Center for Strategic Communication

Alan Gourgue poses for a portrait near his home in Oceanside, California Photo: Dan Krauss/Wired

Updated 6:07 pm.

SAN DIEGO, California — On Jan. 26, 2011, a pair of U.S. Marines put Alan Gourgue in handcuffs and a restraint belt and hauled him across the country to face trial as a deserter. Gourgue was distraught and completely confused; he had been honorably discharged in 2006 and finished his reserve obligation four months earlier.

Gourgue’s ordeal provides a glimpse into a rarely seen, slow-moving, stiflingly bureaucratic world of military desertions, where one administrative mistake can result in a catch-22 that Joseph Heller couldn’t have invented.

In the military, there are two types of unauthorized absence: Desertion and a lesser charge that is clled Absent without Leave (AWOL) in the Army and Air Force and Unauthorized absence (UA) in the Navy and Marines. The key difference between them is that AWOL/UA is a misdemeanor, while desertion is a felony that assumes the missing soldier abandoned the service with the intent never to return. To employ a school analogy: AWOL/UA is like cutting classes, while desertion is dropping out altogether. If a soldier is gone for more than 30 days, the charge is automatically converted to deserter status, according to Victor Hansen, a professor specializing in military law at New England Law, Boston. It’s like a teacher striking a missing kid from the rolls after a few absent weeks to make room for another student.

Once a soldier is classified as a deserter, the soldier’s name is added to a national crime database. Then the Marines wait.

“Typically, they turn themselves in or they get picked up for something else by local law enforcement,” Marines spokespersons Capt. Gregory Wolf says. “We don’t have thousands of guys looking [for deserters] … People have information that they put out there. They kind of do themselves in or they come to their senses.”

This passive system of deserter capture has been pretty successful for the Marines. According to data provided by Wolf, the Marine Corps has recorded 7,323 desertions since 2005, with the number peaking in 2008 with 1,491 deserters. Over the same period, 7,072 deserters have returned or been caught. As of June 12, the Marines had 584 open desertion cases on the books, some dating back to World War II.

But the system didn’t work out so well for Gourgue, who was neither UA nor a deserter. Yet he languished in custody for more than a month before he was released with an apology for the mistake and a ticket home.