In 2016, 221 Fort Hood Soldiers went absent without leave. Ninety-three of them were ultimately declared deserters, and of those, 15 remain unaccounted for. Sometimes these absences garner media attention but the majority of them do not.
There is widespread public misunderstanding of what happens when a Soldier fails to show up for duty. What follows is a very basic example of the steps the Army takes when a Soldier goes missing. Although the scenario is fictitious, the general actions and references herein reflect actual regulations, policy and typical leader actions in such a case.
Let us imagine Pvt. Jones misses his 6:30 a.m. formation for movement to the range for rifle qualification. Generally, his leaders assume he is late or perhaps they ask around to see if he told someone he was going to sick call or had an appointment. Usually, this immediate response includes an immediate call to his cell phone. The pervading concern throughout this entire process is Pvt. Jones’ whereabouts and well-being.
If Pvt. Jones does not answer his cell phone his team leader or squad leader sends someone to knock on his door and look for his car in the parking lot. Although the unit will still go to the range to conduct the day’s training, people will continue to call and look around the company area for him.
If Pvt. Jones’ disappearance occurs under suspicious circumstances on the installation – for example, his car door is found ajar and there is blood visible inside – the local Criminal Investigation Command is notified and opens an investigation immediately. If such evidence is found off the installation, civilian law enforcement and investigative agencies will be notified. Whenever and wherever possible, military and civilian officials work closely together to ensure the most thorough and efficient investigation is conducted and that timely searches for the missing Soldier are executed.
If initial checks for Pvt. Jones yield no immediate results, the chain of command will coordinate with authorities to determine the next step. Any action taken, however, must balance competing interests – ensuring Pvt. Jones’s mental, emotional and physical well-being while maintaining his privacy rights and safeguarding his constitutional rights. For example, Pvt. Jones’s absence does not constitute authorization for the command to disclose personal or private information that is protected by the Privacy Act. Similarly, his absence does not allow the command to engage in unfettered and unrestricted searches of people, places or things that have or are associated with a “reasonable expectation of privacy.” The Privacy Act and the Fourth Amendment to the United States Constitution still protect Pvt. Jones notwithstanding his status as unaccounted for and missing. That said, the command is not without options.
When calling Pvt. Jones’ cell phone and asking friends and coworkers where Pvt. Jones might be lead to negative results, the command will seek to search his barracks room, on-post quarters, or off-post residence for him or for signs of where he might be. In a barracks situation, the command will coordinate with the building custodian to gain access to his barracks room. If Pvt. Jones lives in a military housing area and does not respond to a door-knock, the military police and housing office may be called to render assistance in gaining access to his quarters. If he lives off-post and a door-knock meets with a negative response, the command will coordinate with civilian authorities to gain entry to the residence. The issue in all three circumstances is whether entry can be lawfully obtained. If the command has a reasonable basis to fear for Pvt. Jones’s safety, the room, quarters or residence may be entered and searched without a warrant. The emergency exception to the warrant requirement allows authorities to enter a private area without a warrant because the purpose for the entry is to “save (a) life or for a related purpose, to render immediate medical aid, to obtain information that will assist in the rendering of such aid or to prevent immediate or ongoing personal injury.” If neither the command nor local authorities has any basis to believe an emergency situation exists, entry and subsequent search requires a warrant based upon probable cause.
If Pvt. Jones shares his room, quarters or residence with another, the command needs only obtain consent from this third party to enter and search for clues regarding Pvt. Jones’ whereabouts.
In addition to actively searching where Pvt. Jones lives for information regarding his current whereabouts, as well as contacting Family members and friends, authorities will endeavor to obtain cell phone tower information to determine Pvt. Jones’ current location as well as where he most recently traveled. Similarly, investigators will attempt to obtain financial information such as banking and credit information to see when and where he last engaged in any financial transactions. If and how quickly this information can be obtained varies based on the cell phone provider’s and financial institution’s legal requirements and whether based on the jurisdiction, cell phone information, banking information or both require a warrant based on probable cause.
Just as police will not consider a “missing persons” report until 24 hours have passed, military police will not either. Therefore, the chain of command continues to search the local area and places he is known to frequent, as well as continuing to talk to his colleagues, friends and Family for information on his whereabouts or intentions. It’s possible he said something to them about going somewhere or even about hurting himself. In fact, looking for evidence of intent to inflict self-harm is a basic part of the search process.
After 24 hours, the chain of command can change Pvt. Jones’ status from present for duty to absent without leave. Article 86 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice defines the offense of AWOL as absent from military duties without permission, but not assumed to have deserted. The chain of command and investigators will continue to search for Pvt. Jones and continue to interview people who know or claimed to have seen him. Contact with his Family will continue in an attempt to share as much information as possible.
