Immediately following graduation from basic training, we received our new orders as well as a promotion to E-2. That is still a private, but it was my first stripe and meant a few more dollars in the monthly paycheck. It was a happy occasion, I was feeling good, and I was glad that I received orders to report for the military police training that I had requested in the beginning. I remember thinking to myself that in less than two years from now, I will already have the training needed to get a real job as a cop. I may not have to go back to school, after all. Things were looking up. The only downside was the location of the MP school. I wasn’t thrilled about being stationed so far away at Fort Gordon, Georgia. To me, Georgia was like a foreign country, much farther away from home than I had ever been before in my life. Weekend passes to travel back home from Georgia would be impossible. But maybe we could get married right after MP school, and then Diane could go with me to wherever I ended up, hopefully to Aberdeen Maryland, not too far from home. Soon I found out that none of those dreams would become a reality.
The First Sergeant called me into his office to inform me that they canceled my orders for MP school. He said they discovered that I was not eligible for MP training because you have to be at least 19 years old to qualify, and I was only 18. I was to be held over at Fort Dix until the Army decided what they wanted to do with me, and then new orders would be issued. I was pissed off and couldn’t believe how stupid, unfair, and unjust their rules were. That is what I get for playing by their rules?
There was only a handful of us without orders, while 99% of the other guys were on their way to advanced individual training (AIT). Our daily assignments as holdovers were mostly tasks in HQ, such as filing paperwork or buffing the floors or running errands for the officers or the First Sergeant, but often we just worked in the supply room. Much of the work was easy menial tasks to keep us busy. Most of the holdovers received new orders within a few days or a week. Soon there were only two holdovers left, me and a black guy named Simms. Simms was his last name; For some reason, in the Army, we always called everyone by their last name only. Simms turned out to be a pretty good guy. We spent a lot of time together, both during and after work. But I was bored, and as the time dragged on, I felt like the Army had placed me in limbo and forgot about me. I inquired daily about my status and whether or not my new orders came in. I was getting impatient and angrier as time was wasting away. After six or seven weeks of being held over, I had enough of the BS, so at the end of October, I went home on a weekend pass and decided not to return. I went AWOL, (an acronym for “absent without official leave.”)
I didn’t dare stay at my parents’ home for fear that the Army would send the MP’s out looking for me. Besides that, my parents would never have permitted it; my dad would have kicked my ass. Instead, I stayed with my friend Frank in his second-floor apartment. Because Frank had to go to classes and Diane had to go to work during the day, I was laying around the apartment alone with nothing to do. I didn’t want to go out because of my fear of getting caught. I found myself in a predicament that was much worse than being a discontented holdover at Fort Dix. Being AWOL for a few days made me realize that I had made a grave mistake. One of the reasons for joining the Army in the first place was to get away from getting into trouble. And now, with only three and a half months in the Army, I was in big trouble!
At the time, there were a lot of kids burning their draft cards and evading the draft by running away to Canada. Plenty of soldiers also deserted and fled to Canada. I thought about it briefly, but I knew that was not an option. Some of the things that went through my mind were: I would have been an embarrassment to my family. Diane’s dad would have forbidden her from ever seeing me again, and I could never live with myself tagged as a deserter or a coward, which is what those who chose to hide in Canada were. I knew I had to return to base and face whatever punishment awaited me.
I remained AWOL for one full week and then flew back to base on Sunday night like I did any other Sunday night. I planned to report for duty Monday morning, like any other Monday morning, foolishly hoping that maybe they didn’t even notice that I was away for a week. I walked into headquarters Monday morning to get my daily assignment like nothing was wrong. I immediately heard the First Sergeant’s loud voice yelling: “Kuhn, you F***** up! Get into my office now.”
I was scared! I was standing at attention in front of his desk as he walked in and closed the door behind us. I was surprised as he sat down and began speaking in a normal tone of voice and not yelling at me at all. He asked what my intentions were. I told him that I wanted to return to duty. He said that is good, but it’s not that simple, you can’t just walk away from your responsibility and quit the Army whenever you feel like it. There is a price to pay for that. I was shaking in my boots as I replied loud and clear, “Yes, First Sergeant.” He proceeded to explain what an Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) was. He talked about things like a demotion, monetary fines, confinement to base, (no more weekend passes), and how that type of record could make promotions difficult and haunt my military career. Then I was shocked to hear him say, “But I think I can get you out of this.” Without going into details about the first sergeant’s proposed mutually beneficial solution to my problem, the whole fiasco ended up costing me about a half months’ pay but no Article 15. As soon as we came to terms, he concluded the meeting by opening his office door and started yelling loudly again so that all in the main headquarters office would hear: “Now get out of my office and report to the supply room!”
Even though those seven days of AWOL were on my permanent record, I considered myself extremely fortunate that I didn’t get busted or receive any of the other more severe punishments that I probably should have. I got away with it and was even rewarded with a pass the following weekend. But I sure learned a hard lesson, and still today, I regret having made the mistake of going AWOL.
From: The Manual for Courts-Martial (MCM), United States (2012 Edition)
10. Article 86—Absence without leave
e. Maximum punishment.
(b) For more than 3 days but not more than 30 days. Confinement for 6 months and forfeiture of two-thirds pay per month for 6 months.