Basic training is designed to break the societal conditioning of new soldiers and replace it with behavior and mental attitudes more conducive to discipline, following orders and facing combat. Many people simply cannot endure the challenges involved in basic training and do everything possible to return to the freedom, privacy and comforts of civilian life. Some go "absent without leave" (AWOL) while at basic training---an act that has serious consequences and sometimes leads to criminal charges.
Consequences of going AWOL
If a soldier goes AWOL while at basic training, he or she is subject to the same charges and punishments as soldiers who are part of regular units. Going AWOL is covered under Article 86 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which states that if a soldier "absents himself or remains absent from his unit, organization, or place of duty at which he is required to be at the time prescribed," he or she "shall be punished as a court-martial may direct." The actual application of this law varies and is usually up to the discretion of the company commander. Often the soldier will face nothing more serious than an Article 15, or "non-judicial punishment," which brings lower pay, confinement to the barracks and extra duty. If a full court-martial results, the soldier will face criminal charges. New recruits who go AWOL usually are expelled from service via an entry-level separation.
After an AWOL
When a soldier is listed as AWOL, the police are notified and a federal warrant can be issued for the soldier's arrest. Even months after going AWOL, a soldier can be arrested during a routine traffic stop and be turned over to military authorities. If this happens---or if the soldier surrenders voluntarily---the soldier will be sent back to his or her basic-training unit or to Fort Sill for out-processing.
After a soldier returns to military custody
Out-processing at Fort Sill occurs if the soldier has been dropped from the rolls of a basic-training unit, which happens after 30 days of being declared AWOL. Many people advise AWOL recruits to wait 30 days before turning themselves in if they really want to leave the Army. But there is no guarantee that a soldier will be granted an entry-level separation or other favorable discharge. A recruit who surrenders to military authorities as soon as possible after going AWOL shows good faith, has more options and avoids being charged with desertion, an even bigger violation under the UCMJ.
Alternatives for struggling recruits
Recruits struggling with basic-training life have options less drastic than going AWOL. They can seek counsel from a chaplain, medical professional, drill sergeant or company commander. If the soldier still feels he or she cannot cope or is not suited for military life after the fourth week of training, the soldier can request an entry-level separation. An ELS approval will transfer the soldier to a "holding company," where he or she will wait for the completion of paperwork. It is not uncommon for people to spend weeks at these holding companies, doing menial labor and waiting.
An individual should think carefully and reflect deeply about joining the military before signing on. Being honest about what he or she is prepared to deal with can save a soldier from learning about the consequences of an AWOL firsthand.
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