A Soldier's Desertion, and Discharge

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Tim Meek joined the Army in the summer of 2003, while still in high school. But his experiences in the military led him to desert his base and return home. He joins more than 20,000 people who have deserted the U.S. military since the Iraq war began.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In the four years of the Iraq war, more than 20,000 people in the U.S. military have deserted. Half of them were in the Army. Here's the journey of one of those deserters.

Nancy Mullane reports.

NANCY MULLANE: Tim Meek is tall, about six-foot-five with a slight build and a lanky walk. Raised in a small town in Florida, he has that proper "yes, ma'am" kind of manner. In the summer of 2003, between his junior and senior year of high school, he walked into the local Army recruiter's office and signed up.

Mr. TIM MEEK (Former Soldier): I just saw what everyone else saw on the news. I saw the soldiers in Iraq, some of them doing their job. Then you hear every day about someone dying. But it never really struck home for me, just because I didn't - at the time I was too young to really - or I was too inexperienced to figure out that that's what I'd be doing, that's the job that I had signed up for.

MULLANE: He served in Iraq for a little over two months. While there, he says, his opinions about the war began to change, largely because of the attacks on U.S. troops. But the real change came after he returned to the U.S. and was promoted to a leadership position, with responsibility for other soldiers. Meek says some couldn't run; others had serious psychological problems and couldn't do their jobs. When he questioned an officer about the problems in his unit, Meek says the officer dodged the question.

Mr. MEEK: And I think that's when my opinion changed. That's when I said, this is a joke. I'm working for someone who doesn't even really care, who is looking past the fact just to see the numbers. At this point I was just tired of it all. And one night while no one was looking I just up and left, grabbed my stuff, got what I thought I needed and I went back home.

MULLANE: He took a flight to California and stayed with family. But after more than 30 days of being AWOL, or absent without leave, the Army changed him from AWOL to desert status. He was dropped from his company's rolls or DFR'd, and a felony warrant was issued for his arrest.

NICK: I just had nothing. I couldn't do anything. Every time I went out with anyone, if I saw blue lights from a police car I was terrified.

MULLANE: Then, he called the G.I. Rights Hotline 800 number.

Ms. DEBRA STEEN(ph) (G.I. Rights Hotline): He was clear that he wanted discharge. He did not want to go back. He wasn't going back.

MULLANE: Meek's call was answered by Debra Steen, an attorney and volunteer counselor with the G.I. Rights Hotline, a loose network of national and international organizations. The hotline is staffed by volunteers who answer calls for more than 3,000 soldiers and their families each month.

Ms. STEEN: We don't encourage people to go AWOL. We don't advise them to do so. It is a crime. But we try to tell them what their options are and the best way to handle the situation. Ultimately they need to surrender and deal with the military in some way, but we want to help them do it in a way that's most advantageous to their goals.

MULLANE: For most soldiers who have gone AWOL, the goal is getting discharged from the military. After weighing his options, Meek took a bus to Fort Sill in Oklahoma, one of two army bases with personnel control facilities. The PCFs process soldiers who are returning to military control while in desert status. Meek walked up to the front gate.

Mr. MEEK: I told them I was AWOL, they took my ID card, processed me in. In process and out process four days later.

MULLANE: In fiscal year 2006, Fort Sill and Fort Knox in Kentucky say they processed more than 2,400 soldiers who had deserted out of the Army with less than honorable discharges. Lieutenant Sylvia Kemp is Garrison Support Battalion Commander at Fort Sill.

Lieutenant SYLVIA KEMP (Garrison Support Battalion): We try to get the soldier out anywhere between seven to 14 days. That's our policy. Does that always happen? No. Most time they may require them to be here longer. Just depends on what circumstances they have going on.

MULLANE: Meek says he's just glad to be out. Sure, he says, with an other than honorable discharge he may have difficulty getting some jobs down the road, won't be getting any military benefits and eventually will have to pay the Army back the thousands of dollars he received as a sign-up bonus. But, he says, it's all worth it.

Mr. MEEK: If worse came to worse, I'd rather do roofs every day for the rest of my life than keep serving. It was, it was a unique experience. It was one that I'll never forget. But for me personally it just wasn't for me.

MULLANE: Meek's still waiting for his final discharge papers in the mail severing his relationship with the U.S. Army, and even though he's no longer eligible for U.S. Army education benefits, next year he's going to attend college full time. For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane.

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