When Pvt. Jones is declared AWOL, the chain of command files paperwork that enables entry of an “attempt to locate” notice through the National Crime Information Center. This is similar to how a “missing persons report” is filed with civilian police.
The NCIC is a national database viewable by law enforcement agencies at all levels. An “attempt to locate” notice lets law enforcement know that the chain of command is looking for Pvt. Jones. The entry may include a description of him, his vehicle or other details that will help law enforcement identify him. This does not give law enforcement officials the right to detain or arrest Pvt. Jones, but it does empower them to report sightings of him to the military and it also gives them an opportunity to approach him and let him know people are looking for him. This NCIC entry is made out of concern for Pvt. Jones’ well-being. As this is going on the chain of command and military police investigators continue to search the local area and other areas where he may have gone. They also look for evidence that he intended to leave or to harm himself and they continue talking to colleagues, friends and Family.
After 30 days, the chain of command can file a Department of Defense Form 553 to declare Pvt. Jones a “deserter wanted by armed forces.” This goes into NCIC as a “be on the lookout” notice authorizing law enforcement to detain Pvt. Jones and coordinate with the military for his return to post. This is an arrest warrant. The DD 553 goes from the unit commander to the installation or command Deserter Control Officer, the Provost Marshal’s Office or the Directorate of Emergency Services. At this point, the chain of command can file paperwork to change Pvt. Jones’ status to “dropped from rolls.” The Family is notified and this information goes to the U.S. Army Deserter Information Point, which is the focal point within the Army for controlling, verifying accounting and disseminating data on individuals administratively classified as deserters.
There are provisions for commanders to accelerate the “deserter status” timeline before the 30 days have passed if they have reason to believe justifying circumstances exist. Examples of justifying circumstances might include a belief the Soldier is a high-risk deserter (such as a having a serious medical condition, demonstrating violent tendencies, expressing suicidal ideations or having the capacity to be considered armed and dangerous). In such cases, the involvement of law enforcement agencies across the nation is desired to enhance the search for the Soldier.
Most often Soldiers return to duty of their own accord. Sometimes they are arrested and returned to the unit. Tragically, sometimes Soldiers are discovered to be deceased. Some Soldiers are never found. Each case is unique and the military does not make assumptions about how and why a Soldier doesn’t report for duty. Similarly, if there is an ongoing investigation or several ongoing investigations into the disappearance of a Soldier or discovery of an AWOL Soldier, the military will not provide media with a comment that might bias or compromise the investigation. We follow a very strict process that relies on evidence to determine what really occurred. There have been instances where a Soldier’s death appears to have been an obvious suicide. However, until the investigation is complete, we will not speculate because to do so it is unfair to the Soldier and the Soldier’s Family. Sometimes our unwillingness to comment on an ongoing investigation is incorrectly viewed as a “cover-up” or a “conspiracy.” We are required to follow a well-established and proven process that ensures fairness, legality and appropriateness under the circumstances.
If and when Pvt. Jones does report back to his unit he might be subject to several forms of investigation, as well as administrative actions or judicial punishment. The military investigations might include a traffic accident report, a line of duty report, a command-directed investigation pursuant to Army Regulation 15-6, or even an investigation by military law enforcement officials, if the case involves death or a crime. Furthermore, if Pvt. Jones did anything or conspired to do anything illegal off-post or abroad, the investigation might involve the FBI, Interpol or various other law enforcement agencies, depending on jurisdiction and a particular agency’s interest in the alleged crime.
When a Soldier like Pvt. Jones fails to report for duty, a lot of people take immediate, short-term and long-term actions to look for him. The important thing to remember is that the chain of command’s first concern is the same as the Family’s: “Is Pvt. Jones okay?” We must look for him while protecting his rights (privacy, property and protection of personal information) and once we find him we must respect the rule of law and the investigative process.
For further reading, consider the following publications:
- AR 190-9, Absentee Deserter Apprehension Program and Surrender of Military Personnel to Civilian Law Enforcement Agencies
- AR 630-10, Absent Without Leave/Desertion and Administration of Personnel Involved in Civilian Court Proceedings
- AR 600-8-2, Suspension of Favorable Personnel Actions
- Information Paper-DD FM 616 (Report of Return of Absentee) and Escorts for Returnees
- DA Pam 600-8-1, Chap. 2-39, Standard Installation Division Personnel System EMILPO Battalion S1 Level Procedures