What You Need To Know About AWOL in the Military

What does it mean when someone goes AWOL? Short for Absent Without Leave, AWOL, or Unauthorized Absence (UA) occurs when a service member leaves the military without prior authorization.

This offense is not a light matter and is considered one of the most severe things a person in the military can do. It can be life-changing if a person gets charged with this offense. We’ll delve into what it means to go AWOL and the severity of AWOL charges.

US Military Uniform

What AWOL in the Military Means

According to Article 86 of the United Code of Military Justice or UCMJ, going AWOL is considered a less severe offense than someone who commits desertion. This section of the UCMJ covers the implications of those absent from their place of duty or unit without permission from their immediate superiors.

In general, to prove that a person has gone AWOL, the military prosecutor must show that the accused has done the following without permission from their commanding officer:

  • failed to appear at their appointed place of duty at the appointed time
  • left that designated place of duty
  • been absent from their assigned unit, organization, or place of duty

From a historical perspective, no records document the first time someone went AWOL from their military duties. However, it has been reported that the desertion rate of American enlisted members during the War of 1812 was over 12%. Desertion was common then, especially since the enlistment bonus attracted many people to join the military.

In the following wars and conflicts, many service members went AWOL, which made the military more severe in dealing with AWOL cases.

men in camouflage uniform

AWOL vs Desertion vs Missing Movement

In the military, not showing up for duty can lead to severe consequences. In such situations, there are three specific charges that a service member might face. These are: absence without leave (AWOL), desertion, and missing movement. Each of these charges has distinct criteria and implications.

AWOL is a general term for when a service member is unaccounted for; desertion is a more serious charge, applied when an individual has been AWOL for over 30 days. Missing movement is a separate offense that occurs when a service member intentionally or negligently fails to be present for the departure of their assigned ship or aircraft.

active duty servicemember standing in front of us flag

Different Ways Service Members Can Go AWOL

According to the Manual for Courts-Martial, here are the ways a service member can go AWOL:

  • Failure to go to appointed place of duty. All service members are given orders when deployed or on active duty. Under this particular circumstance, the accused party was aware of the schedule and set to report at a specific time and area. Without permission from authorized personnel, that person failed to appear at that spot at the designated time.
  • Going from appointed place of duty. This means that the accused party, aware of their schedule, left their appointed place after reporting for duty. If you’re part of the military, you’re assigned a time and place of duty. It would be best to stay in that designated spot until your shift, or else you might be accused of going AWOL.
  • Absence from unit, organization, or place of duty. This means that the accused party excused themselves from the assigned place, but the accused remained absent without securing permission from an authoritative figure. Moreover, that absence was recorded for a certain period or was terminated by apprehension.
  • Absence from unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to avoid maneuvers or field exercises. This condition is similar to absence from a unit, organization, or place of duty. However, other circumstances are involved for the accused to go AWOL this way. For example, the accused party knew the absence would happen during field exercises or maneuvers. Moreover, that person intended to avoid parts or all maneuvers or field exercises.
  • Abandoning watch or guard. This only applies to members of a guard, watch, or duty. The accused party absented themselves from their designated place of duty. Moreover, that person abandoned their post without permission from an authority figure and deliberately intended to abandon watch.

The Causes of Going AWOL

What may prompt a service member to go AWOL and risk getting a court martial? Several factors may tempt someone from the Armed Forces to go AWOL. After all, a military person is just like any other person, and a lot can happen to prompt someone to shirk important service.

Here are some common causes why service members go AWOL:

Personal and Family Issues

A military member must devote most of their time to demanding training and duty. This time away from their loved ones can leave a person feeling homesick and craving a semblance of home. There may be instances wherein that person falls in love with someone and would rather spend time with that person.

Challenges Within the Military

Life in the military is no walk in the park. The training can be physically, emotionally, and mentally draining. Service members are expected to be exemplary citizens of society and subject themselves to hazardous duty. Some people might be inclined to avoid hazardous duty if the expectations are too much to handle. That person might rather face a bad conduct discharge if found guilty than risk their life. Thus, that personnel remains absent for a specific time.

Like with any tough job, being part of the military can cause a person a lot of stress. Dealing with too much stress can lead to burnout, and that burnout may cause a person to take drastic measures. This may include leaving their duty for self-care.

Facing external conflict is possible when you’re part of the military, primarily when you’re assigned to a foreign armed service. However, there’s a chance you might face conflict even within the organization itself. The tension with colleagues or even a commissioned officer can mean a ton of pressure to a service member struggling to cope with the challenges of military life.

What Happens If an Officer Goes AWOL? Penalties and Legal Consequences

Considering how severe unauthorized absence is to the Armed Forces, what are the penalties and legal consequences of AWOL cases? Not all AWOL cases would warrant the maximum punishment. Here are some of the possible implications of unauthorized absence in the military:

Dishonorable Discharge

This type of military separation is given to a service member who committed a felony-level offense during their service. This may be because of a military or civilian jurisdiction. Receiving a dishonorable discharge in your discharge papers can severely impact your post-military life. People who receive a dishonorable discharge face long-term adverse effects, which can include the following:

  • Losing all veteran and government benefits
  • Losing disability and unemployment benefits
  • Losing voting rights
  • Losing the ability to possess firearms legally
  • Inability to qualify for college financial aid or bank loans
  • Challenges in obtaining meaningful employment opportunities
  • Criminal records that will appear in all law enforcement data banks

Forfeiture of All Pay and Allowances

Being part of the military is considered an honor, and it is a job opportunity with plenty of benefits and an attractive compensation package. When you’re convicted of unauthorized absence, you might get forced to forfeit receiving the compensation you’ve agreed to.

