Dealing with military desertions

Danny Yamonico had three strikes against her when she enlisted in the Army.

A back injury. A history of mental health problems. A girlfriend.

She says her recruiter knew she knew she was gay and about the other issues but pressed her to join anyway. At the end of boot camp, her back was aching. She knew she’d made a mistake. She wanted out.

"There’s just no way … I should have been in the military," Yamonico said.

Yamonico deserted, as thousands of other enlistees and soldiers have done in the greatest numbers since 2001. Some say it’s a symptom of an ailing Army that has lowered its standards to meet recruiting goals as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have dragged on.

After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in spring 2003, the number and rate of desertion increased three years in a row. This year desertions are down slightly, but still greater than the rate in 2003.

The Army says the figures are in line or lower than historical averages. After low rates in the early 1990s, desertions increased at the end of the decade before tapering off and rising again in the last few years.

"It’s really not a huge, huge problem in the Army," said Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb, an Army spokeswoman. "They represent less than 1 percent of the force."

Prosecutions of deserters have risen even more dramatically. In 1998, 15 soldiers were convicted of desertion nationwide. In 2007, that number was more than 100.

Among them is Stephen Thayer, who joined the Army in 2006. Days before his graduation from basic training, Thayer climbed out a window and ran through a bayonet course to meet his family on a nearby highway. Thayer said his father-in-law pressured him into leaving so he could care for his wife, whose house had been broken into.

"I was just being naive and stupid," Thayer said. "When I left the Army, I based my leave on emotions and not on fact."

As desertions have risen, the Army has expanded. In 2005, it missed its recruiting goals for the active Army and the reserves. Afterward, the numbers of less-desirable enlistees increased, including those without high school diplomas, the number who receive a waiver for a potential problem and the upper age limit on recruits, according to news reports.

"This is what happens when you try and fight a long, unpopular war with a volunteer force," said Lawrence J. Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense and a fellow for the Center for American Progress. "The Army was not built to fight a long war."

The Army’s own research on desertion has shown that soldiers are more likely to leave without permission if they are less educated, have lower aptitude and have offenses before joining.

An Army study of the problem showed that deserters cited family or personal problems as the major reason for leaving. Some also said they had trouble adjusting to military life.

Most deserters don’t leave for political reasons, though desertions do usually increase in wartime when the Army lowers standards to fill its ranks, according to the study.

After Vietnam, the Army learned that the question of who deserts is counter intuitive – desertion was higher among volunteers than conscripted enlistees. Soldiers brought in through the draft had higher aptitude, the study found.

According to the U.S. military code, the maximum punishment for a deserter during wartime is death. But the last execution of a deserter was in World War II. Army officials say that punishment is unlikely to be used again.

The vast majority of deserters are dealt with administratively, given other than honorable discharges that can bar them from federal jobs and benefits and lead them to struggle to get jobs in the civilian world.

"This is going to stigmatize these soldiers when they’re in the civilian world," said Greg Rinckey, a Washington, D.C., attorney who used to defend deserters in the military and now has a private practice.

He said he’s increasingly seen soldiers who don’t fit the usual mold of a deserter, people like Thayer and Yamonico who left during basic. More and more, he defends reservists who felt like they didn’t sign up to support a war and experienced soldiers fed up with the "op tempo" – the frequency of deployments.

Rinckey said the penalty given a soldier mostly depends on when he or she deserts. A soldier who leaves a unit that’s readying to deploy is likely to get time in a military prison. Rinckey said he routinely sees two-year sentences. If they desert during basic, enlistees will probably receive an other than honorable discharge.

The Army’s study reported that it can cost about $40,000 to replace a fully trained soldier. The Army has ramped up its efforts to guide soldiers through basic training in order to better retain enlistees.

But considering this is the first protracted conflict to test the all-volunteer Army, Edgecomb said the number of soldiers joining and staying in the Army is a testament to their dedication.

"This is an issue that has always faced probably every Army that’s ever fought," Edgecomb said. "The fact that we have deserters is not a surprise."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. E-mail Stephanie Garry at sgarry(at)