Military unfazed at AWOL increase


Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Uncle Sam might have wanted Kristen Westerberg and Alton Keith Lee, but apparently they had second thoughts about him.

Last month, police arrested Westerberg, a 24-year-old Wellington mother, in Royal Palm Beach for deserting the Army. A few weeks later, police picked up Lee, 25, in Boca Raton for leaving the Marines without authorization.

Though the number of AWOL military personnel has steadily increased since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, officials say the war has had little impact.

Others say the stop-loss policy, which retains troops beyond their terms of service, often sending them back into combat, is responsible for more military personnel calling it quits.

The policy, often referred to as the "backdoor draft," is the subject of the recently released movie Stop-Loss by director Kimberly Peirce, who grew up in South Florida.

In 2007, nearly 1,200 Marines were accused of deserting as of September. In 2003, there were 877. The Army had 4,698 deserters in 2007, up from 2,610 in 2003.

"It's very apparent that the war in Iraq and the stop-loss program has increased the number of deserters and AWOL soldiers," said Gregory Rinckey, a lawyer who works with an increasing caseload of clients trying to exit the military.

The deployments are disrupting troops' lives, said Rinckey, who served as an Army lawyer for six years before opening a private practice in Albany, N.Y.

Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb said the number of deserters represents less than 1 percent of the Army's force and it is not a "huge concern" for leaders.

And, she said, many soldiers leave before they see combat.

"They get to basic training and it's not what they thought it was going to be or they decide they're not cut out for it," she said. "They just don't take the right approach to try to get out of the Army."

Westerberg joined the Army in October 2005. Her family said she was promised she would never see war duty, and she deserted while in training in Virginia after being told she might be sent to Iraq. She has been considered AWOL since June 2006.

Army officials said she went to Fort Knox, Ky., for processing and has since left on what is called "excess leave." She is expected to get an administrative discharge.

Disciplinary action for AWOL soldiers is done on a case-by-case basis and is left to the commander in charge, Edgecomb said. The Army does not discharge all deserters, she said. Some leave for personal reasons and, once they resolve them, decide to stay. Their punishment may be a loss in rank and pay.

The same is true for Marines, spokesman Maj. Jay Delarosa said.

Delarosa said he could not provide details about the status of Lee, who joined the Marines in 2004 and deserted in January.

The Boynton Beach man saw seven months of combat in Iraq in 2005 and six months in 2006 and 2007. He earned the Combat Action Ribbon, two Sea Service Deployment Ribbons and the Iraq Campaign Medal.