This forfeiture can affect a service member’s financial status in the long run. Not receiving one’s salary and allowances can make it difficult for someone to pay their bills and lead a comfortable lifestyle. This might lead to debt and other financial-related problems down the line.

Confinement for One to Two Years

If you have been convicted of going on an unauthorized absence, you might have to get confined in a military facility. This punishment involves sending a person to a physically secured area known as the brig or stockade.

The first year is intended as punishment for neglect, while the second is for purposeful abandonment. Thus, unauthorized absence for a short period can restrict one’s freedom of movement for two years. Confinement can have detrimental effects on one’s overall well-being and can affect one’s mental health.

Reduction to the Lowest Enlistment Grade

As mentioned, being part of the military is considered an honor. The court-martial might warrant that person being demoted to a low position, affecting their status in their line of duty and life. A person’s enlistment grade determines the compensation package they’re entitled to receive from the military.

Getting promoted in the military is warranted by their experience and expertise. Getting demoted is considered a shame for military members, especially those who have been part of the military for a long time.

Bad Conduct Discharge

Also known as BCD, a bad conduct discharge is a punitive separation granted only by a court martial. This discharge is often preceded by confinement in a military prison. This discharge is not to be confused with dishonorable discharge because the consequences are different. Here are some of the adverse effects of receiving a bad conduct discharge:

  • Forfeiture of pay
  • Losing one’s rank.
  • Losing military benefits
  • Not being recognized by the federal government as a veteran
  • Must be disclosed when applying for a new job

It should be noted that people with a bad conduct discharge may receive select veteran medical benefits. However, they must file for a petition and be approved by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Forfeiture of up to Two-thirds Pay for a Month

Not all people proven to have gone on unauthorized absence must give up their pay altogether. There are instances wherein the accused party is forced to forfeit only partial overall compensation from the Armed Forces. While this punishment may not be as severe as giving up one’s total pay, that person’s finances can be affected for one month.

Moreover, if that person doesn’t have the means to provide for themselves, not receiving their full monthly pay can have long-term effects.

The punishments for unauthorized absence are not universal. Some cases receive more severe punishments, while some are given lighter punishments. A thorough investigation and interrogation are conducted to determine the appropriate consequence of AWOL cases.

US army soldiers standing in a line

Prevention and Support Systems for Service Members

Given the severe repercussions of unauthorized absence, it is clear that the military wants to prevent service members from going AWOL. The military has several programs to support their personnel and compel members not to shirk important service.

As mentioned, military duty can take its toll on some people’s mental health. The military offers its members counseling and support groups to cope with the mental challenges of military life. This support system allows more service members to feel safe to express themselves openly and seek the help they need.

Nowadays, commanding officers are trained to identify people inclined to abandon their watch or place of duty. These officials can take necessary measures to prevent this from happening and give their subordinates the support they need.

What Do You Do If You’ve Gone on an Unauthorized Absence?

Regardless of whether the accusation of unauthorized absence is true, you should be ready for a court-martial and face the repercussions of military justice. If you’ve gone on an unauthorized absence or have been accused of abandoning your post, you should seek assistance from military defense lawyers.

These experts can help you defend yourself from the harsh punishments given to those who have gone AWOL. While there is no guarantee that you’d be spared from punishment, you have a better chance of receiving a light sentence when you have an experienced lawyer on your side. Seeking assistance from military defense lawyers doesn’t automatically mean you’re guilty and looking for a way out.

Can You Go Back to the Military After Going AWOL?

At some point in the past, military members who went AWOL weren’t subject to facing severe consequences and were put back to work. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the Armed Forces today.

If the AWOL period was short, there’s a chance that the accused would face minimal to no punishment. That service member can be processed administratively or get chaptered. In such instances, the accused shouldn’t expect to receive a General or Other Than Honorable Discharge.

People who’ve gone AWOL for extended periods are not likely allowed to return to service. However, they may accept a discharge instead of facing a court martial that may have more severe consequences.

If you want to understand unauthorized absence and military justice better, it would be ideal if you conferred with experienced military defense lawyers. They know how to help you understand the best and worst-case scenarios better.

Reintegration after AWOL

If your AWOL period was short, there’s a chance you might be given a second chance and get reintegrated into the military. In cases like this, the first step is to accept and serve your punishment.

You might be subject to attend special seminars or programs focused on reintegrating into the military. You should follow the rules diligently. Most importantly, it would be best if you committed not to avoid hazardous duty by going AWOL again.


Going AWOL can have severe consequences, but it doesn’t necessarily mean the end of your military career. Knowledge is power. If you’ve gone AWOL or know someone at risk of going on an unauthorized absence, you should equip them with the best advice to handle the situation the right way.

Please explore Military Verification to learn more about military life.


What is AWOL in the military?

AWOL stands for ‘Absent Without Leave,’ a term used when a service member is absent from their post without official permission. This is also known as unauthorized absence, indicating a breach of military protocol and potentially resulting in disciplinary action if the absence is not justified.

Is AWOL a violation?

Yes, going AWOL is considered a serious offense in the military. You might be subject to a court martial if found guilty.

Is going AWOL a felony?

Not necessarily, but it can be. If you’ve gone AWOL for thirty days or more, this is called desertion. Desertion counts as a felony in military justice.

How many days is considered AWOL?

Leaving one’s place of duty before one’s shift ends is technically going AWOL. However, you’re considered a deserter if you’ve done this for at least thirty days.

Is going AWOL a dishonorable discharge?

Not necessarily, but it can be. The punishment for going AWOL is different on a case-to-case basis. Not all military personnel receive the same sentence.

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