If you go AWOL and are caught, you can be punished with detention and you might not get to leave the army afterwards.
If you’re thinking of going AWOL, this is what you should know:
All soldiers who go AWOL for more than a few days are chased down by the civilian police and charged by their commanding officer (a ‘summary hearing’) or at military court (a ‘court martial’).
Absences greater than 140 days (about four-and-a-half months) are always charged at court martial.
Shorter absences are normally dealt with at a summary hearing.
The maximum penalty that a court martial can impose for AWOL in peace time is two years in the military prison in Colchester, which is usually (but not always) followed by dismissal from the army.
For cases heard summarily by your Commanding Officer, the maximum sentence is three months in military prison (without dismissal from the army).
Are you under 18?
If you’re aged under 18 and are thinking of leaving the army without permission, then you can still be charged in exactly the same way as an adult soldier – there’s no ‘juvenile justice’ system in the army.
That said, as of June 2022:
- No junior soldier has been charged with AWOL at court martial since at least 2019.
- Only a couple of junior soldiers have been charged for AWOL summarily since 2017 and they were not imprisoned for it.
So, although it’s common for army instructors to tell junior soldiers that if they leave without permission they’ll be charged at a court martial and be sent to prison, this hasn’t happened in a long time.
(Obviously, it attracts bad publicity to the army to be punishing a soldier who is still legally a child simply because they want to leave the army.)
Are you over 18?
In practice, court martial sentences for AWOL are usually a few months in detention followed by dismissal from the army. But it does vary a lot.
Important. If you go AWOL after you’ve been given an order to deploy in war, or you’re at war already, then AWOL can count as the more serious offence of desertion (i.e. abandoning the army) and the maximum penalty is life in prison. (Yes, really.)
No other employer in the UK can send you to prison for not turning up to work. But the army knows that soldiers go AWOL when they’re desperate to leave the army but have no legal right to do so. This is why they punish it so severely.
If you’re already AWOL, you can get confidential, independent advice from At Ease.