AWOL & Desertion

Updated: December 24, 2022
In this Article

    What does it mean to be Absent Without Leave (AWOL) in the United States military? Is it the same thing as desertion or missing movement? There are important things to understand about these issues, which are considered potentially criminal actions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

    AWOL And Desertion In The Uniform Code Of Military Justice

    There are many sets of rules that govern military members. These range from the local ground rules at a military installation to the regulations that govern how major commands must do business in the theatre of operations, all the way up to one of the most important sets of regulations called the Uniform Code of Military Justice or UCMJ.

    The rules in the UCMJ are so important that most troops receive a UCMJ briefing as part of their initial processing for basic training.

    Once you have been sworn in, have received the UCMJ briefing, and have acknowledged that you understand what you have been told, you are subject to the requirements of the UCMJ from that moment forward.

    UCMJ rules governing what constitutes absence without leave, missing movement, and desertion are all found in Chapter 10, Punitive Articles. The rules specifically define what constitutes going AWOL, becoming a deserter, or missing movement. None of those three crimes are the same, and they all have different circumstances which affect how the rules are enforced.


    What The UCMJ Says About Being Absent Without Leave (AWOL)

    Being absent without leave, or “going AWOL” has a very specific meaning in the United States military. According to the UCMJ, absence without leave is very simply defined and punished:

    “Any member of the armed forces who, without authority—

    • fails to go to his appointed place of duty at the time prescribed
    • goes from that place, or
    • absents himself or remains absent from his unit, organization, or place of duty at which he is required to be at the time prescribed

    shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.”

    Unauthorized Absence (UA)

    Unauthorized Absence is often mentioned in the same discussions as absence without leave. It is used interchangeably by some, while used by others to describe an offense they feel is punishable at the local level rather than elevating a UA case to a court-martial level.


    Some mistakenly believe that an Unauthorized Absence or going AWOL automatically results in a court-martial. That’s not necessarily true. One of the DoD’s universal unwritten rules (there are a few) is that in the chain of command it is necessary to resolve problems at the lowest possible level.

    In some cases a court martial may absolutely be the right course of action, but in others it is definitely NOT. Punishment in some cases will be determined and directed at the local command level or even the theatre level. It is up to the chain of command to determine how high to pursue action against someone who is charged with being absent without leave.

    Intent Counts

    A military member can be punished for being absent without leave, but not arbitrarily so. Consider what the 2019 Manual of Courts-Martial (MCM) says about AWOL charges and how they are handled in a legal proceeding–there must be intent.

    In defining what it means to be absent without leave, the MCM says the following conditions must exist for an AWOL prosecution to be successful:

    • That a certain authority appointed a certain time and place of duty for the accused
    • That the accused knew of that time and place, and
    • That the accused, without authority, failed to go to the appointed place of duty at the time prescribed.

    Aggravating Factors

    There are issues that make a case of AWOL or UA more complicated. In many cases these factors can make the issue far more serious. They include:

    • Unauthorized absence for more than 3 days
    • Unauthorized absence for more than 30 days
    • Unauthorized absence from a a special type of duty such as guard or watch
    • Unauthorized absence from guard, watch, or duty section with the intent to abandon it (a special type of duty and specific intent)
    • Unauthorized absence with the intent to avoid maneuvers or field exercises (special type/specific intent)


    What The UCMJ Says About Missing Movement

    Missing Movement is not the same as going AWOL. It has a very specific definition and is often a charge brought against those who must report for duty on board a ship or other vessel. What does the UCMJ say about missing movement?

    (a) Missing Movement.—

    Any person subject to this chapter who, through neglect or design, misses the movement of a ship, aircraft, or unit with which the person is required in the course of duty to move shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.

    And as with AWOL cases, local command decisions will determine how punishment for missing movement might be handled.

    There’s a related offense–did you know it’s a crime to attempt to escape from a military vessel by throwing yourself overboard? The UCMJ labels this “Jumping From Vessel Into the Water” in Chapter 10 and the charge and course of action are as follows:

    “Any person subject to this chapter who wrongfully and intentionally jumps into the water from a vessel in use by the armed forces shall be punished as a court-martial may direct.”


    What The UCMJ Says About Desertion

    Desertion is a far more serious crime than being absent without leave. It is defined as any member of the military who:

    • Without authority is absent from a military unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to remain away therefrom permanently
    • Quits a military unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to avoid hazardous duty or to shirk important service
    • Without being regularly separated from one of the armed forces, enlists or accepts an appointment in the same or another one of the armed forces without fully disclosing the fact that he has not been regularly separated, or enters any foreign armed service except when authorized by the United States

    As you can see, intent is quite different here than for going AWOL. And desertion is more complicated in the UCMJ, as there is a provision specifically for officers who desert:

    “Any commissioned officer of the armed forces who, after tender of his resignation and before notice of its acceptance, quits his post or proper duties without leave and with intent to remain away therefrom permanently is guilty of desertion.”

    Unlike the other entries in the UCMJ (absence without leave and missing movement), there is a specific provision for a proscribed type of punishment for desertion. It is quite serious:

    “Any person found guilty of desertion or attempt to desert shall be punished, if the offense is committed in time of war, by death or such other punishment as a court-martial may direct, but if the desertion or attempt to desert occurs at any other time, by such punishment, other than death, as a court-martial may direct.”

    Note that in all cases, court-martial level punishment must be given by the appropriate authority after due process.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

    Written by Team