A rise in the number of Navy deserters could be a sign of a bigger problem for the military

In 2021, 157 sailors illegally fled the US Navy, more than double the number of deserters in 2019. Although all but eight eventually returned to their units, a military legal expert says the dramatic increase in desertions could be the sign of greater publish.

The Navy has seen an increase in desertions over the past three years. In 2019, 63 sailors fled from their duty stations, and 98 others did so in 2020, a Navy spokesman, Lt. Cmdr. Devin Arneson, told NPR. The number of deserters still at large had decreased between 2017 and 2019.

But other branches of the military have not seen a similar increase in the past three years. Military desertions fell 47% from 328 in 2019 to 174 in 2021, and the Marine Corps reported 59 in 2019 and 31 in 2021. The Coast Guard said it had no registered only one deserter between 2019 and 2021.

The increase in desertions from the Navy was first reported by NBC News.

Arneson said she could not speculate on the increase in Navy desertions or why a sailor would choose desertion — an unauthorized absence during which a service member has no intention of returning. This is a serious offense that can result in dishonest dismissal, forfeiture of wages, loss of benefits, and jail time.

Leaving the military early is nearly impossible, says legal expert

But a former JAG officer – with more than 11 years’ experience in military justice – said the issue underscores a harsh reality for some service members who apparently find themselves stuck in a job they don’t like and which is linked to a multi-year contract.

Stephanie Kral spent more than seven years in the Air Force as a lawyer. She served as senior trial counsel and defense counsel before leaving the service to work as a military civilian defense attorney. She said that many service members who resort to desertion are junior enlisted members with limited options should their military experience turn out differently than they had hoped.

“[For] someone who just doesn’t like the environment, it’s almost impossible to leave,” Kral told NPR.

And while there are solutions — like a medical discharge for people with health conditions preventing them from performing their duties — the waters surrounding mental health are a little murkier.

“Someone who is suffering from an acute mental health crisis … normally would not result in a mental health discharge,” Kral said. “What should happen is that they receive the care and treatment they need to be ready to restore their sanity and then become members of the fleet again. Unfortunately, that’s not always what we see. .”

Arneson said in a statement provided to NPR that the Navy recognizes that sailors are subject to an array of stressful situations during their service and that the mental health of each member is an important component of mission success.

But Kral said sailors, Marines, soldiers and other members of the armed forces often don’t have access to the help they need.

“Regardless of what high-level leaders say about trying to erase the stigma of mental health from our services, that doesn’t happen when you get to the boots on the pitch or at the deck plate level of the experiences. actual junior service members,” Kral said.

Service members who feel trapped by their contracts find themselves in a precarious position. They can stay in a job they hate and wait out their contract; they can become desertersa fugitive on the run; or, in the most extreme circumstances, they may choose to kill themselves, Kral said.

Kral said if desertion becomes an issue, then perhaps the military should explore other options regarding how to handle people who want to leave the service.

“Right now, the ability to offload or terminate the contract early is essentially entirely in the hands of the grand navy, the grand air force, the grand army. They are the ones who decide” , Kral said. “So it puts the military in a position of power to, frankly, just abuse their people [and] does not provide them with resources [and] put them in situations like on the [USS] George Washington.”

Kral was referring to a series of suicides aboard the aircraft carrier which is undergoing extensive repairs in Virginia. Three sailors aboard the USS George Washington committed suicide in a week in April, sparking an investigation expected to be released next year, the US Naval Institute News reported.

Leaders should consider stopping insisting that junior military personnel pursue long-term military careers, Kral said, and instead offer a way out for those who no longer want to serve. She also recognizes that the Ministry of Defense has a job to do, and allowing the military to leave when times get tough does not coincide with an effective military.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or Crisis text line by texting HOME to 741741. Members of the military community can contact the Military crisis line.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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