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Can you go to jail for leaving the military?

Leaving the military before your term of service is complete can potentially lead to criminal charges and jail time in certain circumstances. However, the specific consequences depend on the circumstances behind a service member’s early separation.

What is Unauthorized Absence?

One way that service members may leave the military early is through unauthorized absence, also known as being Absent Without Leave (AWOL) or going Unauthorized Absence (UA). This refers to any absence from duty without proper authorization.

Some key facts about unauthorized absence:

  • Absence of 24 consecutive hours or less is usually considered an unauthorized absence, while over 24 hours is considered AWOL/UA.
  • There are two types of unauthorized absence – desertion and AWOL/UA.
  • Desertion is defined as absence with intent to remain away permanently or avoid hazardous duty.
  • AWOL/UA is any other unauthorized absence where there is still intent to return to military duty.
  • AWOL/UA is considered a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).

What are the consequences of going AWOL/UA?

The consequences for unauthorized absence depend on the circumstances, but can potentially include:

  • Administrative discipline – This may include loss of privileges, extra duties, rank reduction, forfeiture of pay, and an administrative discharge.
  • Non-judicial punishment – This involves punishments imposed by a commanding officer, such as correctional custody, forfeiture of pay, reduction in rank, extra duties, and restriction to limits.
  • Court martial – Serious instances of unauthorized absence may be prosecuted through a military court martial and can result in fines, imprisonment, a punitive discharge (bad conduct or dishonorable discharge), or – in extremely rare cases – execution.

Some factors that influence the severity of consequences include the duration of UA/AWOL, circumstances and motivation, and how the absence impacted unit readiness and operations. Multiple instances of unauthorized absence are likely to result in more serious consequences.

When can UA/AWOL result in jail time?

Most short instances of unauthorized absence result in administrative punishments. However, absences of extended duration or with aggravated circumstances can potentially lead to court martial and prison time. Some situations where jail may result include:

  • Desertion – Jail sentences for desertion can potentially include 5 years confinement if the intent was to avoid hazardous duty or important service, or a maximum of 3 years confinement otherwise.
  • AWOL/UA of extended duration – While variable, absences over 30 days often result in jail time if prosecuted, with longer sentences for more extended absence.
  • Missing movement – Being AWOL when deployment orders are issued can result in up to 2 years confinement.
  • AWOL/UA during wartime – Courts martial tend to pursue stiffer penalties during times of war.

It’s important to note that the vast majority of AWOL/UA cases result in lower level punishments like rank reduction, forfeiture of pay, or an administrative discharge. But jail time is possible in aggravated cases prosecuted through a court martial.

What about just leaving when your enlistment ends?

Simply leaving the military when your term of enlistment runs out is not considered unauthorized absence or an offense. All enlisted service members sign an enlistment contract for a set number of years, typically ranging from 2 to 6 years of active duty. When this contract expires, they are free to leave the military without consequence.

However, those who try to leave before their enlistment commitment is complete are at risk of being charged with unauthorized absence. Trying to leave the military before your contract runs out should involve completing the proper administrative separation process, which requires approval from your command.

Can officers resign their commissions early?

Commissioned officers cannot simply resign their commissions early like enlisted members can leave when their enlistments are up. Officers have several commitment options:

  • Service academies – Graduates incur a 5 year active duty commitment and 3 years inactive reserve.
  • ROTC – Typically a 4 year active duty and 4 year inactive reserve commitment.
  • Officer Candidate School (OCS) – 3 to 5 years active duty after commissioning.

To resign before fulfilling their commitments, officers must request separation through their service’s administrative discharge process. Officers who depart early without authorization risk being prosecuted for UA/AWOL or desertion.

Can you be arrested or forcibly returned to duty?

Yes, military authorities can take steps to apprehend service members who are UA/AWOL and return them to military control.

These efforts may include:

  • Issuing a warrant for arrest or apprehension.
  • Placing the service member on a UA/deserter list that is shared between law enforcement agencies.
  • Attempting to locate the service member through contacts, social media, and investigating leads.
  • Physically arresting the member and returning them to military custody.
  • In rare instances, bounty hunters may be hired to locate deserters.

Once arrested or apprehended, a member would typically be transported back to their military duty station to face disciplinary action. They can be held in confinement while awaiting trial by court martial.

Can you ever get an early discharge from the military?

While leaving before your enlistment or service obligation is risky, there are some avenues service members can pursue to try to get an authorized early separation from the military:

  • Hardship discharge – Granted due to severe financial or family hardship.
  • Pregnancy separation – Granted to service women who become pregnant.
  • Separation due to parenthood – Allowed for single parents unable to arrange childcare.
  • Entry level separation – Allowed during the first 180 days of service for substandard performance or conduct.
  • Medical discharge – Given for medical conditions that make one unfit to continue service.
  • Administrative discharge – Can be requested but may not be granted.

However, these early discharges require applying through official channels and approval from your commanding officers. Simply leaving without proper authorization and paperwork still risks UA/AWOL charges.


Leaving military service before your obligated term is complete does carry the potential for criminal charges and jail time in certain circumstances. Going UA/AWOL to leave early without approval can be prosecuted through military justice system and result in fines, confinement, or a punitive discharge if convicted by court martial. While short unauthorized absences typically bring lower level discipline, extended absences or desertion increase chances of imprisonment. However, some early discharges are allowed with proper authorization. Overall, departing the military before your term is up should only be done through official channels, as going AWOL or deserting to leave early does risk severe consequences.