Army Lacks Accurate Count on Deserters

The Army can't provide a specific number of deserters. At least 3,000 soldiers have left the ranks in the last year. Critics say that without an accurate count, the Army has an incomplete picture of military readiness.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Four years ago this week the Iraq War began. It was evening in America. It was just after midnight Baghdad time on the 20th. This past weekend, thousands of protesters flowed through the streets of several cities including New York, San Francisco and Portland calling for an end to funding for the war, or the immediate return of U.S. troops.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The U.S. Army may announce as early as today that it made a mistake in its counted deserters among its ranks. What's worse, say some military observers, is the apparent breakdown in the Army system for keeping track of soldiers who failed to meet their duty obligations.

Nancy Mullane reports.

NANCY MULLANE: For months the Army's public affairs office has been reporting that the number of desertions in 2006 dropped from previous years. But now, after repeated calls and inquiries, Army spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Brian Hilferty says he's been wrong. Instead of a drop, Hilferty says there was actually an increase in desertions last year.

Lieutenant Colonel BRIAN HILFERTY (U.S. Army Spokesperson): A 30 percent jump of what we said, yes. Overall, it was a 25 percent jump.

MULLANE: That means the actual number of Army deserters is about 3,100, not the previous official count of 2,343. Hilferty says the incorrect lower number has been widely reported to anyone who's asked for it.

Lt. Col. HILFERTY: Yeah, including, honestly, the Department of Defense. I mean it's not like I hide these numbers until NPR calls. These are the we have been giving to everybody, including the Army leadership and the Department of Defense. We're going to back and fix it now and give them the correct numbers. So we don't have two sets of books.

MULLANE: There may not be two sets of books anymore, but there are still some major questions about the accuracy of this latest figure. Instead of 3,100 deserters, the real number may be closer to 5,000. That's according to analysts within the Army's Personnel Division at the Pentagon and at the Fort Knox Desertion Information Center. Both reached that 5,000 figure by adding on soldiers who deserted and then were discharged from the Army throughout the year.

Lt. Hilferty, the Army spokesman, said he's fairly certain the desertion total is 3,000, not 5,000, but he's not 100 percent.

Lt. Col. HILFERTY: Ninety-nine percent sure.

MULLANE: That's what you said last week, 99 percent…

Lt. Col. HILFERTY: I was wrong. That's why I didn't say 100 percent. And that's why I'm not saying 100 percent now.

Mr. DEREK STEWART (Director of Military and Civilian Personnel Issues, Government Accountability Office): I really think that anybody listening to this war understands that there's a problem.

MULLANE: Derek Stewart is the director of military and civilian personnel issues at the Government Accountability Office in Washington.

Mr. STEWART: The Army is telling one story, and the Army doesn't even agree within itself what the story is. And there's nobody at the top checking.

MULLANE: Stewart says without an accurate total count of the number of active soldiers in its ranks, the Army has a serious problem with its readiness.

Mr. STEWART: At the top of this organization within the Department of Defense there can be no issue more critical than the number of people they have in the military services. It's called personnel end strength. So if you don't have enough people to execute the mission, you're going to fail.

MULLANE: Out of the standing Army of over half a million, even 5,000 deserters in a given year only represents one percent of the force. That's why in the past desertions have been seen as a minor disciplinary or administrative problem. But with numbers inching up, it could be an indicator of the health of the force or a possible warning sign of excessive stress on troops.

Retired Army General Barry McCaffrey is even more alarmed by the confusion over the numbers.

General BARRY MCCAFFREY (U.S. Army, Retired): It's inappropriate. They owe the American people a full accounting of what their young men and women are doing in uniform. And probably more importantly, I cannot believe that the senior uniformed military leadership of the Army doesn't know that number. They're missing a crucial management indicator of stress on the force.

MULLANE: Nobody is making the claim that today's desertion figures are huge. At the height of the Vietnam War, for example, when young Americans were being drafted, desertions reached 30,000 a year. But people watching current trends when America is fighting another war seem to agree getting the numbers right is important.

For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane.

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