Fewer Troops Desert Since 9/11

At least 8,000 members of the all-volunteer U.S. military have deserted since the Iraq war began, Pentagon records show, although the overall desertion rate has plunged since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001.

Since fall 2003, 4,387 Army soldiers, 3,454 Navy sailors and 82 Air Force personnel have deserted. The Marine Corps does not track the number of desertions each year but listed 1,455 Marines in desertion status last September, the end of fiscal 2005, says Capt. Jay Delarosa, a Marine Corps spokesman.

Desertion records are kept by fiscal year, so there are no figures from the beginning of the war in March 2003 until that fall.

Some lawyers who represent deserters say the war in Iraq is driving more soldiers to question their service and that the Pentagon is cracking down on deserters to discourage anti-war sentiment.

"The last thing (Pentagon officials) want is for people to think ... that this is like Vietnam," says Tod Ensign, head of Citizen Soldier, an anti-war group that offers legal aid to deserters.

Desertion numbers have dropped since 9/11. The Army, Navy and Air Force reported 7,978 desertions in 2001, compared with 3,456 in 2005. The Marines showed 1,603 deserters in 2001. That declined by 148 in 2005.

The desertion rate was much higher during the Vietnam era. The Army saw a high of 33,094 deserters in 1971 -- 3.4% of the Army force. But there was a draft and the active-duty force was 2.7 million.

Desertions in 2005 represent 0.24% of the 1.4 million U.S. forces.

Opposition to the war prompts a small fraction of desertions, says Army spokeswoman Maj. Elizabeth Robbins. "People always desert, and most do it because they don't adapt well to the military," she says. The majority of desertions happen inside the USA, Robbins says. There is only one known case of desertion in Iraq.

Most deserters return without coercion. Commander Randy Lescault, spokesman for the Naval Personnel Command, says that between 2001 and 2005, 58% of Navy deserters walked back in. Of the rest, most are apprehended during traffic stops.

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