It’s the acronym for being “absent without leave,” a subject that was stressed right from the start at Fort Dix, where in December 1968, thousands of draftees were being trained to be soldiers. On our first night in the Army, we learned what A.W.O.L. meant, and we were warned of its dire consequences. Anyone who is not “present or accounted for” is classified as A.W.O.L. So, if in the morning you are not “present or accounted for” you are technically A.W.O.L. Sleep late and no one knows where you are; you are A.W.O.L.
However, in 1968, the Army wasn’t terribly worried about late sleepers (although heaven help you if you did). Rather, the Army was concerned about maintaining control over thousands of draftees, who, by definition, did not choose to be there. The Army could ill-afford (and probably could not have effectively dealt with) having large numbers of draftees simply running away. To be sure, the Army did what it reasonably could do to make running away somewhat difficult. For example, someone was always awake patrolling the barracks as “fire watch” and, when outside, we were always in a formation being watched by the sergeants. Nevertheless, if one were determined to run away, it would have been relatively simple, particularly if one had a civilian accomplice. The accomplice could simply drive onto the base (Fort Dix was an open base back then), pick up the recruit, and drive him to “freedom.”
To deal with this relative lack of physical security, the Army constantly reminded us that going A.W.O.L. was futile because the military police (MPs) would track you down and bring you back. When you were returned, the consequences were directly proportional to the amount of time you had been A.W.O.L. In the worst case, being A.W.O.L. for more than thirty days got you classified as a “deserter.” We were told (and I believe accurately so) that deserters would end up in Leavenworth federal prison, serving the sentence for desertion in addition to the mandatory two-year hitch Army hitch. It was a grim picture, to say the least.
It wasn’t only the sergeants who preached about the evils of going A.W.O.L. On about the second or third night, the company attended a “Chaplain’s Orientation.” Even those of us who were not particularly religious were hoping that the Chaplain (presumably a non-Army, Army guy) would offer some measure of spiritual support, or possibly even some practical tips to cope with the craziness that had become our world.
The Chaplain began the orientation by saying in his soothing Chaplain’s voice, “Fellows, I know that many of you are confused (I was); many of you are anxious (I was), even frightened about what will happen to you (I was); many of you are homesick and do not want to be here (I was, and I didn’t), and maybe even some of you are depressed (I was that too). Well, fellows, I have some advice for you.”
I waited for some pearl of wisdom that would help me to effectively deal with my confusion, anxiety, fear, homesickness, and depression.
Here was the pearl of wisdom. The Chaplain stated, “Fellows, I know it’s hard, but don’t go A.W.O.L.” He then reiterated the same “you’ll get caught and really screwed” mantra we had heard from the sergeants. Inexplicably, he then told us to “be careful where you dip your wicks. You can catch some really nasty diseases.” I thought, “Don’t go A.W.O.L.? Be careful where you dip you wick? Yeah, there will surely be lots of wick dipping in Fort Dix. What planet is this guy from?” So much for spiritual guidance.
About three weeks later, we had about an hour of down time (which means you spent it spit shining boots and cleaning the barracks) before we were scheduled for another formation to march off to do one thing or another. All of a sudden, the sergeant burst into the barracks shouting, “I want a gott-damned formation in exactly five minutes! Move it. Move it. Gott-dammit. MOVE IT!!!”
We scrambled outside and saw that not just our platoon, but the entire company was forming up. The sergeants, who normally would be swaggering about, looked decidedly nervous. We knew that something was up. Then the Company Commander, a Captain, appeared, something that rarely ever happened. He looked angry, and he also looked nervous.
The Captain said, “I assume that many of you know Private Sanchez (not his real name). Well, I have some bad news about Private Sanchez.”
No one spoke. We waited for the bad news.
The Captain continued, “Gentlemen, Private Sanchez has just ENTERED THE WORLD OF SHIT. It seems that Private Sanchez has decided to go A.W.O.L.”
I immediately knew whom the Captain was referring to. Sanchez was the short, thin Puerto Rican guy who was in one of the other two platoons. He was a scrappy, tough, street guy. He was an excellent boxer who even had fought several professional flyweight bouts before being drafted. I specifically remembered him saying on a couple occasions, “I can’t take this shit, man. I gotta get the f*** outta here.” No one took him seriously. I certainly didn’t.
We again got the standard A.W.O.L. lecture, only this time it came directly from the Captain, and it was no longer theoretical. He told us, “The MP’s are looking for Sanchez now. And, gentlemen, he will be found, and, for his own good, he had better hope he is found in the next few days. But, in any event, gentlemen, you will not be seeing Private Sanchez again.” That meant to me that Sanchez would be spending time in the stockade (which I was told was one cut above a Turkish prison), or he would take basic training in Fort Reilly, Kansas at gunpoint, or he would wind up doing several years in federal prison. It was clear to me that this was not Army bluster; this was serious stuff.
My first, and extremely short-lived, reaction was one of admiration for Sanchez for having managed to rattle the sergeants and even the Captain, who doubtless would have to explain himself to the higher-ups in the chain of command. Surprisingly, however, that reaction was replaced with one of feeling sorry that Sanchez had done something that would screw up his life, and feeling that perhaps Sanchez wasn’t so tough after all. Hell, if I could “take this shit.” why couldn’t Sanchez?
Now that I look back on it, the Army may have failed with Sanchez, but it succeeded with me and others like me. Without even noticing our transformation, we were actually beginning to believe that perhaps we were tougher than we ever thought we could be.
Well, waddya know.