More than 2,000 soldiers go absent without leave from the British Army every year. But why do these servicemen abscond, and what happens to them when they do? Justin Cash investigates.
Private Daniel Farr was 18 when he died under suspicious circumstances at Catterick Garrison, North Yorkshire, in 1997. Six months before his passing, he had gone to his commanding officer and requested to leave the base, at which relatives claim there was a widespread culture of bullying and intimidation.
He ended up remaining on site. Eventually, a matter of days before his death, Private Farr plucked up the courage to flee the barracks, even though he didn’t have the permission of his captain. “One day I got a phone call from him asking me to pick him up”, says his mother Lynn. “He was trying to make his own way home. He was very distressed and wouldn’t really speak to me. Two weeks later he was dead.”
Private Farr’s case is just one particularly notorious incidence of absence without leave (AWOL) from the British Armed Forces, of which more than 2,000 are recorded every year. Why these soldiers choose to abandon their positions is a matter of some debate, as is the fairness of the treatment they receive.
Some campaigners point to the spike in absences in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War - 2,670 soldiers went AWOL in 2001, rising to 3,050 in 2004, the year after the Iraq invasion - as evidence that it is combat stress and the trauma of war that causes many soldiers to abandon the military.
“War is a horrific experience and it is no surprise that soldiers often find it extremely disturbing. At least some of the AWOL numbers must be a result of this”, says Lindsey German, convenor of Stop the War Coalition. “The army does not like to admit that many who sign up do not want to stay in the army when they find out what it is like and the culture discourages dealing with these issues, preferring to pretend that it doesn’t have these problems.”
A little-known study into the reasons for absence was conducted by the Military Corrective Training Centre in 2010/11. More than a quarter of absentees said their primary reason for going AWOL was that they were seeking discharge from service. A further 13% went absent mainly because of a bereavement to a colleague or family member.
The most common reason for absence in this study, however, accounting for 41% of offenders, was that they had problems with family, close friends or partners. “Normally absentees are quite easy to find”, said an MOD spokesman. “Evidence suggests that most incidents are caused by soldiers’ domestic circumstances, eg family problems, rather than any wish to avoid military service. We often find they have gone back to their parent’s house or familiar places like that.”
The idea that most absences can be put down to reasons aside from the trials of war chimes well with the experience of Matthew Howden, a former adjutant captain who served in Afghanistan. “When I was deployed the boys were much more likely to go absent due to money reasons, problems with wives and girlfriends, or simply because they fancied a few days off and thought they would get away with it”, he says. “Sometimes they’d go on leave for a week and then, on the Monday morning decide they didn’t want to go back into work. Nothing really more sinister than that.”
Workers at the Soldiers’, Sailors’ and Airmen’s Families Association (SSAFA) AWOL Support Line, a confidential telephone service for soldiers who have abandoned duties without permission, also report that the most common reasons they encounter for unauthorised absence are debt and relationship problems, as opposed to the trauma of an active conflict such as Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, they report that the number of people using their service is actually falling.
Regardless of the motivation for absence, the most likely outcome from going AWOL is that the soldier will be tracked down and face some form of disciplinary action. In 2011, one-third of all court martial charges involved absence without leave and it is still the most common charge for military personnel at court martial today. Since 2008, the Ministry of Defence has employed dedicated Absence Recovery Warrant Officers (ARWOs) who help track down and reintegrate absent soldiers back into the army. There are currently nine of these in post.
“The ultimate aim is to encourage the individual to return voluntarily and help as many absentees as possible back to useful service, either in their original unit or another”, says the MOD spokesman. “The ARWO will engage with families, friends and partners of the absentee to gain their trust, assist in the resolution of the problem that resulted in the AWOL and return the soldier to military duty as quickly as possible.”
Punishment for absence is not necessarily the end of soldier’s career; many do continue to serve in some form or another even after they have been disciplined. “Military justice is all about putting things behind you”, says Dr Hugh Milroy, chief executive of the charity Veterans Aid. “People often come out of it and just get on with life. I remember a colleague who actually got promoted after he went AWOL for a short time.”
Life for deserters
The reprimand for going AWOL, as opposed to deserting, where there must be a provable intention to avoid active service, varies significantly. In 2006 - ironically the same year in which a posthumous pardon was given to soldiers who refused to go “over the top” in the first world war - the Armed Forces Act upped the maximum punishment for desertion from two years to life in prison (although no deserters are currently serving this sentence, according to a Freedom of Information request to the MoD). Sheltering or enabling a servicemen to remain absent is also now a criminal offence.
“Mass murderers can only get life imprisonment, but someone who avoids a posting because they have seen the horror of war or thinks it’s wrong can get exactly the same punishment”, says Gwyn Gwyntopher, of At Ease, a confidential help service for serving and ex-members of the armed forces. “It’s ridiculous. Prior to the Afghan war, I knew a conscientious objector who said, ‘I’m leaving and I’m not coming back’. Two hours later he was taken to a detention centre and later found guilty of desertion.”
German agrees that the potential penalty for desertion is disproportionate. “There is no logical reason why desertion should be punished by life imprisonment. It is a ridiculously severe sentence.”
Maybe this is why, despite some efforts to find them, many runaway soldiers are in fact still at large. For the financial year 2012/13, around 400 soldiers were absent without leave for more than 21 days and were therefore classed as ‘long-term absentees’. Since 2000, authorities have failed to track down more than 1,000 army personnel, who remain AWOL to this day.
For Lynn Farr, the response to her son’s absence, and other absences like his, should be aimed at rehabilitation. With greater understanding from senior servicemen, she feels that soldiers with issues would be more open about them, stopping them running away in the first place. “There’s quite a few that have real problems”, she says. “Because they will need to get them sorted out, the time has to be right before they go back.”