In 2021, 157 sailors illegally fled the U.S. Navy, more than double the number who deserted in 2019. Although all but eight of them eventually returned to their units, a military legal expert says the dramatic increase in desertions may be a sign of a bigger issue.

The Navy has seen an increase in desertions over the previous three years. In 2019, 63 sailors fled from their duty stations, and another 98 did so in 2020, a Navy spokesperson, Lt. Cmdr. Devin Arneson, told NPR. The number of deserters still at large had been on the decline between 2017 and 2019.

But other branches of the military didn't see a similar increase in the past three years. Desertions in the Army dropped by 47%, from 328 in 2019 to 174 in 2021, and the Marine Corps reported 59 in 2019 and 31 in 2021. The Coast Guard said it didn't record a single deserter between 2019 and 2021.

The increase in Navy desertions was first reported by NBC News.

Arneson said she cannot speculate about the increase in Navy desertions or why a sailor would choose desertion — an unauthorized absence in which a military member has no intention of returning. It's a grave offense that can result in a dishonorable discharge, forfeiture of pay, a loss of benefits and jail time.

Leaving the military early is almost impossible, a legal expert says

But one former JAG officer — with over 11 years of military justice experience — said the issue underscores a harsh reality for some service members who find themselves seemingly stuck in a line of work they dislike that's tied to a multiyear contract.

Stephanie Kral spent over seven years in the Air Force serving as a legal officer. She served as a senior trial council litigator and defense attorney before leaving the service to work as a civilian military defense lawyer. She said many of the service members who resort to desertion are junior enlisted members with limited options should their military experience unfold differently from what they had hoped.

"[For] somebody who just doesn't like the environment, it's almost impossible to leave," Kral told NPR.

And though there are ways out — such as a medical discharge for individuals with health conditions preventing them from fulfilling their duties — the waters surrounding mental health are a bit murkier.

"Somebody who's suffering with an acute mental health crisis ... should not ordinarily result in a mental health discharge," Kral said. "What should happen is that they receive the care and treatment that they need to be ready to rehab their mental health and then go back to being a member of the fleet. Unfortunately, that's not always what we see."

Arneson said in statement provided to NPR that the Navy recognizes that sailors are subjected to an array of stressful situations over the course of their service and that the mental health of every member is an important part to mission success.

But Kral said that sailors, Marines, soldiers and other members of the armed forces often don't have access to the help they need.

"Regardless of what upper-level leadership says about trying to erase the stigma of mental health in our services, that does not play out when you get to the boots on the ground or the deck-plate level of actual experiences of junior service members," Kral said.

Military members who feel trapped by their contracts find themselves in a precarious position. They can stay in a job they hate and wait for their contract to end; they can become a desertera fugitive on the run; or, in the most extreme circumstances, they can choose to take their own life, Kral said.

Kral said if desertion is becoming an issue, then perhaps the military should explore other options regarding how to handle individuals who want to leave the service.

"Right now, the ability to discharge or to end the contract early is essentially entirely in the hands of big Navy, big Air Force, big Army. They are the ones that get to decide," Kral said. "So it puts the military in a position of power to, frankly, just abuse their people [and] not provide them resources [and] put them in situations like on the [USS] George Washington."

Kral was referring to a string of suicides aboard the aircraft carrier that is undergoing extensive repairs in Virginia. Three sailors aboard USS George Washington died by suicide in one week in April, which has prompted an investigation set to be released next year, the U.S. Naval Institute News reported.

Leaders should consider moving away from insisting junior servicemembers pursue a long-term military career, Kral said, and instead provide a way out for those who no longer want to serve. She also acknowledges that the Defense Department has a job to do, and allowing service members leave when times get hard doesn't coincide with an effective military.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741. Members of the military community can contact the Military Crisis Line.

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