After six years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, US soldiers are deserting their posts at the highest rate since 1980. The number of US Army deserters this year shows an 80 percent increase since the US invaded Iraq in 2003.
The totals remain far lower than they were during the Vietnam War, when conscription was in effect, but they show a steady increase over the past four years and a 42 percent jump since last year.
"We're asking a lot of soldiers these days," said Roy Wallace, director of plans and resources for Army personnel. "They're humans. They have all sorts of issues back home and other places like that. So, I'm sure it has to do with the stress of being a soldier."
The Army defines a deserter as someone who has been absent without leave for longer than 30 days. The soldier is then discharged as a deserter.
According to the Army, about nine in every 1,000 soldiers deserted in fiscal year 2007, which ended Sept. 30, compared with nearly seven per 1,000 a year earlier.
Overall, 4,698 soldiers deserted this year, compared with 3,301 last year.
The Army has had to bear the brunt of the war demands as many soldiers served repeated, lengthy tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military leaders -- including Army Chief of Staff General George Casey -- have acknowledged that the Army has been stretched nearly to the breaking point by the combat. Efforts are under way to increase the size of the Army and Marine Corps to lessen the burden and give troops more time off between deployments.
"We have been concentrating on this," Wallace said. "The Army can't afford to throw away good people. We have got to work with those individuals and try to help them become good soldiers."
Still, he noted that "the military is not for everybody; not everybody can be a soldier."
And those who want to leave the service will find a way to do it, he said.
While the Army does not have an up-to-date profile of deserters, more than 75 percent of them are soldiers in their first term of enlistment, and most are male.
Soldiers can sign on initially for two to six years. Wallace said he did not know whether deserters were more likely to be those who enlisted for a short or long tour.
Army desertion rates have fluctuated since the Vietnam War, when they peaked at 5 percent. In the 1970s they hovered between 1 percent and 3 percent. Those rates plunged in the 1980s and early 1990s, but began to creep up in the late 1990s into the turn of the century, when the US conducted an air war in Kosovo and later sent peacekeeping troops there.