What is the Army missing soldier policy? On December 8, 2020, the Secretary of the Army announced a new Army-wide policy addressing issues raised by an independent review committee ordered to investigate conditions at Fort Hood following a series of incidents there.
How bad were things at Fort Hood? Poor enough to warrant a headline from Stars And Stripes from August 2020, Why is Fort Hood the Army’s Most Crime-ridden Post?
The opening paragraph of that article alone lists a string of incidents. Those incidents include five soldiers who were the victims of suspected murders, plus two soldiers accused of committing murder.
According to Stars and Stripes, Fort Hood has “averaged 129 violent felonies committed by soldiers per year.” Comparing those numbers with Fort Bragg (an average of 90) and Joint Base Lewis-McChord (an average of 109.)
These incidents and others like them prompted a three month independent review of Fort Hood, which in turn resulted in new Army-wide policies.
“The challenges at Fort Hood forced us to take a critical look at our systems, our policies, and ourselves.” That’s according to Army Secretary Ryan D. McCarthy, who was quoted in an Army press release, adding, “This report, without a doubt, will cause the Army to change our culture”.
The Army Missing Soldier Policy
The Army Missing Soldier policy is detailed in Army Directive 2020-16 (Determination and Reporting of Missing, Absent-Unknown, Absent Without Leave, and Duty Status-Whereabouts Unknown Soldiers).
This policy adds a new status for soldiers who formerly may have simply been declared Absent Without Leave or AWOL.
Army Directive 2020-16 creates an additional status code called “Absent-Unknown” or “AUN” which is described as a “transitory duty status for up to 48 hours for unit officials and local law enforcement to locate the missing soldier.
The AUN status must be declared when the soldier is deemed to be “absent from the place of duty”. Within three hours of discovery the soldier must have status changed to AUN, and that status is only permitted for 48 hours.
The rules require notification of local law enforcement. “Unit commanders will report the Soldier’s status to local Army law enforcement officials (Directorate of Emergency Services, or DES) within 3 hours of discovering the Soldier is absent.” Eight hours later, unit leadership is required to notify next-of-kin but that notification may not necessarily include a status update.
The following actions may also be required:
- Submission of a Law Enforcement Report
- Submission of a “BOLO” or Be-on-the-Lookout within the Army Law Enforcement Reporting and Tracking System
- Entering “all relevant information” into the Missing Persons File of the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database
In cases where a missing soldier is not located within the 48 hour AUN time limit, commanders are required to attempt a determination as to whether the absence is voluntary or not.
In cases where the commander determines the absence is voluntary, the Army Missing Soldier policy is quite clear–that soldier is reported as AWOL. There is no requirement to wait out the 48 hours to make this decision.
But Army policy is clear–in cases where there is “credible evidence to determine the absence is involuntary” or in cases where insufficient evidence prevents a determination to conclude a voluntary absence, the soldier is reported in “Missing” status.
Furthermore, “A determination that the Soldier is missing can occur at any time once the Soldier is discovered absent from the place of duty”.
There are other factors that may result in someone being declared missing. “Commanders will report as missing any Soldier who indicates the potential for self-harm and is not located during the initial 48 hours”.
In Cases Of Desertion…
The Army Missing Soldier Policy spells out a procedure for circumstances where the missing soldier is suspected of desertion. If at any time during the search for the missing soldier there is evidence suggesting desertion, “…commanders will submit to their local DES a DD Form 553,” which is the form used to report desertion and as notification that a soldier is Wanted.
DUSTWUN is an Army acronym for “Duty Status-Whereabouts Unknown” which is the status given to those who are absent from duty when such absence is thought to be involuntary.
Those reported as such are declared “DUSTWUN casualties.” According to Army directives, casualty operations are required for DUSTWUN soldiers. What does this mean?
If the chain of command has credible evidence that a soldier is involuntarily missing, “commanders will submit to the servicing Casualty Assistance Center (CAC) a DA Form 1156 (Casualty Feeder Card) signed by the commander with Special Court Martial Convening Authority, requesting the Soldier be declared as DUSTWUN.”
Within 24 hours after DUSTWUN status is approved, commanders must change the duty status to “Missing”, Soldiers remain in DUSTWUN status for 10 days. Only the Secretary of the Army or an approved designee may extend this status longer than 10 days.
What Motivates The Army Missing Soldier Policy
At the start of this article, we discussed some of the general reasons why Army policies and procedures went under the magnifying glass, so to speak, for review.
An Army Memorandum related to an investigation into Fort Hood command involvement and response to the death of a soldier at Fort Hood, SPC Vanessa Guillén and “other specific topic areas” states one important reason for the need to redress Army policies–the lack of an appropriate classification for duty status of those missing, but not AWOL.
Under old Army policy, soldiers who do not report during “accountability formations” are declared AWOL after 24 hours assuming there is no evidence to suggest an involuntary absence. In the case of the murder of SPC Vanessa Guillén, the Army Memorandum states the following:
“…Command changed SPC Guillén’s duty status from “Present for Duty” to “AWOL” on 24 April, because they did not have specific, sufficient evidence to prove that her absence was involuntary.” But the chain of command “decided to deviate from additional actions for AWOL Soldiers required by regulations,” including declaring her a deserter.
This was done, the Memorandum says, “…to keep faith with her family, and because they accurately assessed that she was not a voluntary absentee.”
The Memorandum concluded that Army policy “requiring an AWOL duty status” created an “…inaccurate perception that she had voluntarily abandoned her unit.”
In the wake of the Memorandum, other changes have also been implemented including a restructuring of U.S. Army Criminal Investigative Command (sometimes known as CID) to “create an organization with enhanced capabilities and capacity, organized with and led by civilian and military agents, military officers and enlisted Soldiers,” to include a division of responsibilities between civilian and military leadership within CID.
Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News
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