The number of Canadian soldiers charged for going absent without leave peaked alongside Canadian deaths in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008 and have dropped since the withdrawal in mid-2011, military records show.
At the same time, more soldiers are opting for a tougher but fairer disciplinary system than summary trials that had become the norm.
That trend holds true even if you compare it to the military’s regular force headcount, which has held steady even after troops left Afghanistan.AWOL: 1999-2013 »
“AWOL is a strong indicator of a morale problem. That’s universally accepted. When you have AWOL in a professional force, it’s a bad sign,” says retired colonel Michel Drapeau, whose law practice covers defence at military trials.
The Canadian Forces did not respond to requests for their interpretation of the statistics.
The offence of absence without leave can cover any length of absence, so the decision to lay a charge involves some level of discretion. This upward trend could show a change in actual absenteeism, disciplinary policies or both.
“Some may be overcharging – for example, somebody is five minutes late and charged with being AWOL,” Drapeau says. “It could be people going to meet their girlfriends, of somebody who’s overconsumed alchohol and slept in, or somebody who’s on a fishing trip, or somebody who says, basically, ‘I’m not going to report in, I’m suffering from PTSD.’”
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The much more serious charge of desertion is very rare in the Canadian statistics – it is hard to convict a soldier of desertion, Drapeau explains, because the prosecution must prove an intention to leave the military permanently. Under some circumstances desertion can be punished with life imprisonment.
Absence without leave can be punished with up to two years in prison. But Drapeau says lighter punishments are more typical.
“It depends on the time and place, but it normally would be a fine. It would have to be a severe case before it led to a period of detention, which a commanding officer can order, up to 30 days. It could be a fine, it could be confinement to barracks.”
Military trials can either be courts-martial, which usually deal with more serious offences but offer more protection to the defendant, or summary trials – short disciplinary hearings conducted by a soldier’s own officers. Penalties are restricted at summary trials, but courts-martial have more of a reputation for fairness.
“Increasingly, people are opting for courts-martial, because they have no rights whatsoever at a summary trial,” Drapeau said.
Between 2000 and 2004, an average of 13 soldiers who were entitled to choose a court-martial instead of a summary trial did so. Between 2009 and 2013, that number rose to 41.
The conviction rate for summary trials rose after 9/11, from 85 per cent in fiscal 1999-00 to 92 per cent in 2007-08. It hasn’t fallen below 90 per cent since fiscal 2006-7.
A Canadian Forces report on fiscal 2002-3 notes 40 per cent more summary trials compared to the previous year. The number of imprisonment sentences handed out by commanding officers more than doubled, from 12 to 31.
The report’s authors said the changes were “partly as a result of the increased number of new recruits in the system, as well as the continued willingness of commanding officers to resort to the disciplinary system when necessary. “