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 the military chain of command or at 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 ‘summarily’, which means that your Commanding Officer decides.
The maximum penalty that a court martial can impose for AWOL in peace time is two years in detention at the military prison in Colchester. For cases heard summarily by your Commanding Officer, the maximum detention period is three months.
A note on age. 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 described above – 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 (even though young soldiers who say they’re thinking of leaving are often threatened with court martial if they do). Obviously, it attracts bad publicity to the army to be charging a soldier at court martial who is still legally a child.
A note on desertion. 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 desertion (i.e. abandoning the army) and the maximum penalty is life in prison. (Yes, really.)
In practice, court martial sentences for both AWOL and desertion are usually much less – typically a few months in detention, which is usually (but not always) followed by dismissal from the army. But it does vary a lot.
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.