In the next two weeks, Army senior leaders expect to distribute a new policy governing how the absent without leave status is applied to a soldier who doesn’t report for duty, according to Army Chief of Staff James McConville.
The policy could address complaints from some families of missing soldiers, such as the mother of Pvt. Gregory Morales, who said military investigators were quick to dismiss his disappearance as a troubled troop intentionally absconding from post. They now think he was a victim of foul play.
“When someone is not present for duty, the assumption [will be] that they are missing and not AWOL,” McConville said during a telephone call with reporters Thursday at the Association of the United States Army conference. “The policy we had in place was somewhat confusing for some of our commanders, so we put out a new policy verbally, but it’s in draft right now and next week or two, it’ll be out in writing.”
The Army will essentially be creating a “missing category," according to the chief.
“[Soldiers] only become AWOL after a thorough investigation, a thorough look for the soldier, dealing with the family, dealing with law enforcement [and] we can prove that they are absent without leave," McConville said.
Traditionally, AWOL simply meant that a soldier was not present for duty. Service members who are AWOL for more than 30 days can be listed as deserters. The offense is typically associated with intentionally slipping away from one’s duty station, but disappearances that involve foul play complicate the practice.
“I think AWOL carries a connotation with it that we just don’t want for soldiers that are missing,” McConville said. “We wouldn’t leave soldiers behind in combat; we don’t want to leave them behind in garrison.”
Spc. Vanessa Guillen was mentioned during the call Thursday. Guillen was a soldier at Fort Hood, Texas, who disappeared April 22. Her remains were later found near post and prosecutors say she was killed in an armory by a fellow soldier.
Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy said the Army listed Guillen as AWOL even though a search was already underway.
“We knew within a day that she was missing," said McCarthy. "Hundreds of soldiers had descended all over the installation: dogs, drones [and] helicopters. Even on April 25, the chief, SMA and I were down, doing a regular update on COVID activities and we talked about Vanessa [Guillen] in the briefing room.”
There have been other instances in which soldiers were AWOL long enough to be categorized as deserters, only to have their names later cleared. Such was the case for Morales, another Fort Hood soldier who disappeared days before he was set to be discharged.
Morales went missing in August 2019. A month after he was last seen, the 1st Cavalry Division “dropped” him from its accountability rolls, officials there said when reached for comment earlier this summer.
Kim Wedel, the soldier’s mother, previously told Army Times she “fought from Day One” with the Army and other investigators who told her Morales was AWOL — that he was a grown man who left on his own accord and there was no proof anything bad happened to him.
However, Morales' remains were eventually discovered June 19 in a field just miles from Fort Hood, and investigators began to suspect foul play in his death.
Wedel said she asked the Army to put up a reward for her missing son in September 2019. But the request didn’t gain traction until April, when she saw that the service was offering $15,000 for information leading to Guillen, the other missing Fort Hood soldier.
“It sounds very selfish, but they immediately put out a reward for information for her,” Wedel said earlier this summer. “In September, they told me they were working on a reward for Greg, and so when hers popped up that fast, I said, ‘Hey, come on, what’s the deal?’”
The day after complaining to Army CID, a $15,000 reward was posted for her son. It was later raised to $25,000.
Another incident that showed poor coordination between Morales' family and those supposed to be searching for him arose in May. Wedel’s daughter-in-law, who is married to her other son, tracked down Morales' vehicle on Carfax, showing it had been in Dallas this December and sold at auction.
When she called Army CID, officials told her they already recovered the car in January. “You don’t think that would be something to tell us? Why keep that a secret?” Wedel recalled wondering.
McConville said Thursday that part of the new AWOL policy is to ensure better coordination between missing soldiers' families and their unit.
He said it also provides an opportunity for families of soldiers long considered missing to potentially get a second look.
“We have not directed commanders to go back and take a look at every AWOL case that we’ve had over the last three to five years,” he said. “What we can say is, if there’s a family out there that has an AWOL soldier and is concerned about it … we’ll be glad to do whatever we can with that family, with law enforcement, to try and help them locate that soldier.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.