reconstructed
criminal law."

Army Data Shows Rarity of Desertion Prosecutions (
"The U.S. Army has prosecuted about 1,900 cases of desertion since 2001, despite tens of thousands of soldiers fleeing the service in the face of deadly combat, long and multiple deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan and strains on military families."

Absence Without Leave, Desertion, and Administration of Personnel Involved in Civilian Court Proceedings (
"This publication establishes policies and procedures for reporting absences, and establishes procedures for special category absentees, personnel dropped from the rolls, and the surrender of military personnel to civilian law enforcement authorities."