AWOL in the Military:

A Serious and Costly Problem

FPCD-78-52: Published: Mar 30, 1979. Publicly Released: Mar 30, 1979.

Additional Materials:


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

Over the 4-year period ended June 30, 1977, the military reported 608,000 absence without leave (AWOL) incidents exceeding 24 hours, costing the Government $1.1 billion.

A low AWOL rate may reflect sound personnel leadership, good management, and an effective system of punishments which deters and rehabilitates. On the other hand, a low rate may reflect success in recruiting high school graduates and the quick separation of AWOL-prone people. However, jobs affect AWOL rates regardless of education level and mental ability; people assigned to low-skill or undesirable jobs have much higher AWOL rates than people assigned to higher skill jobs which are generally viewed as more desirable and challenging. Even though better educated and more intelligent people go AWOL less often than others in the same jobs, their AWOL rates increase as the skill level of their job decreases. Although the military justice system authorizes punishment for AWOL, it also permits no punishment and provides no guidance on normal ranges of punishment between these two extremes. The services' practices in dealing with AWOL lack credibility and compromise the deterrent potential in making AWOL a crime. After AWOL offenders are punished, commanders lack the needed criteria to make cost-effective decisions as to whether these individuals should be retained or separated. Inadequate policy guidance combined with differing attitudes among the services and commanders have resulted in wide disparities in the reasons for separation and the types of discharges imposed.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Matter: The Congress should revise article 56 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice to authorize the President to provide guidance for determining disposition levels and punishments for AWOL offenders.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Defense should: propose to the President changes to the Manual for Courts-Martial to establish norms for level of disposition and quantity of punishment for the different lengths of AWOL, with deviations from the norms permitted where justified by aggrevating, mitigating, or extenuating circumstances; direct the services to evaluate periodically the consistency and effectiveness of the quantity and types of punishments imposed to determine whether changes to the Manual for Courts-Martial should be recommended to the President; revise the Department of Defense directive on administrative discharges to eliminate the discharge in lieu of court-martial; develop criteria for separating people with a record of AWOL; require a discharge with no characterization for people who do not serve a minimum number of months, regardless of the reason for separation, except where a court-martial directs or for medical or hardship reasons; determine the relative cost effectiveness of the groups (high school or non-high school graduates for the various mental categories) recruited in each service based on their attrition and proficiency rates, to be used to determine the extent to which more could be spent to attract cost-effective people; and exercise leadership and oversight in developing and maintaining a methodical approach for dealing with AWOL encompassing the life cycle of the problem from recruit quality through the separation of offenders.

    Agency Affected:


Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Mar 13, 2018

Mar 12, 2018

Feb 15, 2018

Feb 8, 2018

Feb 2, 2018

Jan 8, 2018

Dec 21, 2017

Dec 13, 2017

Nov 6, 2017

Oct 25, 2017

Looking for more? Browse all our products here